Myths and make-believe

12 Jun 2011


THIS nation is past master at myth-making and befooling itself. It lives in make-believe land — in our particular and peculiar case a dangerous habit as it distorts truth, reality and fact.

This national indulgence in flights of fancy has warped and mangled history. Even the reasoning for the creation of the country has been turned around to suit different leaderships and religious elements, as have the beliefs and intentions of its maker.

However, elsewhere there are happy myths that do no harm, but simply boost morale. Two spring to mind, both from the Achaemenid era, over 2,500 years ago. Cyrus the Great (576-530BC), often referred to as the first Achaemenid emperor, founded the Persian empire which under his rule covered all the civilised states of the Near East, expanding to southwest Asia, much of Central Asia and parts of Europe and the Caucasus — the largest empire the world had then yet seen.

Discovered in 1879 during excavations in Babylon was what is known as the Cyrus Cylinder dating back to 539BC. It lies in the British Museum which describes it as “an instrument of ancient Mesopotamian propaganda”. It has, however, been hailed by the UN as “an ancient declaration of human rights” and is regarded by modern Iran as a political symbol and “the first human rights charter in history”.

Now, human rights as we know them surfaced during the 18th and 19th centuries in the West and could not be said to be operative until the ending of slavery and human bondage in the civilised world. Way back in Cyrus's time, they could not possibly have existed in a world that accepted slavery and human bondage as a right of man. But let the Iranians dream on harmlessly.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, in her 2003 acceptance speech referred to the Cylinder: “I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great. The emperor proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he 'would not reign over people if they did not wish it'. He promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus the Great should be studied in the history of human rights.”

The actual text of the charter, a document in the form of a clay cylinder, inscribed in Akkadian, denounces the king of Babylon deposed by Cyrus, portrays Cyrus as being pleasing to the god Marduk, describes how he improved the lives of the citizens of Babylonia, how he repatriated displaced persons and restored temples and religious sanctuaries.

We move on to Cyrus's descendant, Darius the Great (522-486BC), the fourth Achaemenid emperor. An apocryphal story has it that on his deathbed he had recorded for posterity his advice to his son Xerxes. This advice, though possibly historically not proven, contains many useful lessons and could well be digested, emulated and practised by all who aspire to lead or rule the nations of the world:

“Now that I am passing from this world, there are 25 countries within the Persian empire ... you must try to keep these countries as I have done. This can be accomplished by not intervening in their internal affairs and by respecting their religions and cultures. ...

“Never appoint your friends and butlers to government posts, as your friendship alone should suffice them. If you appoint them and they do injustice to people and take advantage of resources, you will not be able to punish them. This is so because they are your friends and you have to, unwillingly or otherwise, observe that friendship. …

“My other advice to you, never let liars or flatterers near you as both tarnish your dynasty. Abandon the liars without mercy. Never let your ministers dominate people. I have created laws to prevent their dominance in taxation of people. The ministers and the people will be kept apart if you follow these laws. …

“Continue the educational programmes that I started. Let everyone read and write to improve their understanding. As people comprehend more, you will be able to rule with more confidence. Do not impose religion; always keep in mind that everyone should be free to follow his preferred faith. …

“Never be judge and plaintiff at the same time. If you have a grievance arrange for an unbiased third party to judge the case. The case will not be judged fairly if the plaintiff serves as the judge.

“Do not forget generosity. Second to justice, generosity and forgiveness are the best characters of kings. But forgiveness is only applicable to those who have done wrong to you, not to others. If you forgive a person who has harmed someone else then you have done injustice.”

“After my death, wash my body, wrap it with the shroud I have prepared and put it in a stone coffin. Place the coffin in the grave and leave it uncovered to remind you, whenever you visit my grave, that even your father and the king of 25 countries dies. You will too. This is everyone's destiny, whether a king of 25 countries or a prickly-bush picker. No one is eternal.

“I have made these remarks in the presence of others so they know I have given you the above advice prior to my death.”

Immaculate advice unheeded. Xerxes embarked upon a series of disastrous military campaigns and then returned to his capital cities, to a life of self-indulgence which sapped the strength and vitality of the Achaemenid empire. He was assassinated in 465BC.