Perhaps one of Iran’s greatest contributions to human civilization have been in the realm of ideas: the respect accorded to diverse nations, peoples, cultures, and religions. When Cyrus the Great (575-530 BC) founded the Achaemenid Empire, he laid the basis of government on the basis of tolerance for diversity and respect for the human rights of all of the citizenry, irrespective of creed, race or religion. This is based on the recording of history traced back to 2500 years ago.
There is now a gentleman working hard to re-write history of Cyrus the Great: Jona Lendering. Lendering argues that all of the history of Cyrus is a lie and the result of a “conspiracy”.
Jona Lendering’s mission is to rewrite the history of Cyrus the Great and to label all who question his views as “imperial propaganda of the late Shah”. His views resemble the July 15, 2008 writings of Matthias Schulz in Spiegel Magazine which labelled the historical benevolence of Cyrus the Great as a “hoax”.
Lendering, who runs the widely consulted www.Livius.org website, claims that the favourable history relating to Cyrus the Great is simply the “imperial propaganda of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi”. Lendering further argues that all who contradict his thesis are “…political activists” who “…share the propaganda of the late Shah”. His views are clearly spelt his websites:
While most readers would shake their heads and dismiss these views as fringe and even bizarre, there is in fact a growing anti-Iranian history tradition. This can be traced back to 1979, when the former Pahlavi regime was overthrown. The results of this have become manifest in recent years, especially in western cinema. These include the movies “Alexander” and “300”. For an analysis of these consult:
World: Oliver Stone's 'Alexander' Stirs Up Controversy
Go tell the Spartans: How "300" misrepresents Persians in history
Dr. Touraj Daryaee
Such pictures portray pre-Islamic Iranians in the most negative and distorted light by introducing them as demons and fantastic ogres. These have laid the basis for attacks against the founder of ancient Iran: Cyrus the Great. These movie productions have opened the way for possibly the most focused and powerful onslaught against the core of Iran’s history and identity: the legacy of Cyrus the Great (575-530 BC).
Spiegel and Daily Telegraph’s attacking against Cyrus the Great
July 2008 witnessed perhaps the most powerful attack by western “news” outlets against the history and identity of Iran and her people. These were Spiegel Magazine and the Daily Telegraph Newspaper’s inexplicable attacks not only Cyrus the Great, but the historical identity of the people of Iran:
Falling for Ancient Propaganda: UN Honours Ancient Despot (July 15, 2008)
Cyrus cylinder's ancient bill of rights 'is just propaganda': A 2500 year old Persian treasure dubbed the world's 'first bill of human rights' has been branded a piece of shameless 'propaganda' by German historians
Harry De Quetteville
The Spiegel and Daily Telegraph articles claim three things:
1) Cyrus was a brutal and bloodthirsty conqueror who heartlessly butchered civilians and arbitrarily deported whole populations by force.
(2) Cyrus’ enlightened policies towards civilians and his human rights policies are all lies and “propaganda” concocted by the former Pahlavi regime of Iran in the 1970s
(3) All history as recorded in ancient Greek and Babylonian texts, the Bible and even archaeology are to be summarily dismissed as “propaganda”.
The writer in Spiegel Magazine, Mathias Schulz has no expertise in Iranian history. Harry De Quetteville, the writer of the Daily telegraph article is a reporter with no background whatsoever in the field of Iranian Studies. How then is it possible that non-experts (who cannot even read or speak Persian, let alone any Iranian languages) are allowed to publish what are nothing more than Eurocentric narratives reminiscent of 19th century colonialist thinking?
The Academic World: Trying to Re-Write History
It is a fact that ever since the late 1970s, a sparse number of “historians” have been exerting their best efforts to completely change the history books regarding Cyrus and his legacy. This can first be traced to Professor Root who labelled the entire history of Cyrus as “propaganda” (Root, 1979, p.311). Following in Root’s footsteps came Professor Van der Spek who in 1982 asserted that “Cyrus introduces no new policy towards subdued nations…under his responsibility temples were destroyed, Ecbatana was plundered, after the Battle of Opis Cyrus carried off the plunder and slaughtered the people” (1982, p.281-282).
The leading lady against Cyrus the Great however has been Professor Amelie Kuhrt, who completely rejects history itself by stating unequivocally that “The assumption that Persian imperial control was somehow more tolerable than the Assyrian yoke is based, on the one hand, on the limited experience of one influential group of a very small community which happened to benefit by Persian policy and, on the other, on a piece of blatant propaganda …” (1983, p. 94-95).
Root, Van der Spek and Kuhrt are basing their entire line of reasoning on Grayson’s 1977 translation (or interpretation) of the Battle of Opis. This “translation” was carefully re-examined in 2007 at the University of Birmingham, England by Professor Wilfred G. Lambert. It is worth noting that Grayson had in fact been Lambert’s student. Lambert demonstrated that his former student (Grayson) had in fact made a number of blatant linguistic and semantic errors in his translation of the Battle of Opis.
There is a clear double-standard at work here. Kuhrt for example consistently ignores every single historical citation that portrays Cyrus in a favourable light but believes that Grayson’s “translation” is infallible and provides conclusive “proof” for her point of view. It is this style of thinking that probably explains why Lambert’s recent publication is consistently ignored while Grayson’s erroneous and out of date work keeps getting cited.
These ideas and biased approaches are not taken seriously by the vast majority of the academics in the field of Iranian Studies. But what about the wider circle outside the academic domain of Iranian Studies?
It is in this large vacuum, especially the internet where the battle to re-write the history of Cyrus is being waged. These efforts on the internet are being spearheaded by the vigorous works of one man: Jona Lendering.
Jona Lendering: The history of Cyrus is “the imperial propaganda of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi”
The Spiegel and Daily Telegraph articles against Cyrus mentioned before are virtually identical (if not carbon copies) of the narratives seen on Jona Lendering’s Livius.org website. Since at least 2006 or earlier (Spiegel and Daily Telegraph published their articles in July 2008) Lendering’s site has posted the following:
“The cylinder played an important role in the imperial propaganda of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who in 1971 used it as symbol of the celebration of what he called the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. A copy was given to the United Nations (text). The Shah tried to prove that the secular Iran with religious freedom that he wanted to promote had existed before, and in this context, the Cyrus Cylinder has been called the "world's human rights charter". This interpretation ignores the stereotypical nature of the document…However, the idea that the Cyrus Cylinder plays a role in the history of human rights, has turned out to be quite persistent…”
This link and the content of the Spiegel and Daily Telegraph articles are virtually identical. There are a number of other striking parallels between Lendering’s article in his Livius.org website and the recent Spiegel/Daily telegraph articles. Note the parallels between the original Livius.org article and Spiegel with respect to the 2003 Iranian noble-prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Lendering notes in Livius that:
“…the idea that the Cyrus Cylinder plays a role in the history of human rights, has turned out to be quite persistent… quoted by Shirin Ebadi when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003”.
Schulz noted in Spiegel (July 15, 2008):
“Even Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was taken in by the hoax [Cyrus being a proponent of Human Rights]…”
While no one is suggesting that Lendering, Schulz and De Quetteville have deliberately coordinated or timed their efforts, the parallels in their writings are vividly striking. This being said, the Lendering-Thesis as seen in Spiegel and Daily telegraph has yet to find converts in the western world. Note this commentary by user “Xander” on the AncientHistory website regarding the Spiegel/Daily telegraph articles against Cyrus:
“Matthias Schulz’s article provides no historical evidence what so ever to back his postulates on the cylinder being a propaganda stunt or the way Babylon was conquered through bribes, and disregards all the historical facts. It just sounds like a sour man with baseless accusations to continue the past few decades of a trend of desperate effort to strip the pride out of nations that founded the basic rules of civilisation … Talk about propaganda (not surprisingly coming from Matthias Schulz).”
“Xander” makes an interesting point: it is the Lendering-Thesis which is the real propaganda. Of course, Jona Lendering would beg to differ.
Jona Lendering and the case of Wikipedia
The first attack against Cyrus the Great on Wikipedia was launched by Lendering in 2006. He brazenly suggested that Wikipedia adopt his views as seen below:
Wikipedia is a powerful venue. Almost any information search in the internet witnesses the on-line Encyclopedia coming up on the top page. It is in this high exposure area where Lendering is working hard to attack the history of Iran. Since 2006 (or earlier) Lendering has injected his views into the entry for Cyrus the Great and his Cylinder:
“The type and formulation of the cylinder was typically Babylonian and stands in a Mesopotamian tradition, dating back to the third millennium BC, of kings making similar declarations of their own righteousness when beginning their reigns”
Referenced to Note 19 in the Wikipedia article which links to: http://www.livius.org/ct-cz/cyrus_I/cyrus_cylinder.html
It is very curious that the above occurred right after the Spiegel/Daily telegraph articles on July15-21.
Another revisionist view on the Wikipedia link states:
“The notion of the cylinder as a "charter of human rights" has been criticized by a number of scholars and characterized as political propaganda on the part of the Pahlavi regime”
Referenced to Note 27: Amélie Kuhrt, "The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid imperial policy" in Journal of Studies of the Old Testament 25, p. 84; Lendering, Jona (2007-01-28). "The Cyrus Cylinder". livius.org. Retrieved on 2008-07-30.”
Not surprisingly, Lendering is again the source of the citation added on June 30, just 2 weeks after Spiegel’s article and 9 days before the Daily Telegraph article. Once again, Amelie Kuhrt is used as an academic reference, yet one will find no references to Iranologists such as Professor Richard Nelson Frye who has knowledge of ancient and modern Iranian languages and has close to five decades of world-class publications to his credit. This is not surprising as according to the Lendering-Thesis, any researcher who has anything favourable to say about Cyrus is simply a follower of the “propaganda of the late Shah”. This is vividly seen in Lendering’s characterization of David L. Lewis’ text (God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe) in the RomanArmyTalk forum:
“On one point [Cyrus the Great], Lewis appears to have believed modern-day propaganda by Iranian royalists and I would not be surprised if some of the information on p.6 was taken from the Wikipedia.”
The statement is transparent: Lendering believes that anyone (even westerners) with a favourable view of Cyrus is wrong and that he or she is somehow connected with the former Pahlavi regime of Iran.
As noted previously, Lendering has been very active in Wikipedia. He has managed to orchestrate a number of Eurocentrists to help him insert their biased views into Wikipedia:
Despite penetrations in sections such “As a Charter of Human Rights”, Lendering has not been very successful. Interestingly Lendering relies on a number of highly active anti-Iranian supporters in Wikipedia, one of these being a certain “ChrisO” who seems to have an almost obsessive need to smear not only Cyrus the Great, but a confrontational attitude towards all who oppose his/her views in the Wikipedia. The latter’s views and other apparent Eurocentrists can be seen in the TalkPage section of the Wikipedia link:
Eurocentrist tactics in Wikipedia are generally based on three techniques:
1) Ignoring or sidelining any references or researchers that contradict them (including character assassination)
2) Using (or recruiting) as many sympathetic Wikipedia users as possible to enforce a point of view
3) Tireless repetition of particular viewpoints
Wikipedia forums are not monitored or refereed by qualified academics on a full-time basis. Any person (objective or otherwise) can open an account in Wikipedia, enter themselves into any topic and start writing or revising that topic. This is exactly what has occurred on the entries on Cyrus the Great.
“Many Wiki-articles are fine, but I would not use the pages on ancient Persia, which have been hijacked by political activists who think that everyone who does not share the propaganda of the late Shah (with Cyrus the Great as illuminated ruler et cetera) is a racist - I am not making this up, there's right now a petition against me which calls me a racist for precisely the above-mentioned reason.”
Note three fallacies on the part of Lendering:
1) Any person who questions his views on the history of Iran (especially Cyrus are labelled as phantom “political activists” somehow connected with the “propaganda of the late Shah”. This is strictly speaking, a conspiracy theory. In Lendering’s view all Iranian and non-Iranian academics, researchers and writers who are not convinced by Lendering’s view are somehow tied to the former Pahlavi regime.
2) He rejects much of the historiography of Iran and hopes to re-write as much of this possible.
3) Lendering’s anti-Cyrus activities have recently succeeded in drawing attention from mainstream Iranians. This may explain why a petition originating in Iran has been quietly circulating since December 2008:
Lendering offers an interesting explanation as to the origins of the petition. He explains in the Roman Army Forum that this is somehow orchestrated by “political activists who …share the propaganda of the late Shah”:
To understand why Lendering has been labelled as a “racist”, one is obliged to examine this gentleman more closely.
Jona Lendering and Pan-Muslim Fanatics: A kinship of Mind
Perhaps what is most strange is that Lendering’s views on Cyrus the Great (as well as those seen in Spiegel and the Daily Telegraph) are almost exactly the same as those seen in the conspiracy theories of pan-Muslim fanatics. Few westerners are aware that Cyrus the Great is intensely disliked by pan-Muslim fanatics such as the late pan-Islamic activist Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali (1926-2003).
Sadegh Khalkhali harbored an intense hatred of Cyrus the Great. Jona Lendering’s opinions on the character and legacy are identical to those of the Ayatollah
Khalkhali even published a book in which he smeared Cyrus the Great with labels such as “… tyrant, a liar…" (Molavi, 2005, p.14). These labels are strikingly identical to those applied by Lendering, Schulz, and De Quetteville. Khalkhali also argued that all of the history relating to Cyrus the Great was a concoction by the late Shah, or as Lendering tirelessly argues: “imperial propaganda of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi”.
As noted by Molavi, Khalkhali "called for the destruction of the Cyrus tomb and remains of the two-thousand-year-old Persian palace in Shiraz, Fars Province, the Persepolis" (Molavi, 2005, p.14) These actions are corroborated by American researcher Elaine Sciolino who interviewed Ayatollah Majdeddin Mahallati of Shiraz who corroborates that Khalkhali came to Persepolis with "a band of thugs" and after a speech in which he linked Cyrus to the late Shah, tried unsuccessfully to destroy Persepolis (Sciolino, 2000, p.168).
One cannot help but (again) be surprised as to how and why Lendering has so much in common with the late Ayatollah Khalkhali when it comes to Cyrus the Great. Ayatollah Khalkhali reputedly suffered from psychiatric problems, but Lendering is an intelligent, articulate and educated gentleman. The only explanation as to why Lendering harbours such views can be summarized in a single concept: Eurocentricism.
De Quetteville expressed the Eurocentric view very well in his Daily telegraph article on July 2008 by stating that the history relating to the Cyrus Cylinder is simply a:
“…desire to claim some eastern roots "when it is so Western in its philosophical underpinnings… For all the criticisms of the Cyrus cylinder, it is unlikely to change perceptions of it in Iran, where Cyrus and the cylinder are regarded with intense national pride”
Eurocentrist logic is clear: Iran has contributed nothing to civilization in terms of human rights and Cyrus the Great was no illuminated leader. All notions of human rights come exclusively from the western hemisphere.
It is no wonder why Iranians across the political spectrum were unanimously outraged last year (2008) in July. The views expressed by Lendering, Schulz, and De Quetteville are binary, linear and simply arrogant. It would seem that intellectual racism is alive and well. The reasons for the above-mentioned petition which started in Iran in December 2008 have now become all too clear.
Lendering’s Travels and Writings
Jona Lendering often travels to Iran and mentions this in his website:
“As of 2008, Livius Onderwijs [his school in Amsterdam] has six teachers, about 500-600 students a year, and offers tours to countries like Italy, Turkey, Iran, and Libya. The field trips help to etch into the students' minds some of what they've learned at the school.”
One can only speculate what types of views Lendering wishes to “etch into the students' minds”. It is clear that Lendering has cultivated close and cordial links with some of Iran’s present authorities otherwise how could he travel into and out of Iran with such ease?
As noted before, Lendering is a very intelligent man. He has even posted writings on some Iranian venues such as the Iran Chamber of Commerce. He has cleverly cultivated some ties with a few excellent Iranian academics, who are evidently unaware of Lendering’s true intentions. Lendering is very careful not to offend (what he perceives as) powerful and useful Iranians that he can use in his quest.
In contrast, Lendering shows a very different face towards what he sees as “weaker” Iranians. This can be seen very clearly in the User:TalkJona link in Wikipedia where Lendering expresses a less than polite “tone of voice” against those who dare question his views of Cyrus the Great. Note the example below:
“If you don't understand that, then you must have Down’s Syndrome.”
Lendering has also made racist statements in Dutch language websites by openly disparaging Iranian arts. Consult Dutch website “Onze Man in Tehran” [Our Man in Tehran]:
These types of statements and behaviour have finally drawn the attention of Iranians both inside of Iran and among the diaspora. It is important to note that Lendering in no way whatsoever represents the vast majority of excellent academics and outstanding scholarship in Europe and North America. Lendering however is well known through his Livius.org website and it is with to internet which he hopes to manipulate the mainstream and academia.
Jona Lendering is a man with a clear mission: He wishes to convince academics and laypersons that the favourable history of Cyrus the Great is entirely false and simply a concoction by a “propaganda” conspiracy dated to the reign of the Shah. Lendering’s ambition is to re-write the history of Cyrus in his own image.
Kuhrt, A. (1983). The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 25, 83-97.
Lambert, W.G. (2007). Cyrus’defeat of Nabonidus. Nouvelles Assyriologiques et Utilitaires, 1, (March/mars), p. 13-14.
Molavi, A. (2005). The Soul of Iran. Norton:-.
Root, M.C. (1979). The king and kingship in Achaemenid Art: Essays on the Creation of an Iconography of Empire. EJ Brill.
Sciolino, E. (2000). Persian Mirror. Touchstone.
Van der Spek, R.J. (1982). Did Cyrus the Great introduce a new policy towards subdued nations? Persica, 10, 278-283.
Saam Safavi-Zadeh is from Tabriz, Iran and is pursuing his graduate studies in the study of ancient Iran in France. Anna Djakashvili-Bloehm lives in France with a keen interest in studying ancient Babylon and Persia.