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‘Forty years of waiting is over,’ announced a headline in the daily Tehran Emruz this week. The story under the headline, however, was not about the return of ‘The Hidden Imam’ or anyone associated with him. It was about Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid King of Kings who founded the Persian Empire 2569 years ago.

Well, it was not Cyrus himself who was returning home to jubilant headlines. The story was about a clay cylinder which is one of the prize possessions of the British Museum in London. The cylinder was discovered by a British archaeological mission in the 19th century, but its historic importance was not established until the 1960s.

The cylinder is covered with inscriptions in Old Persian in cuneiform that sound like a royal decree. The inscriptions were decoded and translated some 50 years ago but the cylinder’s connection to Cyrus was not established until 1970. Experts now concur that the inscriptions amount to the first declaration of human rights inasmuch as they uphold freedom of religion and the equality of human beings.

In 1970, the Shah, then about to celebrate the 25th centenary of Cyrus’ Empire, tried to persuade the British to send the cylinder to Iran for public exhibition. The British refused.

Thus began ‘ The Forty Years of Waiting’ the Iranian media are referring to.

Last month, the British Museum agreed to lend the cylinder to the Ancient Iran Museum in Tehran as a temporary exhibit.

Now, of course, there no longer is a Shah in Iran but a ‘Supreme Guide’, a mullah who rejects Cyrus and whatever he stood for. Cyrus might have had an empire stretching from India to Libya 25 centuries ago, but now he does not have a single street named after him throughout his homeland.

Nevertheless, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in person was present, along with his entire Cabinet and the military top brass to welcome the temporary return of the cylinder. There was a guard of honor all dressed in the uniforms of Cyrus’s army as imagined by Tehrani designers almost 40 years ago.

In welcoming speeches, Ahmadinejad and his ‘philosophic guru’ Esfandiar Masha’i praised Cyrus in lavish terms. Masha’i went as far as declaring Cyrus to have been ‘ one of he prophets, a special emissary from God.’ That echoes the Old Testament’s view of Cyrus, the man who freed the Jews from bondage in Babylon and helped them return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple with a grant from the imperial treasury.

Ruhallah Khomeini, the mullah who founded the Islamic Republic, would have turned in his grave at the spectacle of the Cyrus-mania that has gripped his wayward Islamic Republic. For, like most other mullahs, he regarded pre-Islamic Iran as a land of Jahililyah (ignorance) living in darkness.

This is in contrast with the view of many philosophers and historians.

Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates, described Cyrus as the ideal ruler. Hegel, the 19th German philosopher, believed that history started with the foundation of the empire by Cyrus. Gobineau, the French diplomat, went further by suggesting that modern civilisation started with the law-and-order society created by the Achaemenid emperor.

The mullahs had other views. Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, let’s call him ‘ the Hegel of Khomeinism’, published a pamphlet describing Cyrus as a ‘homosexual adventurer who worshipped fire instead of Allah.’

In 1997, the Islamic Ministry of Guidance and Culture ordered a purge of school textbooks to make sure that Cyrus’ name was mentioned nowhere.

And, yet, Cyrus’ name and memory have continued to have an echo in Iranian souls. Museum officials in Tehran report that they have never seen so many people rushing to see a temporary exhibit. Some of the long queues belong to schoolchildren, led by their teachers, who come to see ‘ the first declaration of human rights’. According to reports from Tehran busloads of people are coming from the provinces to salute the temporary return of the icon associated with Cyrus. A modern Persian translation of the text of the ‘ Imperial Edict’ has sold more than half a million copies within days.

The Cylinder of Cyrus has arrived when Iran is in the middle of a soul-searching debate about ‘ the nature of Iranian-ness.’

As we noted in a previous column, the debate was triggered a few weeks ago by Masha’i who now occupies the key post of Chief of Staff to the President. The temporary return of the Cyrus Cylinder was negotiated by Masha’i three years ago when he served as Assistant to President for Culture.

In that capacity that Masha’i helped organise the famous Forgotten Empire exhibition at the British Museum, thus reviving interest in ancient Iran’s civilisation.

Masha’i argues that Islam is a religion, not a culture and that Muslim nations have their own distinct cultures. This is, of course, true of other religions and cultures. Both the Norwegians and the people of Zimbabwe are Protestant Christians. But they cannot be said to have the same culture. Nor could anyone say whose culture was superior.

In the case of Iran, emphasizing the character of Iranian culture, far from diminishing the importance of Islam, might actually heighten it. To suggest, as Khalkhali and Khomeini did, that Iranians were ‘ ignorant barbarians living in darkness’ when they accepted Islam is no advertisement for the latter. However, saying that Iranians were people of high culture when they embraced Islam could be a compliment to it.

Cyrus-mania is likely to further fuel the ‘Iran First’ sentiment that has been bubbling beneath the surface for years. All this may not go very far, and the picture of Ahmadinejad bowing to the Cylinder of Cyrus may remind many Iranians of the dictum that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Nevertheless, the mullahs who are beginning to worry about a slow but steady loss of power to their associates and rivals, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) generals, are unhappy about the return of the cylinder.

They accuse Masha’i of ‘ loving Iran more than Islam.’

Prominent mullahs like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the candidate of the radical faction to become ‘ Supreme Guide’, and Ayatollah Hojati Kermani, head of the powerful Council of the Guardians, have publicly warned against ‘ the dangerous trend of nationalism.’

Kayhan, the daily that propagates the views of the radicals, denounces ‘ those who worship the ruins of past centuries’ such as Persepolis, once the capital of the Achmaenians near Shiraz, the Temple of Anahita the Goddess of Waters west of Tehran, and the supposed birthplace of Zoroaster near Tabriz..

Eighty years ago, the Iranian military used a nationalist discourse, centred on an idealised depiction of ancient Persia, to marginalise the mullahs and seize power. They were acting within a tradition under which Iranian politics was dominated by two discourses. One was the Shi’ite discourse, developed since the 16th century mostly by mullahs but, in recent times, also by propagandists like Ali Shariati. In that discourse, there is no room for the totality of Iranian history and the rich diversity of Iranian culture. That is the so-called ‘ Islam First’ school.

The second discourse was the nationalist one which, while not ignoring the role of Islam in Iranian history, treated it as one element among many. That discourse, always had the backing of the military elite. For example, in the 18th century Nader Shah, a Sunni Muslim when Shi’ism had already become the dominant religion in Iran, tried to recast himself as the standard-bearer of ancient Iranian glory, to justify his invasion of India and plunder of Delhi. However, the military are not alone in promoting the nationalist discourse. Many Iranian intellectuals have subscribed to that discourse for over two centuries. That is the ‘ Iran first’ school.

Today, there are dozens of clubs and NGOs promoting nationalist values including the purification of the Persian language.

The return of the nationalist discourse is highlighted by a surge in the use of ancient Persian names for new-born babies. Cyrus, or Kurosh in Persian, is one of the most popular.

The Khomeinist revolution was a project carried to success by an anti-nationalist coalition. Its two wings, the mullahs and the Marxists, hated Iranian nationalism and denied that there was an Iranian identity. The Islamists saw Iran as part of the global Islamic Ummah while the Marxists divided the people of Iran into mutually hostile classes. The Islamist and Marxist groups that coalesced in that revolution took care that the words Iran and nation were excluded from their names and vocabulary. The mullahs stuck the label ‘ Islamic’ on everything while their Marxist allies favoured such terms as ‘Khalq’ (people) and Tudeh (Masses).

With the disappearance of Marxism, the two traditional rivals, Iranian nationalism and Islamism, are, once again, left alone face-to-face.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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