Searching for Iran’s Secular Heritage

The annual Cyrus the Great Day took place last month. Somewhere in the 2000s it was invented as an Iranian national holiday by dissidents who wanted to reclaim their secular Persian heritage from the Islamic Republic. What better way to do so than by commemorating the nation’s ancient founder, the humane emperor who first codified human rights?

As it had done in previous years, the Islamic Republic banned all visits to the great emperor’s tomb for three days. This year, as Iranian dissidents from Los Angeles to London to Iranian cities gathered to remember their founding father, the spirit of the celebrations was captured poignantly amid the backdrop of protests seeking a regime change that would restore Iranian heritage against the Islamist imposition.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ new book, Persians: The Age of the Great Kings, attempts to narrate a novel story of ancient Iran’s founding. The author is director of the Ancient Iran Program at Cardiff University. As he relays, Henry Rawlinson of the East India Company deciphered Old Persian in 1832, but “scholarship quickly turned its attention to the rich literary and epigraphic heritage of Mesopotamia, leaving Persian studies to lag behind pitifully.” Almost two centuries later, Persians attempts to right this injustice and Llewellyn-Jones declares his book the first of its kind: a Persian-sourced history of the First Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire.

What we have known about the Achaemenids to date is almost entirely based on either Greek sources or the Hebrew Bible. Naturally, the Hebrew Bible is not an entirely accurate reference for an audience not of Abrahamic religions or for historiographical purposes. As for Greek sources like the work of Herodotus, who was born more than a century after Cyrus the Great, they were mostly based on word of mouth corrupted through generations of the game of telephone. Further, the Greeks had notorious biases against their main enemy that permeate their writings. What actually happened in Persia two and a half millennia ago has hence remained a mystery through the ages.

Llewellyn-Jones aims to set the record straight on quite a few points. Your typical academic historian, he argues with his fellow practitioners of the trade. His most frequent target is none other than Herodotus, with the Hebrew Bible a close second. My namesake Khashayarsha—or

Xerxes, or Achashverosh in the Bible—is known to most of the world as a hedonistic tyrant with a bad temper. His botched invasion of Greece, we’ve always been told, set off the decline of the empire. The image of Xerxes as “a psychopathic leader . . . at the head of a brutally centralized authoritarian state has become an image that has unsettled liberal democrats ever since Herodotus first created it,” Llewellyn-Jones writes. “But it has very little to do with the real Xerxes of the ‘Persian Version.’”

The Persian version of Xerxes was much more prudent and compassionate than originally drawn. And contrary to popular belief, the calamity in Greece wasn’t the beginning of the end of the empire. “The Persian empire never underwent a slow process of decline and eventual collapse,” Llewellyn-Jones writes.

When its end came, with the conquests of Alexander of Macedon in the late 330s, it was swift and totally unexpected. Darius III, the final Achaemenid Great King, ruled an empire that was as functional, wealthy, and secure as it had been 150 years earlier.

Rather than the “natural progress of history,” it was the faceoff of two men, one great and one mediocre, that altered the future.

Nonetheless, there were internal troubles for the ruling elite. The Persian kings were too often caught between—even paralyzed by—their all-too-influential mothers and their queens, whose rivaling jealousies weakened the court. Two millennia later, any Persian man would tell you that some things never change.

The book does much more than narrate the history of great kings. It also reveals aspects of ancient Iran’s economy and society. Zoroastrianism, the only ancient Persian religion still practiced, was the faith of the Achaemenids. Within it, the eternal struggle between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, the good god and the evil god, established a dualistic tradition that still persists in Iranian politics.

Early Iranians didn’t record history as faithfully as did the Greeks. What they did record had to survive censorship and bore biases such as flattery of the emperors. The Arabs destroyed much of what was written down when they burned Iran’s libraries after invading the country. Thus, while Persians manages to offer the Persian version of history, it’s not necessarily an accurate version. Sadly, that past can never fully be known.

Today, half of Iran’s population, give or take, consists of ethnic minorities. Mahsa Amini, the twenty-two-year-old Kurdish woman murdered by Iran’s morality police, was one of them. One of the many legacies of the Achaemenids is that Iran remains a multi-ethnic nation of imperial fears and ambitions. Contemporary Iranians, both the people and their leaders, fear losing territory to ethnic minorities in the country’s outskirts, similar to the Achaemenids. In light of this, is resurrecting Iran’s broader legacy possible?

Common sense says no, but the Persians have done the impossible before. When Iranians were forced to speak Arabic for centuries, Persian eventually became a dead language—that is, until Abolqassem Ferdowsi published Shahnameh, or Story of Kings, in 1010. Longer than The Iliad and TheOdyssey combined, the poem is a historical legend of ancient and medieval Iran. Ferdowsi allegedly wrote, “I made the ajam [those who could not speak Arabic] alive with this

Persian.” He meant that he resurrected his people’s heritage by retelling their history in their own language.

While Llewellyn-Jones concedes that Iranians’ views of their ancient empire as liberal and respectful of citizens’ rights is part mythology, he reminds us that the Achaemenid Empire was still more respectful of its conquered nations than other empires past, allowing its subjects some measure of cultural and religious autonomy. “It is all the more tragic then that the mode of empire adopted by later civilizations of the West . . . chose to ignore the Persian Version.” He adds:

Empire is never a happy state of being, it is not a good thing for subjected peoples, but an enlightened empire run on Persian lines would be preferable to the brutality of Roman rule and its aggressive adherence to a policy of Romanization.

It is a sad reflection of Iran’s present condition that it took a Welsh historian to tell the story of ancient Iran—and in English for that matter. At Iran’s schools, young boys and girls learn about their ancient past only passingly through the Greeks’ retelling. Persians is a product of many visits to Iranian museums and ancient sites, opportunities that would hardly be afforded to indigenous scholars. Iran’s leaders today, whose core ideology is being anti-Iranian and instead Islamist, can only fear that the rediscovery of pre-Islamic Iranian grandeur would create a returnist movement in opposition to the Islamic Republic and Islamism.

One is tempted to pity the Persians’ fall from the world’s mightiest empire to one of the most miserable peoples in the world. What sets the Iranians apart from others who hardly measure up to their imperial predecessors is that, after two millennia, they still refuse to succumb to a fate of mediocrity. The Macedonians, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Tatars, the Brits, and the Soviets have all at times occupied and ruled Iran. And yet Iran endures. Can Iranians once again end a foreign tyranny—that of the Islamic Republic?

Just as Iranians once revived their dead language, they now seek to restore their full heritage. They are in the streets clinging to their past, seeking to be the best version of themselves. They deserve not our pity but our admiration and awe.

Shay Khatiri is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. An immigrant from Iran, he writes on political events within the country for the Russia-Iran File Substack and other publications.

Originally published in American Purpose.