Every year on October 28, thousands of Iranians congregate around the tomb of Cyrus the Great to celebrate his birthday. The ancient ruler founded the Persian empire more than 2,000 years ago, well before Islam spread across the region. This year, however, Iranians used the date to voice their anger with the regime, drawing the ire of the country's ruling Islamic elite.
Last Friday, thousands of Iranians descended on Pasargadae, a UNESCO heritage site located more than 600km south of the capital, Tehran. They gathered at the tomb of Cyrus the Great, an ancient king who ruled over the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire, throughout a large part of the 6th century BC.
A gathering exalting a king who reigned more than 2,000 years before the birth of the Islamic Republic was bound to anger the country's current religious rulers. Leading ayatollahs, along with Iran's conservative media outlets, were quick to speak out against the celebration of the ancient king's legacy. Several people were also arrested, according to Iran's public prosecutor. Ayatollah Noori Hamedani, one of Iran's top religious figures, accused those present of "chanting slogans that should be used to honour our supreme guide, and all we did was watch them. They're against the revolution, it's shocking to see them able to meet freely."
Amateur photos and videos reveal the extent to which thousands of people from across Iran converged on Pasargadae, completely blocking many roads in and out of the site.
October 28 isn't an official holiday in Iran. But the date is nonetheless celebrated by thousands of Iranians, and it isn't the only one that Iran's conservative and religious figureheads have tried to erase from the country's collective memory. Both Nowruz, the festival of fire (held the last Tuesday of the year), and Nature Day (held 13 days after the Iranian new year), existed before the Islamic Republic came about in 1979. Like the birthday of Cyrus the Great, they've also been in the crosshairs of Iran's religious elite.
"We pay tribute to a king who respected people everywhere, no matter what their religious or ethnic background"
I first heard about this public gathering thanks to Telegram [Editor's note: A messaging application for mobile phones that is very popular in Iran]. Many of my friends invited me to take part. I also saw other groups on Telegram talking about it. I decided to take part because, in my opinion, Cyrus II was a king who was not only tolerant with his own people, but also with those he conquered. He granted those under his rule freedom of religion and worship. He never enslaved his people [Editor's note: According to historians, he worshipped both the Babylonian god Marduk as well as the Phoenician god Baal].
Many people came to celebrate what this ancient king stood for: freedom, justice and social equality, no matter what people's religious or ethnic background.
Normally, it would only take me an hour to get to Pasargadae. But this time, there was so much traffic on the road it took me four hours! I saw Iranians from many ethnic backgrounds: Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and even some foreign tourists who seized the opportunity to take part. Some had been there since the previous day. The atmosphere was festive, people kept breaking out into song. But they were still nervous because of the security cameras. They thought that the footage could be used later on to arrest people who had participated in the gathering.
Some conservative leaders in Iran claim that celebrating the anniversary of Cyrus the Great goes against the values of the Islamic Republic. I don't agree: we were there to pay tribute to a man who treated everyone under his rule with respect and dignity. That's our message: people deserve respect, no matter what their religious or ethnic background.
In this video, some Iranians can be heard taking advantage of the event to chant political and nationalistic slogans, such as: "No Gaza, no Palestine, we will only sacrifice ourselves for Iran!"
Cyrus the Great is one of the most important leaders in human history, primarily responsible for founding the Achaemenid Empire. By 480 BC, 44 percent of the world's human population lived under his rule. He's also famous for having presided over a kingdom considered socially just and extremely peaceful. Those he conquered were never reduced to slavery, nor forced to convert to other religions already practiced in the Persian Empire. His name comes up no less than 23 times in the Bible, where he is referred to as a 'liberator of the Jews'. In 539 BC, he defeated Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, capturing Babylon and liberating the Jews held captive there. He then ordered that the temple of Jerusalem be rebuilt. The Cyrus Cylinder – or Cyrus Charter – is widely considered to be the first ever declaration of human rights.
Provoking the authorities
Ammar Maleki teaches political science at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He's the author of 'From Civil Disobedience to Civil Misobedience', a book that chronicles new forms of civil disobedience.
It's nothing new to see Iranians celebrating the legacy of Cyrus. But there are several reasons why this year's gathering was particularly successful. Iran's government has itself been whipping up nationalistic fervour in order to encourage the spread of anti-Arab sentiment, in light of Iran's growing rivalry with regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia. Iran also frequently mentions its support for the Syrian regime because it believes its support helps protect Syria from its Arab adversaries, while at the same time building Iranian nationalism. What's more, Iran is struggling both economically and socially. The current political class is widely seen as corrupt, so Iranians tend to look towards great historical figures of their past, such as Cyrus the Great. People who take part in this commemoration also know that the regime doesn't take kindly to any event linked to the country's pre-Islamic era, so it's also a way to provoke the ruling authorities.