Thursday, September 26, 2013

RUMINATIONS ABOUT PERSIAN RULERS

A few days ago, I attended morning services at St. Mary’s Chapel as I usually do on Tuesdays. It was a day overhung with thick fog, and I confess that my mind was as befogged as the outdoors when the lector began reading the Old Testament lesson. I was jolted awake by the names Cyrus and Darius, two Achaemenid kings who reigned over Persia during the fifth and sixth centuries BCE. I lived in Iran (contemporary name for Persia) during the 70’s and read a lot of history about the Persian Empire when it was at its apex during the two kings’ reigns, so the names caused me to pay more attention to the reading about Cyrus freeing the Jews from Babylon captivity and supporting the beginning of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. I remembered that Darius, who followed Cyrus, continued generous funding for the reconstruction of this temple. This great Persian king ruled over forty different ethnic tribes in a domain that stretched from India into the Balkans, and his empire covered three million square miles.
Darius supported faiths and religions that were “alien” as long as they were peaceable, sometimes giving grants for their religious work. He favored Greek cults, supported Elamite priests, built the temple for the Egyptian god, Amun, and restored many other Greek temples that had been destroyed. In Persia he built Persepolis and Susa, promoted learning, agriculture and forestation, earning his name as the greatest of Persia’s kings. One of the sites I visited at Naqs-e-Rustam bore several inscriptions on Darius’s tomb, which was carved out of rock face, and the one that impressed me read: “I am Darius the Great King, King of Kings, King of countries containing all kinds of men. King in this great earth far and wide…”
The day following my reminiscences about Darius, I picked up the newspaper and read that the new president of Iran, Hasan Rouhani, has informed the UN General Assembly that he seeks to work with the international community, and Iran stands ready for “constructive engagement.” He has also freed political prisoners, replaced the military with the foreign ministry to lead nuclear negotiations, even acknowledged Jews worldwide by wishing them well on Rosh Hashanah. To me and many Americans, his words sound encouraging.
Having lived in Iran for two years, I have some sympathy for the people and the future of this country. My “what if” thoughts about Rouhani border on wild and crazy miracles when I express that I wish he’d take a leaf from history and would really return to the views of the ancient Achaemenian kings, Cyrus and Darius, who practiced tolerance for and generosity toward the faiths and religions of other countries.
However, most opinion pieces in the news are contrary to my “what if” feelings, and I do admit that I am skeptical about Rouhani’s declarations. A few years ago, I expressed that skepticism metaphorically in a poem entitled “Persepolis” in my book, Farda, the last verses appearing below:
“[Alexander] set fire to the state of the free,
the wealth of social accord,

destroying that final bloom,
imperial eastern civilization,

its art now reduced to building missiles,
its architecture to flimsy tents in hot wind,

ghazals about lost battles drifting…
across cloudy mirrors.”

The above picture is a segment of a painting done by Paul Schexnayder of New Iberia, Louisiana for the cover of my book, Sophie’s Sojourn in Persia.
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