A gigantic stone vault delicately resting atop a stepped plinth so big it can be seen from miles around. Actually, the plinth isn’t really all that large; in reality it’s just a few steps high. And the vault isn’t that immense either; it’s about the size of a modest backyard shed. But their placement, one atop the other, in the centre of this wide, flat valley, gives the tomb a prominence beyond expectation. The distorted perspective adds to the tomb’s mysteriousness and grandeur. This simple, stately structure radiates importance, and the casual passerby immediately intuits that this was built for someone of the highest standing. And it was, for this is the Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae.
Or we think it is.
We have Alexander the Great’s word for it.
Who was Cyrus the Great?
Cyrus the Great was Cyrus II of the Achaemenid Empire, also known as Cyrus the Elder (he lived till the ripe-old age of 70). He was born in 600 BCE and died in 530 BCE. His full title was the Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World, which some may feel is a little on the bloated side, but he did found an empire that became the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen, and his influence is still being felt today.
Cyrus came to prominence by conquering Media (whose lands covered much of current-day Iran and eastern Turkey), then Lydia (western Turkey), and finally Babylon (Iraq, Kuwait and part of Syria). Persia became the first global superpower, and it would remain a global superpower (in various guises) for the next thousand years.
In recent years Cyrus has been glorified as one of the earliest defenders of human rights, due in part to his policy of religious tolerance. Some believe this is a result of his being a Zoroastrian (want to read more on Zoroastrianism? I write about the development and historical importance of Zoroastrianism in my post on Takht-e Soleyman). Which is great, except that no one has been able to definitively prove that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian (although considering the prevalence of Zoroastrianism in Persia at the time, and the esteem it was held in by the Persian elite, there’s a strong chance that he was).
Cyrus even appears in the Book of Ezra (part of the Hebrew bible) for his role in freeing the Jews from Babylon (by Jews I mean simply the people of Judeah – Judaism didn’t become a religion for another century or so). Cyrus is also referred to as the anointed one in the Book of Isaiah, which is ironic considering the rather poor views Iran and Israel share for each other in current times.
The Tomb of Cyrus, Pasargadae
One thing you should know about the Tomb of Cyrus is that there’s no name on it, and no hard evidence has ever been found to confirm to whom it belongs.
Why isn’t there a name on the tomb?
Because the tomb-builders thought the man (or woman) that died here was of such importance that the world would never forget who they were.
Time has proved them wrong.
Cyrus and Alexander: the two Greats
The main reason people are happy to call this structure the Tomb of Cyrus, given the lack of credible evidence supporting the case, is because Alexander the Great vouched for it. Alexander was a huge fan of Cyrus’. He’d read Cyropedia and loved it (Cyropedia was a text written in 370 BCE by the Greek philosopher Xenophon; the text is based on the upbringing and deeds of Cyrus the Great whom Xenophon identifies as an ideal ruler. Other fans of the text include Julius Caesar and Thomas Jefferson – many historians believe the work had a strong bearing on the drafting of the US Declaration of Independence).
When Alexander the Great visited Pasargadae in 330 BCE, he was disgusted to see that his armies had looted Cyrus’ tomb (this was following Alexander’s defeat of the Achaemenid Empire), and demanded that it be returned to its former glory. Alexander didn’t know for certain that it was the Tomb of Cyrus either, but he accepted the word of one of his warriors that had entered the tomb (presumably prior to its being looted), who claimed it contained a magnificent golden coffin along with an inscription stating Passerby, I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire, and was king of Asia. Grudge me not therefore this monument.
No such inscription can be found today.
Practical information on reaching Pasargadae:
The Tomb of Cyrus is located at Pasargadae in southwest Iran. It’s approximately 130 kilometres, or two-hour’s drive, from Shiraz (hiring a taxi for the day in Shiraz is the best way to reach the site). If you’re up for a long day trip you can combine it with a visit to Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rustam.
Read more on Pasargadae in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.