Wednesday 10 July 2013

Refuting the argument that the Persians were any different

Seal from Mesopotamia, showing the Persian King Darayaush I hunting a lion in his chariot, with his fravashi (guardian angel) in the sky above

I was recently attacked by a Zoroastrian (it turned into a vicious debate, and I admit I lost my self-control in anger- something which I now regret, as it was somewhat childish) who among other things, mocked and ridiculed our gods and traditions.  In his eyes, the 'Semitic' people of the Near East (including the Canaanites, Babylonians, Arabs, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Aramaeans) were savages.  This, according to him, began with the Natufians in the Neolithic times.  Their 'savage and tribal' practices, to him, are carried out into the present day in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, and the many conflicts or violence they may engage him.  To him, there were two ancient worldviews, in drastic contrast: that of the Semites, and that of the Indo-European Aryans.  He claimed that the Semites were barbaric and superstitious, taking up magic rites, and believing that their wars were divinely sanctioned by the gods.  They were savage and cruel, taking many slaves, mistreating women, and sacrificing children and animals.  He said that the solution to war and conflict is that all Semitic ideologies should be abandoned, and people should convert to an Indo-Aryan religion, like Zoroastrianism, or possibly Buddhism or another similar religion.  An Islamic terrorist embarking on a jihad against 'foreign' imperialists is simply a religious war, a calling by a bloodthirsty deity named Allah; and is no different from an Assyrian king claiming that Ashur blessed his nation and instructed them to smite the barbaric Elamites.  This is the nature of Semitic religions: they are cruel and intolerant.  This is not the first time I have heard these views, and not just from Zoroastrians.  Some of those found further west of the Near East can also take the blame.  Certain Greek and Roman polytheists have called my gods and traditions barbaric and cruel, and called for a rejection of everything 'Semitic' in order to make our world a better place.  We will then embrace philosophy, reason, humanism, logic, intellect, physical athleticism, and freedom; and leave behind cruelty, superstitions, barbarism, despotism, tyranny, human sacrifice, witchcraft, religious conflict, and other activities stemming from the 'Semitic' religion.

According to the same person I had discussed with (and some of his companions, fellow Zoroastrians) this all changed with the coming of the empires of the Medes and Persians.  It is said that the prophet Zarathushtra, in his condemnation of the daeva-worshiping priests, the karapans, the usij, and others, was in fact condemning the religion of the Semites.  The karapans and usij of the Indo-Aryan society were also claiming divine inspiration behind wars, they too sacrificed humans to appease their vengeful and bloodthirsty gods, and practiced sorcery and superstition.  It is said that when King Kurush I, of the Medes and Persians, entered Babylon, he found it an inhuman society devoted to Angra Mainyu (evil spirit), and slave-based and immoral.  He was only pretending to show devotion toward Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, and Yahweh, the god of the enslaved Jews.  In truth, he and his successors were intending to slowly but surely convert the barbaric Semites to the pureness of Zoroastrianism.  Certainly, then, Kurush was a true disciple of Zarathushtra!  The Persian Empire was run on fairness and equality, and was only eventually destroyed by the backward Semitic Arabs.

I tried to defend my gods, my ancestral traditions, from such slander.  But he would have none of it.  The Assyrians were cruel warmongers and criminals, the Babylonians were slave-takers who behaved very cruelly towards the Medes, the Canaanites were bloodthirsty child-killers, the Arabs lacked a civilization.  He asked me how it was that the major Indo-Aryan religions (Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism) could peacefully co-exist in India, and how devotees of all of those religions could be found participating in festivals along the River Ganga to the water-goddess in harmony together; while Assyrians were marching to war against the Canaanites in the name of Ashur, Islamic militants were sending suicide bombers into synagogues in order to appease the bloodlust of Allah, and Yahweh was busy telling the Jews to massacre the whole of the Amalekites and leave none of them alive.  I should also stop trying to defend 'a bloodthirsty ideology'.  I tried explaining that you shouldn't take myths literally, and that our myths are similar to Persian or Hindu- or for that matter, Greek- ones (which also describe things that, if interpreted literally, could be seen as violent or immoral) and that we should look for a higher spiritual meaning behind it all.  But I was told that this was me being 'irrational', and that I was just trying to justify a violent ideology.

The purpose of this blog post, I must clarify, is *not* to insult any tradition, religion, or culture.  Nor am I intending to show 'Semitic' religions as superior, and insult 'Indo-Aryan' traditions as being backward or barbaric.  I merely want to show, now that I am calm and rational, that ancient Near Eastern societies were not drastically different, and nor are modern Near Eastern cultures, regardless of whether they happen to speak a 'Semitic' or 'Indo-Aryan' language- or whether they follow a religious tradition associated with either of those language families.  This is solely to help clarify, as well as a defense of some things near to my heart.

Inscriptions about war and conflict in the ancient Near East

I want to start with the Mesha Stele.  This is a stele, originally set up by King Mesha, the Moabite.  In it, he recounts a war with the Israelites.  The Israelites were led by prophets of Yahweh, who promised them victory over Chemosh in battle.  If Yahweh was the stronger god, then Israel would prevail.  If Chemosh was the stronger god, then Moab would prevail.  The stele records that Mesha believed that he was chosen by his god Chemosh, to make war upon the Israelites and to destroy them in battle:

"Chemosh spoke to me: Go, take Nebo from Israel! Then I went by night and fought against Nebo from daybreak to noon. And I took it and totally destroyed 7,000 citizens and foreigners, male and female together with female slaves; for I had consecrated it to Ashtar-Chemosh for destruction. Then I took thence the vessels of Yahweh and brought them before Chemosh."

What was this, then?  A holy war?  Most likely not, as the war between Israel and Moab was not caused by religious reasons or with religious motives.  Rather, it was triggered by the Israelites oppressing the Moabites.  Rather, it is just that aspects of 'secular' life in Canaanite religion can take on a 'religious' dimension.  Even today, soldiers still pray to Anat before going into battle.

Now let's look at an inscription by King Zakir of Hama and Laash, where he believes that Baal Shamem has called upon him through oracles and words of prophets to go to war against foreign king who oppress his kingdom:

"Thereupon I raised my hands toward Baal Shamem and Baal Shamem heard me, telling me, by means of oracles: 'Have no fear! For I have caused you to rule. I will be with you and will free you from all these kings who have laid siege against you'."

Again though, it's simply an invocation of the gods before a king goes into battle.  The cause behind the conflict cannot be attributed primarily to religion, nor to anything unique to 'Semitic' religions.

A similar occurrence also happened among the Arabs, where Prince Al-Harit ibn Amr of the Ghassanids burned his enemies alive while invoking the blessings of the gods.

 Lastly, I want to go to the Assyrians and the Babylonians of Mesopotamia.  These are important, because these are the empires that were ruling the Near East just before the Persian conquest.

From Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria's, description of the destruction of Shushan in the conquest of Elam (interestingly, it's also when the Persians show up for the first time to defend their Elamite allies):

"I destroyed the ziggurat of Shushan. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt."

It is very clear that he marched from 'the land of Ashur' (Assyria) and marched under the banner of the war god Ashur.  He then inflicted a horrific destruction upon the Elamites, in revenge for the Elamites' past deeds against his own people, the Assyrians.

Assyrians counting heads of those slain in conquest
 With the Babylonians, the conquests of King Nebukadrezzar II are well-known.  He went up against Egypt, and fought in the Hatti-land.  He also went against Ashkelon, and against Jerusalem, inflicting savage acts of destruction upon them.  Much of their population was taken into slavery.  This was the same king who clasped the hand of Marduk's idol atop his ziggurat every year in the Akitu festival, and claimed support of the god in his military campaigns.  This was the same god who created mankind to be his slaves, and since he was patron god of Babylon, he would be on their side if they went against, say, Ur (which was under Sin's protection).  

The Ishtar Gate, in the city of Babylon
 Admittedly, this does look rather violent to a modern day person.  And I'll admit, that it is.  But we also have to remember that those people lived in a far more barbaric time than we do today.  It's also important to remember that the destruction of foreign cities, and the enslavement or massacre of their populations is not religiously-motivated.  Rather, what motivated them was imperial greed.  The desire for conquest, through which all empires are born.  There are also examples from Egyptian, Sumerian, and Hittite sources, but as they aren't 'Semitic', I'll leave them out.  Now comes the question, was the Persian Empire any different?  Was it not based on conquest?

Since we don't have a lot from either Kurush II (who conquered Babylon, Lud, Media, the Hatti-land, Syria, and Canaan) or Kambujiya II (who conquered Egypt, and much of Nubia), I'll go straight onto Darayaush I (most famous perhaps for his conquests of India and Scythia).  Here, we have his Behistun inscription, where he describes his campaigns against rebels within his empire.  He does so at the command and with the divine right of Ahura Mazda, his god, and the same god who created heaven and earth.

"King Darayaush says: The following is what I did in the second and third year of my rule. The province called Elam revolted from me. An Elamite named Atamaita they made their leader. Then I sent an army unto Elam. A Persian named Gaubaruva, my servant, I made their leader. Then Gaubaruva set forth with the army; he delivered battle against the Elamites. Then Gaubaruva destroyed many of the host and that Atamaita, their leader, he captured, and he brought him unto me, and I killed him. Then the province became mine.
 King Darayaush says: Those Elamites were faithless and Ahura Mazda was not worshiped by them. I worshiped Ahura Mazda; by the grace of Ahura Mazda I did unto them according to my will.
 King Darayaush says: Whoso shall worship Ahura Mazda, divine blessing will be upon him, both while living and when dead."

Is it really all that different from those of the Assyrian or Babylonian conquerors before him?  In fact, substitute Ahura Mazda for Marduk or Ashur, and it doesn't seem to change much either:

"King Nebukadrezzar says: Those Elamites were faithless and Marduk was not worshiped by them. I worshiped Marduk; by the grace of Marduk I did unto them according to my will."

Of course, it isn't what the inscription really reads, but it does show the Persians' reliance on a model of kingship very similar to that of the Assyrians and Babylonians.  In all three cases, this model of kingship is very much influenced by their religion and the personal god worshiped by the king- however, in all three cases, the cause of the conflict isn't primarily due to religion.  Nor, in any case, does the victorious king attempt to impose his religion on the conquered people at the point of the sword.  Such a thing, as can be clearly seen, was alien to the spirit of the times: whether it was followers of 'Semitic' or 'Indo-Aryan' religions who were responsible.

Behistun, the mountain where King Darayaush I left his royal inscription and carving to celebrate his victory

Now let us turn our attention to the royal inscription of Darayaush's son, Xshayarsha I (best known for his invasion of Greece, and for his marriage to Queen Esther).  In this inscription, he states that as king, he will do his royal duty to Ahura Mazda and put down any revolts in his empire.  He will also destroy 'demons' who oppose him or who he is opposed to (the text is largely non-specific and 'timeless' like so many other Mesopotamian and Persian kingship inscriptions):

"King Xshayarsha says: when I became king, if there is among these countries one that is in rebellion, Ahura Mazda will bear me aid. By the grace of Ahura Mazda I will smite that country and put it down in its place.
And among these countries if there is a place where previously demons (daevas) are worshiped, afterwards, by the grace of Ahura Mazda I will destroy that sanctuary of daevas, and I will proclaim: 'The demons shall not be worshiped!' Where previously the demons were worshiped, there I will worship Ahura Mazda at the proper time and in the proper manner. And if there is other business that had been done ill, that I will make good. That which I do, all I do by the grace of Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda bear me aid until I complete the work."

King Xshayarsha I and his servants

 Now imagine if we substituted some of the names again, we would end up with something like this:

"King Nebukadzrezzar says: when I became king, if there is among these countries one that is in rebellion, Marduk will bear me aid. By the grace of Marduk I will smite that country and put it down in its place. And among these countries if there is a place where previously demons (edimmu) are worshiped, afterwards, by the grace of Marduk I will destroy that sanctuary of edimmu, and I will proclaim: 'The demons shall not be worshiped!' Where previously the demons were worshiped, there I will worship Marduk at the proper time and in the proper manner. And if there is other business that had been done ill, that I will make good. That which I do, all I do by the grace of Marduk. Marduk bear me aid until I complete the work."

Again, is it really so different?

Far from primitive and barbaric cultures, the (polytheistic) cultures of the Near East which can be called 'Semitic' are very sophisticated and noble traditions, no less noble or venerable than those of Persia, India, or Scythia.  To this, I will end by saying that in a very Zoroastrian way, I am fighting against the forces of druj by helping to rid the world of lies, and in doing so oppose the Lie and help act in accordance with the divine law of asha, or truth, mandated by Ahura Mazda.

Blessings everyone,



  1. so many cultures and wars. Humans are either good or evil no matter what religion they supposedly follow.

  2. if I tell you there were not any nationality issues and matters in those days what do you say? we made all these self-made rules for this fake world we've made all by ourselves as human being!!!
    during the time, we made gossips from truth and named them ideology. we were not creatives at all, we were just dementors, culture dementors!!!
    now its time to get back, we have to back further and find more from the deep. we have to call back our origins! what has happened to us? we we have aimed our sharp knives towards each other and try to destroy a fictitious enemy? what are we looking at? who we are? Don Quixote? or want to live like a real human, like Oedipus?
    I found your blog by search and read this article, I think you need to read and search more about the origins, from where there were no where! As a Persian Artist, film and drama writer and director and as a culture and linguistic researcher, I suggest you to read Shahnamah by Ferdowsi the poet. In my opinion, that book is the only reliable source for everyone to know more about real Persian culture and civilizations. let me give you an example, Cyrus the Great Campaigning are famous in all over the world, but how? he is the first and only one person in the history who told of national peace and living under the shadow of eternal harmony! Darayaush the king, build Persepolis as a place to cultural exchanges. just take your time and search more about all wall cravings on Takhte Jamshid ... what those gifts from all around the world in a same place can mean? Who is Jamshid? first of all, read them and then try to edit your article.