An ancient Persian puzzle

From ancient Persia comes a historic mystery that is as compelling as questions about who planned Watergate or who shot President Kennedy. This Persian account contains conspiracies, lies, murder, and—best of all—more than one plausible interpretation of the facts. Historians still debate one another about what really happened.

Persia is located in the mountains and plains of modern Iran. It was a small kingdom for centuries before Cyrus made Persia great. He expanded in various directions, eventually capturing the wealthy kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia, where Turkey exists today. With new wealth to hire and equip soldiers, Cyrus then turned south, sacking the city Babylon (which is also a fascinating story) and claiming the Babylonian Empire for the Persian government. He had to continue to fight to maintain control of the various nations conquered by the Babylonians. Cyrus died on the battlefield July 530 B.C. at the approximate age of seventy.

Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, inherited the empire. He also inherited the struggle to keep all the pieces together as one empire. The biggest prize was Egypt, that ancient civilization in the northeast corner of Africa that had been conquered by the Babylonians. After Babylon fell, Egypt declared its independence. Cambyses took his Persian armies to Egypt to show the Egyptians that they still belonged to the Persian Empire.

After much fighting, the Persians were successful. While they were still mopping up the campaign, though, word came from Persia that Bardiya—the younger brother of Cambyses—had seized power. Reportedly, when Cambyses heard this news, he exclaimed, “That’s impossible! I had Bardiya killed before I left home to keep this kind of thing from happening!” Cambyses began to return to Persia with his army, minus those troops left in Egypt to keep law and order in Persian hands. But Cambyses did not return home alive. Injured in the leg by his own sword, he developed gangrene and died of the infection.

One of the generals who had fought with Cambyses in Egypt was a cousin to the royal family, a man named Darius. When he had returned to the Persian homeland, Darius announced that Bardiya was fake. Darius even named names. He declared that the phony Bardiya was actually a mage named Gaumata, and Darius also named the six magi who had conspired with Gaumata to seize the government. (Magi were scholarly experts in all important matters: biology, chemistry, astronomy and astrology, history, religion, languages, and more. They were advisors to royalty. The Magi were like a combination of a university faculty of professors and the American President’s Cabinet.) With the support of the army, Darius revolted against the new emperor. In his inscriptions Darius merely says that he slew Gaumata; later historians told an exciting tale of hand-to-hand combat between Gaumata and Gobyras, a mage who was loyal to Darius and was, in fact one of his friends. Darius had to choose whether to interfere, risking the life of his friend, or to let them fight. With a lucky stroke of his sword, Darius managed to kill Gaumata without harming Gobyras.

Both sons of Cyrus were dead, and Darius had the support of the Persian army. Since he was of royal blood, he was crowned emperor of Persia. No one at the time questioned his identification of the supposed Bardiya as the mage Gaumata. At the same time, apparently no one but Darius had heard the claim of Cambyses that he had killed his brother.

Was Darius a hero who rescued the empire from conspiracy? Or was he a liar who struck down the true son of Cyrus to claim the throne? During his lifetime, no one challenged his claims. No one would have dared. Today historians are not so sure. For some, the official version of the story as told by Darius (and carved into rock in Persia) is as believable as any other possibility. To others, the official version is highly suspicious. No one expects to find a signed confession from Darius countering his original version of the story. More than likely, we will never know the truth. J.

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