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Alexander and the tomb of Cyrus


Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). In January or February 324, Alexander reached the old religious capital of Persia, Pasargadae. Here, he visited the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire, who had lived two centuries before. The Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia describes the events in section 29.1-11 of his Anabasis.

The translation was made by Aubrey de Sélincourt.

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At the same time he moved forward himself with the lightest infantry units, the mounted Companions, and some regiments of archers, along the road to Pasargadae. [...]

Arrived at the Persian frontier, he found that Phrasaortes, the governor, had died while the Indian campaign was still going on; the reins of government were in the hands of Orxines, who had not, indeed, been regularly appointed, but considered himself, in the absence of any other governor, a proper person to serve Alexander by keeping Persian affairs running smoothly.

At Pasargadae, Alexander was visited by Atropates, governor of Media; he brought with him a Mede named Baryaxes, whom he had arrested for weaning his cap upright in the royal fashion and proclaiming himself king of the Medes and Persians. With him, also under arrest, were his associates in the attempted coup. They were all executed. 

The tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae. Photo Marco Prins.
The tomb of Cyrus

Aristobulus relates that Alexander found the tomb of Cyrus, son of Cambyses, broken into and robbed, and that this act of profanation caused him much distress. The tomb was in the royal park at Pasargadae; a grove of various sorts of trees had been planted round it; there were streams of running water and a meadow with lush grass. The base of the monument was rectangular, built of stone slabs cut square, and on top was a roofed chamber, also built of stone, with access through a door so narrow that only one man at a time - and a little one at that - could manage, with great difficulty, painfully to squeeze himself through.

Inside the chamber there was a golden coffin containing Cyrus' body, and a great divan with feet of hammered gold, spread with covers of some thick, brightly colored material, with a Babylonian rug on top. Tunics and a candys -or Median jacket- of Babylonian workmanship were laid out on the divan [1], and (Aristobulus says) Median trousers, various robes dyed in amethyst, purple, and many other colors, necklaces, scimitars, and inlaid earrings of gold and precious stones. A table stood by it, and in the middle of it lay the coffin which held Cyrus' body.

 

Within the enclosure, by the way which led up to the tomb, a small building had been constructed for the Magi who guarded it, a duty which had been handed down from father to son ever since the time of Cyrus' son, Cambyses. They had a grant from the King of a sheep a day, with an allowance of meal and wine, and one horse a month to sacrifice to Cyrus. There was an inscription on the tomb in Persian, signifying:
O man, I am Cyrus son of Cambyses,
who founded the empire of Persia
and ruled over Asia.
Do not grudge me my monument.
Alexander had always intended, after his conquest of Persia, to visit the tomb of Cyrus [2]; and now, when he did so, he found that all it contained except the divan and the coffin had been removed. Even the royal remains had not escaped desecration [3], for the thieves had taken the lid from the coffin and thrown out the body; from the coffin itself they had chipped or broken various bits in an attempt to reduce its weight sufficiently to enable them to .get it away. However, they were unsuccessful and went off without it.

Aristobulus tells us that he himself received orders from Alexander to put the monument into a state of thorough repair: he was to restore to tie coffin what was still preserved of the body and replace the lid; to put right all damage to the coffin itself, fit the divan with new strapping, and to replace with exact replicas of the originals every single object with which it had previously been adorned; and, finally, to do away with the door into the chamber by building it in with stone, covered by a coat of plaster, on which was to be set the royal seal.

Alexander had the Magians who guarded the monument arrested and put to the torture, hoping to extort from them the names of the culprits; but even under torture they were silent, neither confessing their own guilt nor accusing anybody else; so, as they could not be convicted of any sort of complicity in the crime, Alexander released them.

Note 1:
This cloak played an important role in the Persian inauguration rituals (see Plutarch of Chaeronea, Life of Artaxerxes 3.1; the custom itself is Babylonian).

Note2:
'He had always intended to visit the tomb of Cyrus': Alexander wanted to be crowned king according to the Persian customs. The word 'always' suggests strongly that the idea had already been in Alexander's mind when he visited Pasargadae in January 330.

Note 3:
By this desecration, the ritual enthronement could no longer take place. The desecration must have been an act of native resistance against the Macedonian king.

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