Oct 292015


Sorry for the small hiatus faithful readers. I was given a week’s notice to leave China, and, after trials and tribulations, I am ensconced in Mantua in northern Italy. Hopefully I can pick up daily posting again, but do not be surprised by occasional lapses. Hey, I do this for free and there is no advertising !!!

On this date in 539 BCE Cyrus II of Persia, also known as Cyrus the Great and Cyrus the Elder, entered Babylon as conqueror, a most momentous date in the history of the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadrezzar (misspelled in the Bible, “Nebuchadnezzar”) as punishment for rebellion. The so-called Babylonian Captivity or Babylonian Exile (or simply “the Exile”) was a crucial time in the history of Judaism (and later for Christianity). I have written a great deal about this era, as have numerous other scholars. Judaism was codified in this period when priests and people were unable to practice temple worship and sacrifice in Jerusalem. Instead they founded synagogues in Babylon where they concentrated on reading and interpreting sacred writings. I believe, as will be evident in my forthcoming publications, that Genesis was redacted (put together) at this time, and has formed an important document of faith for Jewish identity ever since.


Cyrus was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Under his rule, the empire conquered all the previously civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded greatly, and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Mediterranean Sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus the Great created the largest empire the world had yet seen. Under his successors, the empire eventually stretched from parts of the Balkans (Bulgaria-Pannonia) and Thrace-Macedonia in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east. His regal titles in full were 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.


The reign of Cyrus the Great lasted somewhere between 29 and 31 years. Cyrus built his empire by conquering first the Median Empire, then the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Either before or after Babylon, he led an expedition into central Asia, which resulted in major campaigns that were described as having brought “into subjection every nation without exception”. Cyrus did not venture into Egypt, as he himself died in battle, fighting the Massagetae along the Syr Darya in December 530 BCE. He was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who managed to add to the empire by conquering Egypt, Nubia, and Cyrenaica during his short rule.

Cyrus the Great respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered. It is said that in universal history, the role of the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus lies in its very successful model for centralized administration and establishing a government working to the advantage and profit of its subjects. In fact, the administration of the empire through satraps and the vital principle of forming a government at Pasargadae were the works of Cyrus. What is sometimes referred to as the Edict of Restoration (actually two edicts) described in the Bible as being made by Cyrus the Great left a lasting legacy on Judaism, where, because of his policies in Babylonia, he is referred to in the Hebrew Bible as Messiah (lit. “anointed one”) (Isaiah 45:1), and is the only Gentile to be so called.

Cyrus the Great is recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy, as well as his influence on both Eastern and Western civilizations. Having originated from Persis, roughly corresponding to the modern Iranian province of Fars, Cyrus has played a crucial role in defining the national identity of modern Iran. Cyrus and, indeed, the Achaemenid influence in the ancient world also extended as far as Athens, where many Athenians adopted aspects of the Achaemenid Persian culture as their own, in a reciprocal cultural exchange.


In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, identified Cyrus’ famous proclamation inscribed on the Cyrus Cylinder as the oldest known declaration of human rights, and the Cylinder has since been popularized as such. This view has been criticized by some historians as a misunderstanding of the Cylinder’s generic nature as a traditional statement that ancient Near Eastern monarchs made at the beginning of their reigns. There is nothing especially original about the Cylinder’s contents, and the Shah’s touting of it as Iran’s first human rights declaration was more likely a calculated political move to trumpet his own status, and thus hide the realities of his own repressive rule under a thin veil of historical continuity and legitimacy. In truth, Cyrus did, indeed, allow local cultures to retain their traditional identities, hence his willingness to return the Jews to Jerusalem. People not subject to tyrannical, enforced hegemony and assimilation, as the Jews were in Babylon, are less likely to rebel. If you let them get on with their own business – taxing them heavily – you survive as a ruler longer. But make no mistake, the “laws of the Medes and Persians” were legendary for their strictness. Rebel and you pay in blood.


Here’s an old Persian recipe for duck in pomegranate and walnut sauce. Duck is traditional, but you can use just about any meat or meatballs. Chicken works fine. There’s no knowing the exact age of the dish given that recipes from Cyrus’ era do not exist. But it is acknowledged to be an old dish, still very popular. You can probably buy pomegranate molasses online, but it’s easy enough to make. I give a recipe below the main recipe. Serve the duck with Persian rice and flat bread.


Duck Fesenjān


1 duck cut in 8 pieces (bone in)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tbsp duck fat
3 tbsp olive oil
2 cups diced yellow onion
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup pomegranate molasses
¼ cup honey
3 cups walnut halves


Season the duck all over with salt and pepper.

Heat the duck fat in a heavy skillet over high heat. Sauté the duck pieces in batches until browned on all sides. Reserve the browned pieces and pour the remaining fat into a Dutch oven.

Pour a little chicken stock into the skillet and bring to a boil while scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat.

Heat the duck fat plus olive oil in the Dutch oven over medium heat. Sauté the onion in the oil and fat until golden. Add the turmeric, cinnamon, and nutmeg and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Pour the chicken broth, pomegranate molasses, and honey, into the onions. Bring to a simmer.

Grind the walnuts to a fine powder in a food processor.

Sauté the walnut powder in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir the walnuts into the broth mixture. Add the browned duck and add more chicken broth if needed to cover. Reduce the heat and simmer until the duck is tender (up to 3 hours).

Transfer the duck to a serving dish and keep warm.

Bring the broth mixture to a boil and cook until reduced to a thick sauce consistency. Ladle the sauce over the duck.

Pomegranate Molasses

Place 4 cups of pomegranate juice, ½ cup of sugar, and 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice in a 4-quart saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the mixture has reduced to 1 cup ( approximately 70 minutes). It should be the consistency of thick syrup. Remove from the heat and allow to cool in the saucepan for 30 minutes. Transfer to a glass jar and allow to cool completely before covering and storing in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.