Jul 032018

Today is the birthday (1883) of Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian novelist and short story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. We now use the word “Kafkaesque” to describe literature which fuses elements of realism and the fantastic, typically featuring isolated protagonists faced with bizarre or surreal predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers. His best-known works include “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”), Der Process (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle). Few of Kafka’s works were published during his lifetime: the story collections Betrachtung (Contemplation) and Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor), and individual stories (such as “Die Verwandlung”) were published in literary magazines but received little public attention. Much of Kafka’s work was unfinished when he died and on his death bed he ordered his manuscripts destroyed by a friend. Instead he had them edited for publication, and it was only after his death that Kafka became internationally renowned. Back in my typically angst-ridden teens and early 20s, Kafka was on my shelves beside Orwell, Camus, Sartre, and Hesse. Fortunately, that stage of my life passed.

Kafka was born near the Old Town Square in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family were middle-class Ashkenazi Jews. His father, Hermann Kafka (1854–1931), was the fourth child of Jakob Kafka, a shochet (Jewish ritual slaughterer) in Osek, a Czech village with a large Jewish population located near Strakonice in southern Bohemia. Hermann moved the Kafka family to Prague. After working as a traveling sales representative, he eventually became a fashion retailer who employed up to 15 people and used the image of a jackdaw (kavka in Czech, pronounced and colloquially written as kafka) as his business logo. Kafka’s mother, Julie (1856–1934), was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous retail merchant in Poděbrady, and was better educated than her husband.

Kafka’s parents probably spoke a dialect of German influenced by Yiddish that was sometimes pejoratively called Mauscheldeutsch, but, because the German language was considered the vehicle of social mobility, they probably encouraged their children to speak High German. Hermann and Julie had six children, of whom Franz was the eldest. Franz’s two brothers, Georg and Heinrich, died in infancy before Franz was seven. His three sisters were Gabriele (“Ellie”) (1889–1944), Valerie (“Valli”) (1890–1942) and Ottilie (“Ottla”) (1892–1943). They all died during the Holocaust of World War II.

Hermann was described by Franz Kafka as “a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, and knowledge of human nature”. On business days, both parents were absent from the home, with Julie Kafka working as many as 12 hours each day helping to manage the family business. Consequently, Kafka’s childhood was lonely, and the children were reared largely by a series of governesses and servants. Kafka’s troubled relationship with his father is evident in his “Brief an den Vater” (Letter to His Father) of more than 100 pages, in which he complains of being profoundly affected by his father’s authoritarian and demanding character. His mother, in contrast, was quiet and shy.

The Kafka family had a servant girl living with them in a cramped apartment. Franz’s room was often cold. In November 1913 the family moved into a bigger apartment, although Ellie and Valli had married and moved out of the first apartment. In early August 1914, just after World War I began, the sisters did not know where their husbands were in the military and moved back in with the family in this larger apartment. Both Ellie and Valli also had children. Franz at age 31 moved into Valli’s former apartment, quiet by contrast, and lived by himself for the first time.

From 1889 to 1893, Kafka attended the Deutsche Knabenschule German boys’ elementary school at the Masný trh/Fleischmarkt (meat market). His Jewish education ended with his Bar Mitzvah celebration at the age of 13. Kafka never enjoyed attending the synagogue and went with his father only on four high holy days a year. After leaving elementary school in 1893, Kafka was admitted to the rigorous classics-oriented state gymnasium, Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium, an academic secondary school at Old Town Square, within the Kinský Palace. German was the language of instruction, but Kafka also spoke and wrote in Czech. He studied the latter at the gymnasium for 8 years, and received compliments for his Czech, but he never considered himself fluent in Czech, though he spoke German with a Czech accent. He completed his final exams in 1901.

Kafka was admitted to the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität of Prague in 1901, studying chemistry, but switched to law after two weeks. Although this field did not excite him, it offered a range of career possibilities which pleased his father. In addition, law required a longer course of study, giving Kafka time to take classes in German studies and art history. He also joined a student club, Lese- und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten (Reading and Lecture Hall of the German students), which organized literary events, readings and other activities. Among Kafka’s friends were the journalist Felix Weltsch, who studied philosophy, the actor Yitzchak Lowy who came from an orthodox Hasidic Warsaw family, and the writers Oskar Baum and Franz Werfel.

At the end of his first year of studies, Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life (and was the one who had his MSS published posthumously). Brod soon noticed that, although Kafka was shy and seldom spoke, what he said was usually profound. Brod encouraged Kafka to read Plato’s Protagoras in the original Greek, and Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale and La Tentation de St. Antoine in French. Kafka considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Grillparzer, and Heinrich von Kleist to be his “true blood brothers.” Kafka was awarded the degree of Doctor of Law on 18th July 1906 and performed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts.

On 1st November 1907, Kafka was hired at the Assicurazioni Generali, an insurance company, where he worked for nearly a year. His correspondence during that period indicates that he was unhappy with his work schedule—from 8 am to 6 pm, 6 days a week—making it extremely difficult to concentrate on writing, which was assuming increasing importance to him. On 15th July 1908, he resigned. Two weeks later he found employment more amenable to writing when he joined the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the kingdom of Bohemia. The job involved investigating and assessing compensation for personal injury to industrial workers. Accidents such as lost fingers or limbs were commonplace at this time owing to poor work safety policies at the time. It was especially true of factories fitted with machine lathes, drills, planing machines and rotary saws which were rarely fitted with safety guards.

Kafka’s father often referred to his son’s job as an insurance officer as a Brotberuf, literally “bread job”, a job done only to pay the bills, and Kafka often claimed to despise it. Kafka was rapidly promoted and his duties included processing and investigating compensation claims, writing reports, and handling appeals from businessmen who thought their firms had been placed in too high a risk category, which cost them more in insurance premiums.He compiled and composed the annual report on the insurance institute for the several years he worked there, and they were received well by his superiors. Kafka usually got off work at 2 p.m., so that he had time to spend on his writing, although his father also expected him to help out at and take over the family fancy goods store.

In late 1911, Elli’s husband, Karl Hermann, and Kafka became partners in the first asbestos factory in Prague, known as Prager Asbestwerke Hermann & Co., having used dowry money from Hermann Kafka. Kafka showed a positive attitude at first, dedicating much of his free time to the business, but he later resented the encroachment of this work on his writing time. During that period, he also found interest and entertainment in the performances of Yiddish theatre. After seeing a Yiddish theater troupe perform in October 1911, for the next six months Kafka “immersed himself in Yiddish language and in Yiddish literature”. This interest also served as a starting point for his growing exploration of Judaism. It was at about this time that Kafka became a vegetarian. Around 1915 Kafka received his conscription notice for military service in World War I, but his employers at the insurance institute arranged for a deferment because his work was considered essential government service. Later he attempted to join the military but was prevented from doing so by medical problems associated with tuberculosis, with which he was diagnosed in 1917. In 1918 the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute put Kafka on a pension due to his illness, for which there was no cure at the time, and he spent most of the rest of his life in sanatoria.

Kafka never married, and his relationships with women can be called “complicated.” On 13 August 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a relative of Brod, who worked in Berlin as a representative of a dictaphone company. A week after the meeting at Brod’s home, Kafka wrote in his diary:

Miss FB. When I arrived at Brod’s on 13 August, she was sitting at the table. I was not at all curious about who she was, but rather took her for granted at once. Bony, empty face that wore its emptiness openly. Bare throat. A blouse thrown on. Looked very domestic in her dress although, as it turned out, she by no means was. (I alienate myself from her a little by inspecting her so closely …) Almost broken nose. Blonde, somewhat straight, unattractive hair, strong chin. As I was taking my seat I looked at her closely for the first time, by the time I was seated I already had an unshakeable opinion.

Shortly after this, Kafka wrote the story “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) in only one night and worked in a productive period on Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared) and “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”). Kafka and Felice Bauer communicated mostly through letters over the next five years, met occasionally, and were engaged twice. Kafka’s extant letters to her were published as Briefe an Felice (Letters to Felice); her letters do not survive. Kafka was later engaged to Julie Wohryzek, a poor and uneducated hotel chambermaid. Although the two rented an apartment and set a wedding date, the marriage never took place. Before the date of the intended marriage, he began an affair with another woman

Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis in August 1917 and moved for a few months to the Bohemian village of Zürau (Siřem in the Czech language), where his sister Ottla worked on the farm of her brother-in-law Karl Hermann. He felt comfortable there and later described this time as perhaps the best time in his life, probably because he had no responsibilities. He kept diaries and notes from which he later extracted 109 numbered pieces of text. They were later published as Die Zürauer Aphorismen oder Betrachtungen über Sünde, Hoffnung, Leid und den wahren Weg (The Zürau Aphorisms or Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way).

In 1920 Kafka began an intense relationship with Milena Jesenská, a Czech journalist and writer. His letters to her were later published as Briefe an Milena. During a vacation in July 1923 to Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family. Kafka, hoping to escape the influence of his family to concentrate on his writing, moved briefly to Berlin and lived with Diamant. She encouraged an interest in the Talmud, and at the time Kafka worked on four stories, which he prepared to be published as Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist).

Kafka’s laryngeal tuberculosis worsened and in March 1924 he returned from Berlin to Prague, where members of his family, principally his sister Ottla, took care of him. He went to Dr. Hoffmann’s sanatorium in Kierling just outside Vienna for treatment on 10th April, and died there on 3rd June 1924. The immediate cause of death was malnutrition because the condition of Kafka’s throat made eating too painful for him, and at the time there was no way to feed him except orally (other medical methods were not developed until later). Kafka was editing “A Hunger Artist” on his deathbed, a story whose composition he had begun before his throat closed to the point that he could not take any nourishment. His body was brought back to Prague where he was buried on 11th June 1924, in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Žižkov. His tombstone was designed by architect Leopold Ehrmann.

It may seem macabre to celebrate a man who died of malnutrition with a recipe, but I think it is suitably Kafkaesque. Kafka was a strict vegetarian for most of his adult life, and food appears regularly in his writing. His vegetarianism rules out a recipe for tripe soup, which is a pity because the Czech version, dršťky polévka, is an old favorite of mine. I gave a recipe for another Bohemian soup, kulajda, here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/jan-zrzavy/  Bohemia is justifiably famous for its vast array of soups, including many that can be made meatless quite easily. There are pea (hrachovka), bean (fazolová) and lentil soups (čočková polévka), mushroom soup (houbová polévka), tomato soup (rajská polévka), vegetable soup (zeleninová polévka), onion soup (cibulačka) and bread soup (chlebová polévka). Kyselo is a regional specialty soup made from rye sourdough, mushrooms, caraway and fried onion. You can choose any of these, and there are plenty of recipes online. I’ll give you potato and mushroom soup (bramboračka) which is quite complex, and regionally varied throughout Bohemia. Nowadays cooks use dried black mushrooms, but the soup was originally made from wild forest mushrooms. It is also common to serve the soup in a bowl made of hollowed out rye and caraway bread. I have had it this way once, and have to say it was good, but too filling for me. Czechs with me had no trouble scarfing down the soup with a whole loaf of bread.



500 gm potatoes, peeled and cut in large chunks
35 gm dried black mushrooms or 100 gm fresh wild mushrooms, sliced
200 gm peeled and diced carrot
200 gm peeled and diced celeriac root
200 gm shredded cabbage,
1 leek, white part only, sliced
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tbs olive oil
6 cups vegetable broth
salt and pepper
1 tbsp dried marjoram
4 tbsp flour


If you are using dried mushrooms, soak them in a bowl covered with hot (not boiling) water for about 20 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chopped vegetables and sauté for an additional 10 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon so that they take on some color evenly. (Do not add mushrooms at this point if you are using dried ones).

Add the stock to the pot along with the dried mushrooms and their liquid if you are using them, the marjoram, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer and cook until the vegetables are soft. Mix the flour with a generous amount of cold water and whisk thoroughly. Then add a little hot broth to the flour and water mixture, and whisk again. Then pour this mixture back into the soup, stirring vigorously until it is well combined. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Simmer another 10 minutes. Serve in deep bowls with rye bread, or in hollowed out dark bread bowls.

Nov 162017


Today is a two-fer in saints’ days. In the eastern Orthodox tradition it is the feast of St Matthew the Apostle (מַתִּתְיָהוּ‎‎ Mattityahu, “Gift of YHVH”; Greek: Ματθαῖος Matthaios; also known as Saint Matthew and as Levi) who was, according to the Greek Bible, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Christian tradition, one of the four Evangelists. Today is also the feast of St Hugh of Lincoln.  Let’s take them in turn.

Matthew the apostle is a minor character in the gospel story. He’s identified as a tax collector recruited by Jesus precisely because he was classified as a sinner by contemporary Jews:

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. (Matthew 9:9-12).

Matthew is identified as an apostle in the other gospels, but only in the gospel according to Matthew is there this kind of detail about him. In passages parallel to Matthew 9:9, both Mark (2:14) and Luke (5:27) describe Jesus’ calling of the tax collector Levi, the son of Alphaeus, but Mark and Luke never explicitly equate this Levi with the Matthew named as one of the twelve. Nor was what we now call the gospel according to Matthew identified as written by Matthew the apostle until the 2nd century. It, like all the other gospels, was originally anonymously written. The specific references to Matthew’s occupation and actions, although brief, were a major reason for early theologians equating the gospel writer with the tax collector/apostle. But there is no good cause to equate the two men, and it is the consensus of modern scholars that the apostle and the gospel writer were different men. Because of lack of detail concerning Matthew the apostle I’ll concentrate on the gospel writer, but return to the apostle for a recipe idea.

Matthew’s gospel, like Luke, was written with Mark as the basic source but with extraneous material added from unknown sources.  Like Luke, Matthew includes a genealogy of Jesus and some details of Jesus’ birth and infancy, but Matthew differs from Luke in major ways in both cases.  Matthew’s genealogy goes only as far as Abraham whereas Luke’s extends back to Adam. Any anthropologist worth his salt will tell you that the starting point of any genealogy is vital. For Luke, a gentile, the point of the genealogy is to stress that Jesus was messiah of all humankind, whereas Matthew stresses only that he was from the line of Abraham – that is, a Jew. That, plus other evidence I won’t go into, tells us that the writer of Matthew was a Jew.

Matthew’s gospel gives a very different version of Jesus’s birth and infancy from Luke’s. Matthew has Jesus born in Bethlehem, but with no mention of the manger, shepherds, and so forth. Instead he focuses on the visit of the Magi from the east bearing gifts. Next, he mentions Herod’s fury that a prophesied king has been born in Judea, and orders the massacre of all Jewish newborn boys. Joseph and Mary escape with Jesus to Egypt and remain there until after Herod’s death. If Christmas were primarily based on Matthew’s account of the nativity rather than Luke’s it would be a markedly different celebration.

For me the most impressive section of Matthew’s gospel is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). For my money, if you want a distillation of Christian principles your best bet is the Sermon. Scholars generally agree that the Sermon is pieced together out of sayings of Jesus from traditional sources, rather than something resembling a verbatim account of an actual sermon that Jesus delivered on a mountain or anywhere else, but I don’t care. It crystallizes the Christian life in clear pithy images.  What I do care about is that a great number of people who call themselves Christians don’t follow the principles of the Sermon, or even try.

St Hugh of Lincoln (1135/40 – 16 November 1200), also known as Hugh of Avalon, was a French noble, Benedictine and Carthusian monk and bishop of Lincoln. At the time of the Reformation, he was the best-known English saint after Thomas Becket. Hugh was born at the château of Avalon, the son of Guillaume, seigneur of Avalon. His mother Anne de Theys died when he was eight, and because his father was a soldier, he went to a boarding school for his education. Guillaume retired from the world to the Augustinian monastery of Villard-Benoît, near Grenoble, and took his son Hugh, with him. At the age of fifteen, Hugh became a religious novice and was ordained a deacon at the age of nineteen. Around 1159, he was sent to be prior of the nearby monastery at Saint-Maximin, presumably already a priest. From that community, he left the Benedictine Order and entered the Grande Chartreuse, then at the height of its reputation for the rigid austerity of its rules and the earnest piety of its members. There he rose to become procurator of his new Order, in which office he served until he was sent in 1179 to become prior of the Witham Charterhouse in Somerset, the first Carthusian house in England.

Henry II of England, as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas Becket, in lieu of going on crusade as he had promised in his first remorse, had established a Carthusian charterhouse some time before, which was settled by monks brought from the Grande Chartreuse. There were difficulties in advancing the building works, however, and the first prior was retired and a second soon died. It was by the special request of the English king that Hugh, whose fame had reached him through one of the nobles of Maurienne, was made prior.

Hugh found the monks in great straits, living in log huts and with no plans advanced for the more permanent monastery building. Hugh interceded with the king for royal patronage and at last, probably on 6 January 1182, Henry issued a charter of foundation and endowment for Witham Charterhouse. In May 1186, Henry summoned a council of bishops and barons to Eynsham Abbey to deliberate on the state of the Church and the filling of vacant bishoprics, including Lincoln. On 25 May 1186 the cathedral chapter of Lincoln was ordered to elect a new bishop and Hugh was elected. Hugh insisted on a second, private election by the canons, securely in their chapter house at Lincoln rather than in the king’s chapel. His election was confirmed by the result.

As a bishop, he was exemplary, constantly in residence or traveling within his diocese, generous with his charity, scrupulous in the appointments he made. He raised the quality of education at the cathedral school. Hugh was also prominent in trying to protect Jews in the persecution they suffered at the beginning of Richard I’s reign, and he put down popular violence against them—as later occurred following the death of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln.

Lincoln Cathedral had been badly damaged by an earthquake in 1185, and Hugh set about rebuilding and greatly enlarging it in the new Gothic style; however, he lived to see only the choir well begun. In 1194, he expanded St Mary Magdalen’s Church in Oxford.

As one of the premier bishops of the Kingdom of England Hugh more than once accepted the role of diplomat to France for Richard and then for King John in 1199, a trip that ruined his health. He consecrated St Giles’ Church, Oxford, in 1200. There is a cross consisting of interlaced circles cut into the western column of the tower that is believed to commemorate this event. Also in commemoration of the consecration, St Giles’ Fair was established and continues to this day each September. While attending a national council in London, a few months later, he was stricken with an unnamed ailment and died two months later on 16 November 1200. He was buried in Lincoln Cathedral. In iconography Hugh is often depicted with a swan because he befriended a swan that followed him everywhere.

According to the passage from Matthew quoted at the beginning of this post, Jesus had dinner with Matthew and a number of other tax collectors following Matthew’s call. Tax collectors made a lot of money, so we can assume it was a better than average meal. The classic ingredients for a feast of the period would be lamb, lake fish, figs, olives, grapes, and bread of some sort, with cheese or curds and honey. I’ve mentioned before plenty of recipes that would fit Greek Bible times. The meals of the rich were probably sumptuous but not necessarily complex. It’s impossible to know, of course. But I would suggest you be a little creative (mainly because right now I’m thinking about creative ideas for a new cookbook).  If you look at attempts at recreating the scene of Jesus at meals they tend to focus on the same ideas: platters of bread, usually unleavened, bowls of fruit, cheese, and some meat or fish – all very simply prepared. These images probably resemble something near the truth, although Renaissance and Baroque paintings tend to look more like the feasts from the contemporary cultures of the artists rather than of the Galilee of the 1st century.

Modern attempts are better in my estimation. Meat of any sort was not very common, even for the well-to-do, but fish would have been normal. It would have been grilled, whole, over an open fire. Unleavened bread was not as common as we tend to envisage. At Passover it was essential of course, but leavened bread was normal. Fresh fruits would vary according to the season, but dried fried would be available all year.

My suggestion is to grill freshwater fish (preferably over coals) and serve it with fruit, bread, and cheese.




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.