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How Cyrus Conquered Babylon

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Issue #323June 2015

How Cyrus Conquered Babylon

The way that King Cyrus of Persia overthrew Babylon is the pattern for Christ’s overthrow of Mystery Babylon. Since we are fast approaching the time of Babylon’s overthrow today, it is important to understand the original pattern in order to be able to follow current events.

Alyattes, king of Lydia, ruled (from his capital city of Sardis) what is now the western half of Turkey.Lydiawas attacked by Cyaxartes of Media, and ultimately, the conflict ended with a treaty that was cemented by marriage. The Lydian princess, Aryenis, was given in marriage to Prince Astyages of Media, uniting the nations.

Cyaxartes of Media ultimately made an alliance with Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar’s father, and these two overthrew Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, in 612 B.C. The Medes conquered Persia and extended their conquests to the borders of Lydia (in the middle of modern Turkey).

Meanwhile, the Babylonians extended their empire into Judea and Egypt. They conquered Jerusalem in 604 B.C. and finally destroyed the city in 586 B.C. Cyaxartes died the next year, and his son, Astyages came to the throne, ruling from 585-550 B.C.

Recall that Astyages’ wife was Aryenis of Lydia. Their daughter, Mandane, was the mother of Cyrus. But Mandane the Median princess was given in marriage to Cambyses, who was Persian. So Cyrus' father was Persian.

The Dreams

The story is told by Herodotus, the “Father of History” who lived from about 490 B.C. to 425 B.C. In his book, The Histories, Book I, beginning with par. 108,

“Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she made water in such enormous quantities that it filled his city and swamped the whole of Asia. He told his dream to the Magi, whose business it was to interpret such things, and was much alarmed by what they said it meant. Consequently, when Mandane was old enough to marry, he did not give her to some Mede of suitable rank, but was induced by his fear of the dream’s significance to marry her to a Persian named Cambyses, a man he knew to be of good family and quiet habits—though he considered him much below a Mede even of middle rank.

“Before Mandane and Cambyses had been married a year, Astyages had another dream. This time it was that a vine grew from his daughter’s private parts and spread over Asia. As before, he told the interpreters about this dream, and then sent for his daughter, who was now pregnant. When she arrived, he kept her under strict watch, intending to make away with her child; for the fact was that the Magi had interpreted the dream to mean that his daughter’s son would usurp his throne.”

Keep in mind that the child in question here was destined to become King Cyrus ofPersia, who would defeat the Medes and make them his subjects. This is why many years later, it was Cyrus the Persian and Darius the Mede who conqueredBabylon.

The Attempt to Kill Cyrus

Take note also that there was a plot to kill Cyrus as soon as he was born, even as King Herod later tried to kill Jesus shortly after He was born. In both cases, it was the revelation of the Magi that prompted these actions. Revelation 12 attributes it to the inspiration of the Red Dragon. In the case of Cyrus, the Red Dragon was manifested in the person of King Astyages of Media, and later in the birth of Jesus, it manifested in King Herod ofJudea, the half-Edomite. (Edommeans “red.”)

King Astyages then attempted to kill his own grandson shortly after he was born. Herodotus’ history continues:

“To guard against this, Astyages, when Cyrus was born, sent for his kinsman Harpagus, the steward of his property, whom he trusted more than anyone, and said to him: ‘I have some instructions for you, Harpagus, and mind you pay attention to them, whatever they may be. My safety depends upon you. If you neglect it and prefer to serve others, the day will come when you will be caught in your own trap. Get hold of Mandane’s child—take it home and kill it. Then bury it how you please.’

Harpagus protested, but was duty-bound to obey the king. However, because he was also a kinsman of the king, this made him likewise a kinsman of the baby. So he decided not to do the deed himself.

“He promptly sent a messenger to one of the king’s herdsmen, who he knew had a stretch of pasture amongst mountains ranged by wild beasts, and therefore most suitable to the purpose in hand. The fellow’s name was Mitradates, and he lived with another of the king’s slaves, a woman whose name in Greek would be Cyno, or Bitch: (the Median form of it was Spaco—‘spaca’ being the Median for bitch)….

“The herdsman made haste to answer the summons, and Harpagus said to him: ‘The king’s orders are that you must expose this infant in the wildest spot you know of amongst the hills, where it may soonest die. I am to tell you, moreover, that if you disobey and find some means of saving the child, the king will have you put to death in a way not pleasant to think of. I am commanded to see for myself that the child has been exposed.’

“Mitradates picked up the baby and, returning by the way he had come, took it back to the shack where he lived. Fate had decreed that his wife, who had been daily expecting a child of her own, was on that very day brought to bed, while her husband was away in the city. . .”

We are told that Mitradates returned with the child and told his wife his new assignment. He then said to his wife,

‘“Well, what do you think? It’s the child of Mandane, the king’s daughter, and Cambyses the son of Cyrus, and the king has given orders to make away with it. Look—here it is.’

“As he said this, the herdsman uncovered the baby and showed it to his wife, who, seeing that it was a fine strong child, burst out crying, and put her arms round her husband’s knees, imploring him to do anything rather than expose it. . .

‘“My own child,’ she said, ‘was born today—and it was born dead. Take the body and expose it, and let us bring up Mandane’s son as our own. If we do this, no one will find out that you have disobeyed your masters. Moreover, we shall have managed pretty well for ourselves too; our dead baby will have a royal burial, and this live one will not be killed.’

“Mitradates was pleased with his wife’s proposal, and at once proceeded to act upon it. . . And so came about that the herdsman’s wife, when her own son was buried, brought up the child that was one day to be Cyrus, though she, of course, did not call him by that name.”

I find it interesting that Cyrus’ supposed mother was named Cyro, “Bitch,” which, of course, would make Cyrus the son of Bitch. Likewise, in the Jewish Talmud, Jesus’ mother was a prostitute, and His father was a Roman soldier named Pandira. Both Cyrus and Jesus were insulted in this way.

Cyrus was raised by a herdsman—that is, a shepherd. And so, Isaiah 44:28 says, “It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd!” In this, Cyrus prefigured the real Messiah, for Heb. 13:20 calls Jesus “the great Shepherd of the sheep.”

Punishing Harpagus

When Cyrus was ten years old, he and the neighbor boys were playing “Kings,” a game where they would elect one of them to be king, and the rest agreed to be his followers. Cyrus was elected king. One of the players, the son of a nobleman, refused to obey Cyrus, so Cyrus grabbed a whip and beat him severely. He ran home and complained to his father, who took it to King Astyages. Cyrus was called to give account for himself, and when Astyages saw him, he noticed the family resemblance and took note that he had acted out the part of “King” as if he were truly royalty.

Upon questioning his steward, he found that the baby had been entrusted to a herdsman to kill, so he questioned the herdsman and discovered that his grandson still lived, and it was Cyrus. However, instead of being angry, King Astyages decided to celebrate his grandson’s deliverance with a feast. He then turned to Harpagus, the steward, and told him, as recorded by Herodotus:

‘“I want you to send your own son to visit the young newcomer; and come to dinner with me yourself, as I intend to celebrate my grandson’s deliverance by a sacrifice to the gods to whom such rites belong.’

When Harpagus’ son arrived at the palace, Astyages had him butchered, cut up into joints and cooked, roasting some, boiling the rest, and having the whole properly prepared for the table…To Harpagus was served the flesh of his son. . .

“When Harpagus thought he had eaten as much as he wanted, Astyages asked him if he had enjoyed his dinner. He answered that he had enjoyed it very much indeed, whereupon those whose business it was to do so brought in the boy’s head, hands, and feet in the covered dish, stood by Harpagus’ chair and told him to lift the lid and take what he fancied. Harpagus removed the cover and saw the fragments of his son’s body. As he kept control of himself and did not lose his head at the dreadful sight, Astyages asked him if he knew what animal it was whose flesh he had eaten. ‘I know, my lord,’ was Harpagus’ reply; ‘and for my part—may the king’s will be done.’ He said no other word, but took up what remained of the flesh and went home, intending, I suppose to bury all of it together. And that was how Harpagus was punished.”

Since Cyrus had been elected “king” by the boys, the Magi advised the king that his dream had already been fulfilled in a harmless manner. So Astyages did not order Cyrus’ execution. Instead, he sent Cyrus away to his real biological father, Cambyses of Persia. So we see that both Cyrus and Jesus left the country for their protection—Cyrus to Persia, and years later, Jesus was taken to Egypt.

Harpagus’ Revenge

Meanwhile, Harpagus the steward was burning for revenge upon Astyages. He kept in touch with Cyrus in Persia as he grew to manhood, while at the same time, as Herodotus tells us,

“… persuading some of the Median nobles that it would be to their advantage, in view of the harshness of Astyages’ rule, to dethrone him in favour of Cyrus.”

Harpagus finally sent word to Cyrus, setting a specific date to begin the revolt. “The Persians had long resented their subjection to the Medes,” Herodotus tells us in Par. 125. When the Persians revolted, King Astyages foolishly put Harpagus in charge of the Median army to put down the revolt. Harpagus had suppressed his anger well enough to make the king think he would submit to his treatment with no animosity. Absolute monarchs make this mistake when they are blinded by their own belief that they have the right to mistreat their subjects at will.

“The result was that when they took the field and engaged the Persian army, a few who were not in the plot did their duty, but of the remainder some deserted to the Persians and the greater number deliberately shirked fighting and took to their heels.”

So Medea came under the domination of Persia. Astyages’ dream came true, for his daughter had indeed brought forth a son who would usurp the throne of the Medes. Astyages had ruled 35 years before being defeated and dethroned by Cyrus in 550 B.C. Herodotus says,

“On the present occasion the Persians under Cyrus rose against the Medes and from then onwards were masters of Asia. Cyrus treated Astyages with great consideration and kept him at his court until he died.” (Par. 130)

Astyages’ son, Darius, was Cyrus’ uncle and later became his father-in-law. It was this Darius the Mede who actually took Babylon at the age of 62 (Dan.5:31). He was subject to his nephew, Cyrus, the Persian, who was 40 when they jointly conquered Babylon. The Bible says little about Darius, but Cyrus is a type of Christ. The Bible thus also credits Christ with conquering Mystery Babylon.

The Battle of Opis

Nabonidus was the king of Babylon when the city fell to the Persians. Belshazzar was his son and co-regent. Naabonidus had come to the throne in 554 B.C. and ruled for 17 years until 538 when the city fell to Cyrus and Darius.

Nabonidus was absent from the city during most of his reign, preferring to live in the rich desert oasis of Tayma (“Tema” in Jer. 25:23) in Northwest Arabia. It was the center of worship for Sin, the moon god. There he built a royal complex, which has recently been excavated by archeologists.

The priests of Marduk in Babylon complained of his apostasy, much like the prophets of Israel had denounced the rulers of Judah and Israel for their apostasy from Yahweh. Nabonidus was considered a royal anomaly in most of the Babylonian records. The Nabonidus Cylinder refers to Sin, the moon god, as “Sin, king of the gods of heaven and the netherworld, without whom no city or country can be founded.”

Belshazzar, the prince, ruled many years on behalf of Nabonidus. But as the Persian army approached Babylon, Nabonidus returned to the throne, deposing Belshazzar and some senior administrators—perhaps for their inability to stop the advance of the Persian army. According to the Nabonidus Chronicle, he also began gathering the statues of gods from various cities, perhaps intending to protect them within the walls of Babylon. However, this was viewed as offensive to the gods, and Cyrus used this as a propaganda ploy to turn cities against Nabonidus.

The Cyrus Cylinder tells us,

“As for the gods of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus, to the wrath of the Lord of the gods, brought to Babylon, at the command of the great Lord Marduk, I [Cyrus] caused them to dwell in peace in their sanctuaries, (in) pleasing dwellings.”

As the Persian army drew nearer, Nabonidus led the Babylonian army to meet him. Cyrus defeated Nabonidus at Opis, and Nabonidus fled to nearby Borsippa. No doubt, word came to Belshazzar that his father had been defeated (and possibly killed or captured). This would have left Belshazzar as the full King of Babylon. Up to that time, he had reigned only as a co-regent under his father.

In fact, this may have been the reason for the celebration in Dan. 5:1 on the night that Cyrus actually took Babylon.

1 Belshazzar the king held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.

It was only a short time between the battle of Opis and the taking of Babylon when Belshazzar was killed. The Cyrus Cylinder says that the people opened their gates for Cyrus and greeted him as a liberator. This suggests that the powerful priests of Marduk, who hated Nabonidus for his apostasy from Marduk, opened the gates of the city along the Euphrates—or left them open—to allow Cyrus troops entry into the city without a battle.

When the city was secure, Cyrus turned toward Borsippa to capture the defeated king, but Nabonidus surrendered to him voluntarily. So Cyrus allowed Nabonidus to retire in Carmania and to live out his days in peace.

Cyrus then returned the gods to their own home towns. According to The New World Encyclopedia, the Babylonian Chronicles tell us, “The gods of Akkad which Nabonidus had made come down to Babylon, were returned to their sacred cities.” By the same policy of religious freedom, Cyrus also issued a decree allowing the people of Judah to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple.

The Projects of Queen Nitocris

Queen Nitocris, the wife of Nabonidus, was the mother of Belshazzar (Dan. 5:1). On the night Babylon fell, when the hand wrote on the palace wall, it was this queen who remembered the old prophet Daniel and pulled him out of retirement to interpret the dream (Dan.5:10-12).

Years earlier, Queen Nitocris wanted to build a bridge over the Euphrates to connect the two halves of Babylon. Up to that time, the people had to use boats to ferry the people across the river. So first she had her workmen dig a huge basin just north of the city that was 47 miles in circumference. At the same time she prepared large stones for the bridge. When all was ready, a canal was dug from the river to the basin, diverting the river. This allowed them to set the stones in the dry river bed to build the bridge over the Euphrates. (See Herodotus, The Histories, book 1, Par. 186.) It also prepared the way for Cyrus to divert the river.

Taking Babylon

Originally, Cyrus had intended to attack Babylon in 538 B.C. However, while crossing the Gyndes River, something happened which caused him to waste the entire summer of that year. Herodotus tells us the story:

“On his march to Babylon, Cyrus came to the river Gyndes.... Cyrus was preparing to cross this river, for which boats were needed, when one of his sacred white horses, a high-spirited creature, entered the water and attempted to swim across but was swept under by the rapid current and carried away. Cyrus was so furious with the river for daring to do such a thing, that he swore he would punish it by making it so weak that even a woman could get over in future without difficulty and without wetting her knees. He held up his march against Babylon, divided his army into two parts, marked out on each side of the river a hundred and eighty channels running off from it in various directions, and ordered his men to set to work and dig. Having a vast number of hands employed, he managed to finish the job, but only at the cost of the whole summer wasted. Then, having punished the Gyndes by splitting it into three hundred sixty separate channels, Cyrus, at the beginning of the following spring, resumed his march to Babylon.” [Par. 117]

Cyrus wasted the summer of 538 B.C. taking revenge on the river, but by this time his troops were well experienced in the art of ditch digging. The next spring he defeated Nabonidus at the battle at Opis, and then Sippar surrendered without a fight.  Cyrus then marched on Babylon itself. But Babylon’s walls were impenetrable, and the city had been stocked with enough food to last many years. Water, of course, was no problem, as the Euphrates flowed through it. Herodotus continues,

“The siege dragged on, no progress was made, and Cyrus was beginning to despair of success. Then somebody suggested or he himself thought up the following plan: he stationed part of his force at the point where the Euphrates flows into the city and another contingent at the opposite end where it flows out, with orders to both to force an entrance along the river-bed as soon as they saw that the water was shallow enough. Then, taking with him all his non-combatant troops, he withdrew to the spot where Nitocris had excavated the lake (which was then a marsh) and in this way [reopening the canal] so greatly reduced the depth of water in the actual bed of the river that it became fordable, and the Persian army, which had been left at Babylon for the purpose, entered the river, now only deep enough to reach about the middle of a man’s thigh, and, making their way along it, got into the town. . . [Par. 191]

The Babylonians themselves say that owing to the great size of the city the outskirts were captured without the people in the centre knowing anything about it; there was a festival going on, and they continued to dance and enjoy themselves, until they learned the news the hard way. That, then, is the story of the first capture of Babylon.” [Par. 191]

Very little of this history is recorded in Daniel’s account of the fall of Babylon. Yet Isaiah foresaw the drying up of the river (Isaiah 44:27). Jeremiah had written a prophetic scroll describing the fall of Babylon, which he gave to Seraiah with instructions given in Jer. 51:63,

63 And it will come about as soon as you finish reading this scroll, you will tie a stone to it and throw it into the middle of the Euphrates.

No doubt this book was discovered when Cyrus’ troops marched through the dry river bed into the city.  Perhaps Cyrus investigated this scroll and discovered that it was written by a prophet in Jerusalem many years earlier. Perhaps this was part of his motivation to allow the people of Judah to return to their old land and to rebuild Jerusalem.