Cyrus the Great Day: Between Iranian and Islamic Identities

Raz Zimmt analyzes the public discourse surrounding the events of Cyrus the Great Day in Iran.

2016 Cyrus Day Celebrations
Cyrus Day Celebrations in 2016. Credit: Varaste900 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.


Cyrus the Great Day, which was marked by Iranians at the end of October, is intended to commemorate the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (539-331 B.C.E.). The custom, which has developed in the last decade but which is not included in Iran’s official calendar, is contrary to the regime’s continued efforts to emphasize the religious-Islamic component of Iranian identity, rather than the cultural-Persian component. Not for nothing did the authorities impose restrictions on the holding of ceremonies near the tomb of Cyrus. These restrictions provoked broad public discourse about the character of Iranian national identity, and opposition from segments of Iranian society, all of which was reflected on Iranian social media.

Cyrus the Great Day is celebrated on October 29. This is the date on which, according to a number of historical sources, King Cyrus began his conquest of Babylon.  During the Pahlavi period prior to the Islamic Revolution (1979), Cyrus was highlighted in an attempt to legitimize the monarchy, and create a historical anchor and ideological justification for its policy. After the revolution, the Islamic regime sought to place religion at the center of Iranian national identity, as a reaction to the blatant secularism of the royalist regime, and its efforts to emphasize Iran’s pre-Islamic past. Nevertheless, the Iranian regime was sometimes willing to accept the pre-Islamic cultural characteristics of Iranian identity, especially after the June 1989 death of Ayatollah Khomeini.[1] Indeed, despite the reservations that Iran’s conservative religious establishment has about pre-Islamic traditions, such as the Persian New Year (“Noruz”) and the traditional Charshanbeh Suri ceremony for expelling evil on the eve of the New Year, they nevertheless remain.

On Cyrus Day in October 2016, violent clashes broke out between the security forces and thousands of civilians who came to the tomb compound in Pasargadae, Fars province, in southwestern Iran, after several citizens began to shout slogans against the regime. In 2017, the Iranian authorities announced in advance their intention to prohibit the gathering of civilians at the tomb, and even erected roadblocks on the main roads leading to the compound. The Revolutionary Guards commander in Fars province warned that the security forces and judiciary would not allow “anti-revolutionary forces” to hold events near the tomb and undermine the stability of the district.[2]

In response, Iranian users launched a campaign on social media to encourage citizens to participate in events marking the day, and protest the restrictions imposed by the authorities. The users presented Cyrus as an exemplary figure and as a national symbol worthy of commemoration, and pointed to his historical importance. They condemned the regime’s efforts to prevent the ceremonies in his memory, and uploaded pictures and videos documenting the checkpoints erected on the main roads leading to the tomb. In some photographs, people can be seen continuing through the mountains on foot to reach the compound. Many users compared the restrictions imposed by the regime on the events of Cyrus Day to the numerous and costly efforts that it invested during October to encourage pilgrimages to the holy sites of Shi'a in Iraq during Arba‘een, the forty days after the Ashura fast. One of the users complained that the authorities provide pilgrims with free taxis to Iraq, while they close the roads and dispatch helicopters to monitor citizens traveling to the tomb of Cyrus.[3]

The authorities’ efforts to prevent the holding of Cyrus Day ceremonies prompted widespread public discourse on social media. Opponents of the regime took advantage of the occasion to protest the Iranian regime, and undermine its legitimacy. They presented the restrictions on holding ceremonies as an expression of the regime’s fear of the citizen protests, and the rule of the clerics as anti-Iranian because it seeks to obscure the national and historical heritage of the people. “Today it has been clearly shown that the Islamic Republic and Iran are not the same,” one user tweeted.[4]

On the other hand, supporters of the regime portrayed Cyrus Day as a “Western-Zionist” plot, in which opponents of the regime are partners, aimed at undermining the foundations of the government in Iran and harming Islam.[5] In response to the efforts to commemorate Cyrus the Great, the conservative cleric and member of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Abbas Ka‘abi, said that if Cyrus were to rise from his grave and see the power of Iran under Islam, he would hasten to convert to Islam.[6] In his Friday sermon held in Shiraz, Ayatollah Asadollah Imani strongly denounced the day, and claimed that enemies of the regime and Iranian monarchists had created a “fake event” without any historical basis whose roots are “Biblical (Jewish)[7] and Israelis,” in order to sow division among the people of Iran.[8]

The discourse that developed on Iranian social media following the restrictions imposed by the Iranian regime on Cyrus Day events highlighted the public debate on the regime’s policy regarding Iranian national identity. Sociologist Mehran Solati compared the efforts to prevent commemoration of Cyrus to the Shah’s failed attempts to erase Islamic identity. Solati pointed out that the growing preoccupation with Cyrus Day on social media networks proves that the regime’s policy only reinforces the pre-Islamic cultural identity of Iranian citizens. He said that instead of trying to integrate the various components of Iranian identity, the regime is instead trying to “Islamize” Iranian society. As a result, the Tomb of Cyrus has (metaphorically) became a substitute for the Ka`bah in Mecca as a focus of prayer for some Iranian young people.[9] The website Tabnak also pointed to the growing importance that many Iranians attribute to the commemoration of Cyrus, and the ineffectiveness of the steps taken by the regime against the ceremonies in his memory. An op-ed claimed that not only does the Iranian people’s respect for the founder of the Persian Empire not endanger Iran’s national security, but that it could also be used to strengthen national solidarity and national sentiment among the country’s citizens.[10]

The discourse that developed on Iranian social media around the events of Cyrus Day provides further proof of the strength of the national-cultural component in the Iranian identity, which exists simultaneously with the religious-Islamic component, and sometimes even surpasses it. The existence and even the strengthening of pre-Islamic traditions in the Islamic Republic indicate that many Iranians, especially young people, prefer to focus on the unique Persian aspects of their national identity, rather than the Shi’i-Islamic ones. In this process, online social networks in Iran serve as a means of exploiting historical events and symbols to construct a national narrative and identity that compete with those that the regime is trying to encourage.

[1] In this context see, Menahem Merhavy, “National identity and historical heritage in the shadow of King Cyrus,” in Liora Hendelman-Baavur, ed. Iran Then and Now‏:‏ Society, Religion, and‏ ‏Politics (Tel Aviv, 2017), pp. 149-163.

[2] “The Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary will not permit any program with anti-revolutionary content in Fars,” Fars News Agency, October 28, 2017.

[3] @gholledena, Twitter. 9.11.17.

[4] @shahinmilani81, Twitter. 9.11.17.

[5] @EA1367, Twitter. 9.11.17.

[6] @kabi_abbas, Twitter. 9.11.17.

[7] King Cyrus and his decree are reported in the Book of Ezra, 4:1-4.

[8] “Friday preacher in Shiraz: ‘The source for the false event marking the 7th of Aban [October 31] as Cyrus Day is Biblical and Israeli,” Fars News Agency, October 28, 2017.

[9]The question is commemorating Cyrus,” @solati_mehran, Telegram.October 27, 2017.

[10] “The beginning of unofficial effort to prevent the commemoration of Cyrus,” Tabnak, October 28, 2017.