Number 80 ● January 16, 2017


Cyrus Day – A Tradition in the Making

Menahem Merhavi*


On 29 October, there was heavy traffic on the roads leading to Pasargadae, the kind Iranians areused to seeing in Tehran, but not on the remote plain, some 140 km north of Shiraz. Thousands of Iranians gathered for a Cyrus Day rally that combined voices of protest, nationalist slogans, and some exotic tribesmen in traditional attire. Another element present, to the chagrin of many, was the watchful eye of plainclothes security agents of the Revolutionary Guards. Soon enough, some demonstrators began chanting criticism of the Islamic Republic and a few were arrested. This did not stop the gathering which lasted most of the day, in what seems to be national festival in the making.


Pasargadae appears to be re-entering the symbolic repertoire of today’s Iranians. After years of slumber, and despite the problematic legacy of the Pahlavis’ lavish celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy, the site has regained popularity in the last decade. What started with somewhat obscure gatherings to celebrate Nowruz in March, has become a recurring ritual. Two processes contributed to this “invented tradition,” to use a termed coined by Eric Hobasbawm and Terence Ranger. The first is the Islamic Republic coming to terms with pre-Islamic symbols, a process which has gained momentum since the late 1990’s. The second is more specific and local, the controversy stirred by the plan to build the Sivan Dam in the early 2000’s, a project that many feared would end anger the ruins of Pasargadae, including the tomb of Cyrus the Great, and possibly destroy them. Petitions, demonstrations and an online campaign to prevent construction of the dam were a rallying call for many who wished to display love for Iran and its legacy. Beginning in 2008 with a few hundred people, an increasingly large crowd gathers at Pasargadae every year on Nowruz, and calls for its preservation. They perform Nowruz rites, spread the famous haft-sin that symbolize the festival on a mat in front of the tomb, and celebrate at a site that represents the greatness of ancient Iran.Celebrating the Iranian New Year at the tomb of Cyrus the Great suggests an alternative foundation of affiliation, rather than the Shi’ite Islam cultivated by the Islamic Republic. In recent years, another date has augmented the call for preserving the site: 7 Aban on the Iranian calendar (29 October) has been declared “Cyrus Day” (ruz-e kurush).


Unlike Nowruz, which enjoys historical depth and widespread recognition in Iran and beyond, Cyrus Day is a novelty, recently introduced to the Iranian calendar, presumably commemorating Cyrus’ entrance to Babylon in the aftermath of its conquest in 539 BCE.  It is yet to receive full recognition by the authorities in Iran, who seem to be assessing the popularity of this upstart national rite, before they decide which side to take.


Cyrus Day was introduced in the early 2000’s and has been gaining momentum ever since.[1] In recent years,a few thousand people have rallied atPasargadae on the designated date, causing traffic jams on the single-lane road leading to the site. Following a grassroots initiative, the idea of establishing a day in honor of Cyrus was promoted by Esfandiyar Rahim Masha’i, former President Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff.[2] Masha’i headed the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization, a role he filled in an activist way, promoting controversial initiatives regarded by the ultra-conservatives as too nationalistic.[3] Another partner in the promotion of Cyrus Daywas the Department of Literature at Tehran University, which launched an exhibit on Cyrus Day around the World in 2001. The students’ association of the department held another exhibit in 2003 with a clear call to establish a day in honor of Cyrus.[4] Archeologists, historians and scholars of classical literature who attended these exhibits-cum-conferences added an intellectual dimension to the demand to honor of the founder of Iran on the calendar of its modern descendant.[5]


During President Ahmadinejad’s term the establishment sought to promote the gathering at Pasargadae, maybe as a last-ditch attempt to neutralize its potential for becoming a national day that the opposition could highjack to criticize the Islamic Republic. Indeed, some characteristics of the gathering by the tomb of Cyrus the Great, such as the slogans recited, reveal its subversive nature. The slogans used were mostly in support of freedom, while others opposedIran’s involvement in the affairs of Arab countries: “Neither to Gaza, nor to Lebanon, I dedicate my soul to Iran alone.”[6]


The recent rally resonated with the dual legacies that the Pahlavis attributed to the figure of Cyrus. The chanting of nationalistic Iranian slogans, often with an anti-Arab component, was accompanied by the participation of minorities, including Arabs from Khuzestan and Kurds, who travelled the long distanceto Pasargadae to remind the crowd that Cyrus also left the world a legacy of tolerance.[7]Alongside his imperial credentials, Cyrus was also the monarch who freed the Jews from captivity, and made a declaration that became known as “the first declaration of human rights in world history.”


Beyond historical veracity and manipulation, Pasargadae embodies the intrinsic tension of Iranian identity, and the ambivalence and evolving approach of the Islamic Republic towards a legacy it once considered obsolete.

[4]روزنامه ايران، شماره 4926 به تاريخ 7/8/90، صفحه 28 (صفحه آخر)

[7] accessed 24.12.2016


 *Menahem Merhavi (PHD) is a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University. 

 T h e   A l l i a n c e   C e n t e r   f o r   I r a n i a n   S t u d i e s  ( A C I S )

Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel  

ACIS Iran Pulse no.82: "Mysticism in the Islamic Republic's Political Debate," by Elisheva Machlis, click here>  
ACIS Iran Pulse no.83: "The Recent Protests in Iran and the Cultural Revival of the Royal Past," by Liora Hendelman-Baavur,  click here>
BeeHive, a joint publication of the MDC and the ACIS, presents insights into Arabic, Turkish and Iranian social networks. For the April 2017 issue click here