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The Middle East: Unexpected Birthplace of Tolerance

“Sharia law! Islamic terrorism! Women in burqas are an affront to human rights!”

These are the kind of phrases that have come to define the Middle East in media outlets like Fox News. Americans are either presented the man in Iran stepping on a flag and screaming “death to America” or a Saudi in a turban doing a wheelie in a Ferrari. We are often shown the turbulence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that results in their experience of pain and death through the intolerance along the lines of ethnicity and religion. However, instead of focusing on this extremism of ideology or opulence, is it not possible that these ethnic groups are capable of something more than stereotypes, intolerance or conflicts?

Between 500 B.C. to 651 A.D., the Middle East, under the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian Empires, was a place where equality and tolerance of religious and racial diversity actually flourished. The Greco-Romans believed that women should be limited to roles within the management of their families and the estate. Moreso in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, women had very little influence, their value was tied to birthing children and they held very few actual legal rights and freedoms. On the other hand, their contemporaries in the Middle East had tangible power. These women could be anything: landowners, empresses, businesswomen. For example, Artemisia, a female general, recently was a character in the last “300” movie. She led Xerxes’s naval forces in the invasion of Greece and that story survived thousands of years to end up on IMAX.

While queens have always existed, Achaemenid women actually acted as regents for sons who were too young to run the empire. Later, two Sassanian women became the full-fledged leaders of a nation considered a global superpower. Boran and Azarmidokht were daughters of Khosrow II who, being his last living relatives, ascended to the throne successively after his death. Although their rule was short, lasting from 630-632 AD, it was well received. It is important to note that this was nearly a thousand years before an individual like Queen Elizabeth I (1558) ruled a dominant nation.

Unlike other civilizations where a man could divorce his wife but not vice versa, in the ancient Middle East, a wife could also divorce her husband. If a woman decided to have children, the state would even pay the maternity leave, so it did not interfere with her employment. Traditionally, boys have always been preferred over girls. It will be noted that Rafie Hamidpour writes in his book, “Betrayed by Sons of the West,” that “documents from the Achaemenid archives indicate that mothers with baby boys were given twice more rations compared to mothers with newborn girls.” Although there is a preference towards boys, it is still far more considerate than the U.S. position where parental leave is seen as an afterthought.

Beyond gender rights and equality there was also an emphasis on tolerance towards different religions and ethnicities. The Cyrus Cylinder (539 B.C.), an ancient clay cylinder, has been hailed as the world’s first declaration of human rights. It captures a culture of racial and religious tolerance. After a period of war with Babylon, the Cylinder established peace and abolished slavery with translated statements like: “The people of Babylon . . . the shameful yoke was removed from them.” More than just the emancipation of the Babylonians, it makes specific reference to the captive Jews, who were also enslaved in Babylon.

Written in both the cylinder and the Hebrew Book of Ezra, Cyrus supported the Jews in returning to their homeland of Jerusalem. Further demonstrating his religious tolerance, Cyrus restored the local cults of Babylon by allowing the statues of gods to return to their shrines and allowed for the construction of the Second Temple.

In an interview, UCI professor Touraj Daryaee explains that this quality “goes into the heart of the spirit of this Achaemenid imperial rule. That you may have cities that are democratic, oligarchic — you don’t meddle with that tradition. You let people have their own tradition. That is very different from the preceding empires.”

There is more to the history and culture of the Middle East than the dysfunction and destruction we are shown in the media. While Greece was the birthplace of democracy, the Middle East was arguably the birthplace of tolerance and equality. It was a source of inspiration that trickled down over the centuries to great western thinkers. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, a biography of Cyrus, provided the inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince and both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams owned copies which they annotated and which now rest in their respective libraries. This culture even made its way into influencing the founders of our nation. Beyond all of the problems that we see, ultimately the Middle East has a tradition deep at its core which believes in equality, tolerance and acceptance and is so far different from the perversion we tend to be shown.

Syrus Sadvandi is a third-year international studies major. He can be reached at