For the last 10 years or so, October 28 has been unofficially known as Cyrus the Great Day in Iran. Every year, groups of Iranians wishing to show their admiration for the founder of the ancient Persian Empire — praised in the Bible as the “anointed one” — gather around his tomb in Pasargad in Fars Province to celebrate his memory.
But this year, plainclothes agents put a stop to the new tradition. On Friday, October 28, agents surrounded Cyrus’s tomb as a crowd gathered, threatening people and physically attacking them in order to prevent them from getting close to the monument. Several arrests were reported, including satirist and actor Mohammad Reza Ali Payam.
Initially, the crowd chanted: “Cyrus is our father; Iran is our country,” but soon, some of the chants became political, and criticized the policies of the Islamic Republic: “Never sleep Cyrus: Iran has no father;” “Not Gaza nor Lebanon; My life for Iran;” “I am Iranian; I do not worship the Arabs;” and “Freedom of thought cannot flow from beards.” According to one eyewitness, government agents tried to drown out the chanting by blaring music from loudspeakers.
“The people who were there consider Cyrus the Great to be Iran’s spiritual father and believe that there must be an official day for celebrating him,” the eyewitness told IranWire. “This was what most of the short speeches at the gathering demanded.”
- Fars province’s Revolutionary Prosecutor announced that the organizers of the gathering had been arrested and would be prosecuted
As October 28 approached, there were hints that Cyrus the Great Day might not be as uneventful as it had been in previous years. Official tourist companies from several provinces announced that trips to the site had been banned until after the unofficial holiday had passed. Soon after, however, Fars Tourist Organization denied the reports and said that people were free to visit the tomb in Pasargad anytime they chose.
After the unrest, hardliner Grand Ayatollah Hossein Nuri-Hamedani condemned the event, labeling those who took part to be “counter-revolutionary.” On Saturday, October 29, Fars province’s Revolutionary Prosecutor announced that the organizers of the gathering had been arrested and would be prosecuted.
Up until now, the government has ignored activists’ demands to officially declare October 28 as Cyrus the Great Day. “They are against naming this day for Cyrus the Great because the shah praised him,” said one of the activists. “After the revolution they said that whatever the shah had done was bad, so they ignore history and they ignore Cyrus.” The activist was referring to a celebration Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last king of Iran, organized in 1971, a celebration of 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. The festival, which took place from 12 to 16 October, included events around Cyrus’ mausoleum. A long list of royals, presidents and prime ministers from around the world attended the ceremonies. It faced immediate criticism from politicians and media around the world, including some Western press and Ayatollah Khomeini, who was then in exile in Iraq. He called it the "Devil's Festival".
In one of the 1971 events, the shah praised Cyrus the Great: “Cyrus! Today we are gathered around your eternal resting place to tell you: Sleep easy, for we are awake and we will stay awake forever to guard your proud inheritance.”
- Grand Ayatollah Hossein Nuri-Hamedani condemned the event
In his condemnation this week, Ayatollah Nuri-Hamedani echoed these words, and the words of Ayatollah Khomeini, who declared that those who cry out for Cyrus were counter-revolutionaries. “I am surprised that they can gather around Cyrus’ tomb and chant slogans for Cyrus that we voice for the Great Leader of the Revolution,” he told a group of Ministry of Defense employees. It was after this speech that Ali Salehi, the Revolutionary Prosecutor, reported the arrests and claimed that the “organizers” had been under surveillance by security and intelligence agencies.
The Cyrus celebrations also coincide with the birthday of former Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who turned 56 this year. On Friday, some Iranians posted videos that featured people chanting “Happy birthday, prince!” Reza Pahlavi posted one such video on his Facebook page, and thanked people who had posted the film, declaring that it was his “best birthday present in years.”
Mr. “Simpleton” Goes To Jail
Among those attacked and arrested was the poet, satirist and actor Mohammad Reza Ali Payam, who is also known as Mr. Haloo (“Simpleton”). He was so badly beaten during his arrest that he was need of emergency medical care and then hospitalized. Payam has been arrested twice before for speaking out against injustice and corruption in the Islamic Republic. He was released on March 2016 after spending 10 months at Evin Prison.
The news of his arrest was reported by Payam’s son on Friday; soon after, Payam reported on his Instagram page that he had been released. “October 28, the Day of Cyrus the Great,” he wrote on his page. “A few minutes of talking with people. Harshly beaten by three powerful [agents]. Interrogations, interrogations, interrogations. Arrest without lunch or dinner. Nervous spasms and emergency transfer to the hospital. Uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, until now that I am wandering in the streets of Shiraz and worrying about those who are still [detained]. My sympathies for their families, who are gathered outside the detention center.” He added that agents have yet to return his phone to him.
Undoubtedly, other accounts of arrests will follow. Islamic Republic officials are unlikely to treat those arrested kindly, especially where chants showing support for the monarchy are concerned. Any such gatherings will face even tougher crackdowns in the future, as authorities will be keen to ensure celebrations of history follow strict guidelines and are in keeping with the values and ethos of the Islamic Republic.