Past Masters: Qishti-Marduk

[This is the first post in a new series on Past Masters of world literature.]

This series of blog posts will focus on Past Masters of literature. In it, I hope to highlight my favorite writers and analyze their writing technique.

This series differs from my Rare B Sides series in that Rare B Sides covers individual works (a novel, play or story), whereas Past Masters will cover an individual author’s entire body of work, along with a bit about their life and times. It’s entirely possible that I will feature an author’s Rare B Side before following it up with a Past Masters post covering their work as a whole.

Got it? OK, let’s roll.


With a start of a new series, it’s fitting to start at the beginning. In this case, I’m tackling one of the earliest writers recorded, Qishti-Marduk. Qishti was the scribe, if not exactly author, of the Cyrus Cylinder.

Cyrus-Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder (to steal from Wikipedia, see quotes below) is “an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several fragments, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script” in the name of the Persian king Cyrus the Great. The cylinder is significant because it records the history of early Persia and may “be evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity.”

For those who want more, Neil MacGregor does a great job of describing the cylinder and its history in this video.

The object, and the writing, lives on.

I was able to catch the cylinder at an exhibit at the Sackler Museum in Washington, D.C. They had the cylinder, a few other ancient Persian artifacts and Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (a biography of the Persian king by Xenophon).

As a writer, I couldn’t help but wonder who actually inscribed the darn thing. I assumed it couldn’t have been Cyrus. Bosses are usually too busy to deal with the details. And in a side display case I found it: Qishti-Marduk. We know, because he(?) signed the last line of the cylinder:

45. […a secure throne and an enduring rei]gn, [and may I …… in] your heart forever.

a. [Written and check]ed [from a…]; (this) tablet (is) of
b. Qishti-Marduk, son of […].

That really made me smile. Here’s this scribe, writing away, trying to please his boss/publisher (don’t we all?), making these little incisions line after line in wet clay, making sure they were all perfect. And at the end, he takes the liberty to put in his own name, knowing it will travel along with Cyrus’s down the ages.

The guy even did his own proofreading, making him the original Indie author.

Anyway, with all this attention on the mighty Cyrus, I thought I would write this post to honor his scribe, whom everybody has seemed to overlook.

As for the writing itself, Qishti does one interesting thing despite the restrictions of this highly stylized art form. He starts off the narrative in third person (from the perspective of the god, Marduk).

[When … Mar]duk, king of the whole of heaven and earth, the ……. who, in his …, lays waste his…….

[………………………………………………………………] broad? in intelligence, …… who inspects (?) the wor]ld quarters (regions)

[……………………………………………………..…]his [first]born (=Belshazzar), a low person, was put in charge of his country,

but [……………………………………………………………………….] he set [a (…) counter]feit over them.

To replace the corrupt King Belzhazzar, Marduk searches the face of the Earth for one just king. Finally, he finds Cyrus and calls “him by name” to be a king of kings, an emperor of many peoples, a shahanshah (شاه‎).  It’s a new kind of leadership, a man anointed to govern not just his own tribe, but many tribes and peoples. Suddenly, the narrative switches to first person, but this time it’s from Cyrus’s perspective.

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world…

It’s a nice touch and one that intimately, seamlessly links the human and divine natures of ancient kingship through the switch from 3rd person to 1st person narrative. I also feel it has a writer’s—not a King’s—touch. Of course, the boss would have to endorse it, but it’s nice to see the idea made it through the rough draft to the final proof. 

The exhibit ends in DC soon, see it if you can. If not, the cylinder is headed to Texas, New York and California before it heads back to Britain. The tour dates are here.


Johnny Cash did a great song about the wicked King Belzhazzar, adversary of Cyrus. Apparently, it was the first song he sang at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee when he was looking for his first big break. Enjoy.

 

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