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When Death Calls, Even Kings and Queens Must Obey

David Langness | Apr 19, 2023

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Apr 19, 2023

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

If you’d like to go on an interesting journey back in time, try this: see if you can come up with the name of the ruler, two hundred years ago, who ruled the local area where you now live. 

In the early 1800s, in my town in Northern California, that leader was probably a remote Spanish land-grant governor or a tribal Indigenous chief. I have no idea who those people were. I don’t even know their names.

Do you know the names of the people who ruled your town or city a few centuries ago? Few of us do – which should give us an idea about how temporal and temporary earthly power can be.

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People may have bowed down to those rulers at the time, or feared them, or even venerated them as demigods for a while – but a long view of history entirely forgets, dismisses, and disregards them. As Abdu’l-Baha wrote in a letter, time buries everyone – the weak, the meek, and the strong:

Know thou, verily, I say unto thee that the conditions of this mortal world, even if it be the kingship of the whole expanse of this globe, is ephemeral. It is an illusion. It is ended in nothing; neither does it contain any results, nor, in the estimation of God, is it equal to the wing of a mosquito.

Where are the kings and the queens? Where are the palaces and their mistresses? Where are the imperial thrones and jewelled crowns? Where are the mighty rulers of Persia, Greece and Rome? Verily, their palaces are in ruin and desolation, their thrones destroyed, and their crowns thrown to the dust. 

Recently, in just one of many examples, archaeologists unearthed the burial chamber of an Egyptian royal named Queen Naert at a site next to the pyramid of King Teti, first of the Sixth Dynasty rulers of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, during the period when the Egyptian pyramids were built. 

At first, the scientists found no name inside the pyramid, but last year further excavations in the complex – which includes a stone temple and three mud-brick storehouses that contained burial offerings and tools intended to accompany the Queen in her journey to the afterlife – revealed her name etched into a wall and written on a fallen obelisk near the tomb’s entrance. 

Zahi Hawass, one of the Egyptologists who discovered her tomb and Egypt’s former Minister of Antiquities, said “I’d never heard of this queen before. Therefore, we add an important piece to Egyptian history, about this queen.”

Beyond our natural fascination with these past rulers, we can learn something profoundly spiritual from their tombs. Abdu’l-Baha, in a talk he gave in Paris early in the 20th century, said:

All creatures are dependent upon God, however great may seem their knowledge, power and independence.

Behold the mighty kings upon earth, for they have all the power in the world that man can give them, and yet when death calls they must obey, even as the peasants at their gates. 

Did you ever hear about the time Diogenes, the famous truth-seeking ancient Greek philosopher, met Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt? It didn’t go so well for the king.

Diogenes, known far and wide for his stoic philosophy, which rejected the materialism and the artificial constraints of Greek society, lived in a barrel on the street in Corinth. He had given up everything he owned and become voluntarily homeless to show his disdain for materialism. Plutarch wrote that Alexander the Great, who sought out and was thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, stood in front of a seated Diogenes and asked if he could do anything for him.

“Yes,” Diogenes said. “Stand out of my sunlight.”

The philosopher, whose attention was fixed on a pile of human bones in front of him, continued staring intently at the pile, and Alexander the Great, the son of King Phillip II, the most powerful man in the world at the time and the pupil of Aristotle, asked Diogenes what he was doing.

“I am searching for the bones of your father,” Diogenes said, “but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.”

RELATED: Seven Steps to a Spiritual Second Birth

This illustrative story, apocryphal or not, has survived so long because it tells an important truth. In life our stations may be vastly different; but in death we become equals. Earthly wealth, fame, power, pomp, and circumstance mean nothing in the grave. Baha’u’llah wrote:

Gazing upon those who sleep beneath the gravestones, embosomed in the dust, could one ever distinguish the sovereign’s crumbling skull from the subject’s mouldering bones? Nay, by Him Who is the King of kings! Could one discern the lord from the vassal, or those that enjoyed wealth and riches from those who possessed neither shoes nor mat? By God! Every distinction hath been erased, save only for those who upheld the right and who ruled with justice.

So when we hear about a new archaeological discovery, where scientists uncover evidence of a previously-unknown monarch, it can help us evaluate the relative importance of our rulers today. They matter to us, of course, because those leaders can determine much about our contemporary reality – but in the long run, as Baha’u’llah said, only those “who ruled with justice” will even be remembered.

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