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Cyrus Cylinder: Ancient Persia Foreshadowed Modern Values

By Lea Terhune | Staff Writer | 12 March 2013
Inscribed clay barrel (The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Cyrus Cylinder, on a U.S. tour courtesy of the British Museum, is a document inscribed on fired clay in Babylon, Mesopotamia, after 539 B.C. The text is written in cuneiform.

Washington — The Cyrus Cylinder has left its British Museum repository for its first U.S. tour, beginning at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington. “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia” showcases this 2,600-year-old archeological treasure amid other artifacts from the Achaemenid Empire (550–331 B.C.) founded by the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great.

Among the most important objects in world history, the cylinder “in its time declared a new way of ruling in which disparate races and people were not oppressed into conformity but respected for diversity,” Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Director Julian Raby told journalists at the preview.

The baked clay cylinder inscribed with cuneiform script is small in size — only 22.86 centimeters long and 10 centimeters in diameter — but vast in influence. The principles that Cyrus established outlasted his empire into the present day. The respect for diversity of race and religion evident in the text ultimately reached Europe and the Founders of the United States of America.

The cylinder was hidden for centuries, buried in a building foundation, until its discovery in Babylon in 1879 by British Museum archeologists. Although it is missing about one-third of its text, fragments discovered in a British Museum drawer helped reconstruct the text. Cuneiform scholar I.F. Finkel not only recognized text from the cylinder, but the particular scribe’s calligraphy. The fragments are considered evidence that the text was copied and circulated.

Typical for the era, the text begins with criticism of the previous ruler, Nabonidus (555–539 B.C.), who perverted ritual practices and abused the people. “He did yet more evil to his city every day,” it reads, describing how the chief Babylonian god Marduk, after seeking “an upright king” in all countries, “took the hand of Cyrus” and proclaimed him king “over all of everything.”

A first-person message from Cyrus himself follows, stating he abolished slave labor and allowed people deported by earlier rulers because they worshipped different gods to return. He restored their damaged temples and gods, asking for their prayers.

Unlike ancient Chinese and Egyptians, who wrote much about what they did and how well they did it, British Museum Director Neil MacGregor said, “The Persians just did it. They don’t write about how they did it. They left no memoirs” about their great lives and times. We know what happened from Greek and Jewish sources.

The Cyrus Cylinder has special significance to Jews, because it alludes to their return to Jerusalem, which is supported by biblical references. In the Book of Isaiah (44:28), God says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, Let it be rebuilt, and of the temple, Let its foundations be laid,” and goes on to call Cyrus “anointed” by God. Other references may be found in 2 Chronicles and the Book of Ezra.

Cyrus held sway over the largest known early empire. It eventually encompassed the entire eastern Mediterranean, extending from Libya in the west to Afghanistan in the east. Cyrus had to devise a system to rule this unprecedented diverse, multilingual, multicultural and multireligious empire. Tolerance was the hallmark of this efficient system, which lasted 200 years, until Alexander the Great conquered the region.

The values articulated by Cyrus influenced Europe and the United States, conveyed there by Classical Greek writers Herodotus and Xenophon, admirers of Cyrus’ leadership. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, a partly fictional account of the ruler’s life, was read by the Founders of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson is thought to have possessed two copies, one of which is on display in the current exhibit at the Sackler Gallery. “Only the United States takes up the Persian model,” MacGregor said. “Jefferson constructs a state … which supports the idea of faith but doesn’t endorse any particular one.”

The Cyrus Cylinder is, MacGregor said, as relevant today as when it was created; it is “a document about regime change, and is a meditation on how you govern a society.”

MacGregor characterized the Smithsonian and the British Museum as “sister institutions” founded on the same principles: to gather important objects from around the world for everybody to contemplate and learn “histories the world needs to know to make sense of the world now.”

The exhibition, which has significant funding from the Iran Heritage Foundation, will travel to Houston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Clay tablet with men in chariot chasing lion (The Trustees of the British Museum)

This impression of a famous Achaemenid chalcedony cylinder seal (5th-6th century B.C.) depicts King Darius, third king after Cyrus, hunting with the winged god Ahuramazda hovering above.