The Cyrus Cylinder in USA – Human Rights an Ancient Concept


The Cyrus Cylinder. Baked clay. Achaemenid, 539–538 B.C. Excavated in Babylon, Iraq, in 1879. British Museum 90920. © Trustees of the British Museum

The Cyrus Cylinder revered by people all around the world as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples, different cultures and different faiths, is one of the most famous surviving icons from the ancient world.

It was discovered in modern Iraq in 1879 during a British Museum excavation and has been housed in the British Museum since. There is also a copy on display in the United Nations Building, New York.

The Cyrus Cylinder is 22.86cm in length barrel-shaped and covered all over with a proclamation by Persia’s ancient King Cyrus the Great (600 or 576-530 BC). It has been inscribed in cuneiform script, the earliest form of writing. It is a rare and wonderful object of enormous historical and spiritual significance and of inestimable value to the whole of humankind. Many scholars and academics across the world believe it was the first example of a bill of human rights.

Sculptural Relief of King Cyrus the Great in the Sydney Olympic Park

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said: “You could almost say that the Cyrus Cylinder is a history of the Middle East in one object and it is a link to a past, which we all share and to a key moment in history that has shaped the world around us.

Objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space and this object must be shared as widely as possible.”

Persian Kings were all about expanding their empire and growing their economy. The proclamation on the cylinder was in its day as life changing as those that happened during the lifetime of English-American political activist, author, political theorist and revolutionary Thomas Paine (1737-1809).

Paine wrote a very simple, but powerful prelude to his book about ‘The Rights of Man’ in 1791-2 and addressed it to the President, George Washington in America. The human rights he was talking about were the ancient concept developed nearly six centuries before the Christ event during King Cyrus’s reign.

Thomas Paine

Dedicating his book to the President Thomas Paine said: I present you a small treatise in defense of those principles of freedom, which your exemplary virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish. That the Rights of Man may become as universal as your benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old, is the prayer of
Your much obliged, and Obedient humble Servant,

When he did this the whole western world was on the brink of great social and cultural change.

The principles attached to the rise of the social and philosophical movement known as the ‘Enlightenment’ had been debated and discussed for decades and were now transforming the shape and ongoing purpose of western society.

The idea was that in order to overcome the ills of society, to take up the opportunities or surmount the challenges of social and cultural diversity then both reason and education must prevail.

Paine hoped that he was really living in an ‘Age of Reason’, when he openly opposed the execution of King Louis XVI of France during the French Revolution, which otherwise in principle he supported.

The Darius Cylinder Seal and Modern Impression Showing the King in a Chariot Hunting Lions Chalcedony. Obtained in Egypt, acquired 1835. Achaemenid, 6th–5th century B.C. British Museum, London (89132). © Trustees of the British Museum

It seems however that he was very alone with his idea that in order for humankind to arrive at a point where they truly have freedom they must first practice true forgiveness.

Votive Plaque Showing a Priest Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid period, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (123949). © Trustees of the British Museum

Theory and practice are often poles apart.

The ancient Greek historian, soldier, mercenary, philosopher Xenophon (430 – 354 BC) said of Cyrus The Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the World “And those who were subject to him, he treated with esteem and regard, as if they were his own children, while his subjects themselves respected Cyrus as their ‘Father’ … What other man but ‘Cyrus’, after having overturned an empire, ever died with the title of ‘The Father’ from the people whom he had brought under his power? For it is plain fact that this is a name for one that bestows, rather than for one that takes away!”

King Cyrus had just captured the city of Babylon in 539 BC when he had his scribes record his words to the people on a baked clay cylinder. It records ‘that aided by the god Marduk Cyrus captured Babylon without a struggle, restored shrines dedicated to different gods, and repatriated deported peoples who had been brought to Babylon. The text does not mention specific religious groups but it is thought that the Jewish peoples were amongst those deported by Nebuchadnezzar. the previous ruler of Babylon.

King Cyrus however was very different. He encouraged freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and he also allowed deported people to return to their homelands.

This is a depiction of the biblical character, Emperor Cyrus the Great of Persia, who permitted the Hebrews to return to the Holy Land and rebuild God’s Temple by Jean Fouquet (1420-1480) 1470

The Bible reports that deported Jews returned from Babylon during the reign of Cyrus and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Indeed Cyrus is revered in the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect enshrined in the cylinder proclamation. These were enlightened acts, rare in antiquity’*

‘Cyrus the Great laid the foundations for the powerful Persian Achaemenid dynasty, which—under the subsequent reign of Darius the Great (522–486 B.C.)—stretched from Egypt to India, and from Arabia to the Aral Sea.

This first “world empire” shifted the ancient Near East’s political focus from Mesopotamia to Iran.  Innovative practices were crucial to administer such a vast and culturally diverse region. Key to Persian imperial success was a policy of religious and cultural tolerance, which fostered political stability’.

The tour debuted at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC on 9th March 2013 and is travelling on to the Museum of Fine Arts at Houston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York; the Asian Art Museum at San Francisco finally concluding at the J. Paul Getty Museum in the Getty Villa at Los Angeles in December 2013.

John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum and his curatorial colleagues at each of the venues will curate this amazing show.

This will be the first time this object has been seen in the US and the Iran Heritage Foundation supports the tour.

The Cyrus Cylinder will travel along with other objects, some sixteen in total, that reflect the innovative ideas put into practice during the Persian rule of the ancient Near East (550 BC – 331 BC). It was the largest empire the world had ever known until that point in history.

Omphalos Bowl with Winged Lions Silver. Persian Empire. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London (135571). © Trustees of the British Museum

Luxury goods were also being produced and some of these in the form of gold and silver bowls and jewellery will travel along with the cylinder, which will also include the famous seal of King Darius known as ‘The Great’ (522 – 486 BC).

Darius was the first King to mint coins, to build a canal that linked the Nile River to the Red Sea and he also reorganized how the administration of the Empire worked as well. King Darius’s seal is made of agate and engraved with a scene showing the King standing in a chariot and shooting arrows at lions.

Throughout the eighteenth century a healthy rivalry between men of style and action, who believed themselves rational, intelligent human beings, as well as informed rulers of taste provided the impetus required to create a whole new way of living in our world.

An enlightened man of the nineteenth century set small store by his own gratification equating honour with the greater good and a passionate pursuit of knowledge was only exceeded by his desire for more.

In the first half of the twentieth century man’s inhumanity to man set the world aflame for and set us back by forgetting that having respect for self and offering it to each other is the only way forward, if we are all to have a future.

During the ‘enlightenment’ in Europe the advancement of society and knowledge meant that all of its current theories and societal structures had to collapse and be replaced by new ideas.

Many thousands died in the process.

Gaining enlightenment…Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog – Caspar David Friedrich 1818

If we have now entered a period where it has to happen all over again then our next world view surely will need to carefully balance the friction between expectation and outcome. It will also have to fire up our curiosity and continue to edge us incrementally forward on a new pathway of discovery without violence. And, instead of the reduction of errors being seen as regressive, they will now have to be viewed as a hallmark of our success.

History has proved it is impossible for humanity to progress without fault. Life is far from being predictable or preordained. Creativity breakthroughs are often just an immediate response to events, that in hindsight, we may have ourselves changed. It’s still all about timing.

The lessons that have come out of New York since the 11th September 2001 have informed that thought. We would have to say the twenty first century did not start off well with such savage acts of terrorism but hopefully we have all grown from that experience.

Where there is greatness, great government or power, even great feeling or compassion, error also is great. We progress and mature by fault…’*

We all want to drink from the fountain of life, but will it run dry unless, by making good mistakes, we learn how to forgive those who vex us, so that together we can at least keep the cup half full?

Cultural exchanges between nations are vitally important in the complex and conflicted world we live in today. This exchange tour of such an important and iconic cultural treasure will provide the first opportunity for a wide US audience to engage with this unique object of such great global importance.

Let’s hope that we may see it here in Australia as well, travelling from state to state somewhere in the not too far distant future.

At the beginning of his television series, Wonders of the Universe, Professor Brian Cox offers us a chance to gain anew a sensibility for the wild, awe-inspiring and stupendous aspects of nature. Barely visible in the vastness of the mountain range he appears, much like the figure of the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, like one grain of sand in the completely full hour glass of time. Time, which he explains is always moving one way, and one way only…ever forward.

We must remember too that we cannot change ourselves without changing each other.

Behaviour change only happens through social diffusion and there is no way of working out or knowing just where and when our influence will end. ‘

We need to use our self-awareness to shape our environment and work together to change our behaviours for the greater good.

What is to be hoped that in examining this wonderful object that many people will become engaged with it and gain an understanding of just how important it is for the debate about 21st century enlightenment to continue, perhaps by reiterating the words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead who said…Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012-2013

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia

Charting a New Empire
June 20–August 4, 2013

Travelling with the Cyrus Cylinder – Armlet. Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (124017). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Directors of each of the Museums where the Cyrus Cylinder will be on show have all have had a great deal to say about the exhibition and its historical, cultural and contemporary significance.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said, “You could almost say that the Cyrus Cylinder is A History of the Middle East in one object and it is a link to a past which we all share and to a key moment in history that has shaped the world around us.  Objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space and this object must be shared as widely as possible. I am delighted that it will travel to the US and am hugely grateful to both our US partners and the Iran Heritage Foundation for making this possible.”

John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum said, “The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning for the Ancient Near East. The Persian period, commencing in 550 BC, was not just a change of dynasty but also a time of change in the ancient world. Some of these changes and innovations are highlighted in the exhibition.”

Alireza Rastegar, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Iran Heritage Foundation America, said “Iran Heritage Foundation is proud to be partners with the British Museum and leading US venues in bringing this magnificent exhibition to the United States. The Cyrus Cylinder and its message of respect for diversity and universal human rights carries a timely message about tolerance for all of us today. We are very grateful to the Iranian American community who have supported us in this endeavour and are looking forward to a positive reception as the Cylinder tours the US.”

Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art said “For thousands of years, philosophers viewed Cyrus the Great as the paragon of the ‘Virtuous Ruler,’ and the Bible refers to him as ‘the anointed’ of the Lord, crediting him with permitting Jews to rebuild their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This magnanimous image inspired even the Founding Fathers of the United States. One of the goals of this exhibition is to encourage us to reflect that relations between Persians and Jews have not always been marked by the discord that disfigures the political map of the Near East today.

Late Babylonian clay tablet. Fine quality literary Late Babylonian script; every line ruled. One-line colophon, mentioning the scribe’s name, Qishti-Marduk or Iqish-Marduk. 539 – 538 BC courtesy British Museum

Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston said, “The Cyrus Cylinder tells a great story of human history. We are thrilled to be able to bring this touchstone of ancient civilization to Houston, and to present the Cyrus Cylinder and related objects in the context of our collections.”

Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: “The new world view enshrined by the Cyrus Cylinder and the objects in this exhibition remains as relevant today as it did several millennia ago. The tolerance embraced by the Cylinder’s text has been applauded throughout history and we at The Metropolitan Museum of Art are proud to share this message with our diverse international audience.”

Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, said, “The San Francisco Bay Area is home to both the signing of the United Nations Charter and the birth of the Free Speech Movement, major pillars supporting human rights and civil liberties. The Asian Art Museum is proud to partner with the British Museum and our US museum partners to bring the Cyrus Cylinder to San Francisco. This important object not only provides a foundation for understanding the ancient world, but also a touchstone for continued efforts to strive for common human freedoms.”

Alexander the Great visiting the Tomb of Cyrus the Great 1796 Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes French 1750 – 1819

Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said, “The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most important artifacts to have survived from the ancient world and we are delighted that it will be on view next fall to visitors at the Getty Villa, where it will be shown in the context of other artifacts and inscriptions from the period of the Achaemenian empire. More than any other document from the ancient world, this declaration by King Cyrus of the return of conquered nations to their settlements has a continuing relevance to the peoples of the Middle East and indeed throughout the world. As home to the largest community of Iranian Americans in the United States, I have no doubt that Los Angeles will thrilled by this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Additional Information: In 2010 the British Museum discovered two fragments of tablet in its extensive collection of cuneiform tablets, which had also been found in nineteenth century British Museum excavations in or near Babylon. These fragments were identified by experts at the Museum as being inscribed with parts of the same text as the Cylinder but do not belong to it. They show that the text of the Cylinder was probably a proclamation widely distributed across the Persian Empire.

Gift of Iran to the United Nations – Replica of the Cyrus Cylinder at United Nations Headquarters, New York, with translations of the text in Persian, English and French

When Alexander the Great looted and destroyed Persepolis, he paid a visit to the tomb of Cyrus. It is recorded that he commanded Aristobulus, one of his warriors, to enter the monument. Inside he found a golden bed, a table set with drinking vessels, a gold coffin, some ornaments studded with precious stones and an inscription of the tomb, which reads:

“Passer-by, I am Cyrus the Great, I have given the Persians an empire and I have ruled over Asia. So do not envy me for this tomb.”

Ref: Thomas Paine ‘The Rights of Man’ Being an Answer to Mr Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution

*Pontius Pilate in the movie Ben Hur

Read an Excellent Article 21st Century Enlightenment by Matthew Taylor, RSA London

Ref: Media Releases: British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

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