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The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several fragments, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of theAchaemenid Persian king Cyrus the Great.
It dates from the 6th century BC and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon (now in Iraq) in 1879. It is owned by the British Museum, which sponsored the expedition that discovered the Cylinder.
The Cylinder was created following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, when the Persian army under Cyrus invaded and conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire, annexing it to the Persian Empire. The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus’s kingly virtues, listing his genealogy as a king from a line of kings. The deposed Babylonian king Nabonidus, who was defeated and deposed by Cyrus, is denounced as an impious oppressor of the people of Babylonia and his low-born origins are implicitly contrasted to Cyrus’s kingly heritage.
The victorious Cyrus is portrayed as having been chosen by the chief Babylonian god Marduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians. The text says that Cyrus was welcomed by the people of Babylon as their new ruler and entered the city in peace. It appeals to Marduk to protect and help Cyrus and his son Cambyses. It exalts Cyrus’s efforts as a benefactor of the citizens of Babylonia who improved their lives, repatriated displaced peoples and restored temples and cult sanctuaries across Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the region. It concludes with a description of the work of Cyrus in repairing the city wall of Babylon, in which he found a similar inscription by an earlier king of Babylon.
The Assyro–British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered the Cylinder during an excavation carried out for the British Museum. It had been placed as a foundation deposit in the foundations of the Esagila, the city’s main temple. According to the British Museum, the Cylinder reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms. Cyrus’s declaration stresses his legitimacy as king, and is a conspicuous statement of his respect for the religious and political traditions of Babylonia. It has widely been regarded as an instrument of ancient Mesopotamian propaganda, most likely created by the Babylonian priests of Marduk working at the behest of Cyrus.
The Cylinder gained new prominence in the late 1960s when the last Shah of Iran called it “the world’s first charter of human rights“.That interpretation has been disputed by many historians and has been characterised as anachronistic and tendentious, reflecting a misunderstanding of the Cylinder’s status as a generic foundation deposit. Nonetheless it became a key symbol of the Shah’s political ideology and is today regarded as part of Iran’s cultural identity.The Cylinder has also been linked to the repatriation of the Jews following their Babylonian captivity, a deed which the Book of Ezra attributes to Cyrus.A passage referring to the restoration of cult sanctuaries and repatriation of deported peoples has been widely interpreted as evidence of a general policy under which the Jews were allowed to return home. Some historians have disputed this interpretation, noting that it identifies only Mesopotamian sanctuaries, and makes no mention of Jews, Jerusalem or Judea.
Hormuzd Rassam discovered the Cylinder in March 1879 during a lengthy programme of excavations in Mesopotamia. His expedition followed on from an earlier dig carried out in 1850 by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who excavated three mounds in the same area but found little of importance. In 1877, Layard became the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia at the time. He helped Rassam, who had been his assistant in the 1850 dig, to obtain a firman (decree) from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to continue the earlier excavations. The firman was only valid for a year but a second firman, with much more liberal terms, was issued in 1878. It was granted for two years (through to 15 October 1880) with the promise of an extension to 1882 if required. The Sultan’s decree authorised Rassam to “pack and dispatch to England any antiquities [he] found … provided, however, there were no duplicates.” A representative of the Sultan was instructed to be present at the dig to examine the objects as they were uncovered.
With permission secured, Rassam initiated a large-scale excavation at Babylon and other sites on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum. He undertook the excavations in four distinct phases. In between each phase, he returned to England to bring back his finds and raise more funds for further work. The Cyrus Cylinder was found on the second of his four expeditions to Mesopotamia, which began with his departure from London on 8 October 1878. He arrived in his home town of Mosul on 16 November and travelled down theTigris to Baghdad, which he reached on 30 January 1879. During February and March, he supervised excavations on a number of Babylonian sites, including Babylon itself.
Plan of Babylon. The Cyrus Cylinder was buried in the foundations of Esagila, the main temple of Marduk, near the centre of the map, which Cyrus rededicated after conquering Babylon in 539 BC.
Hormuzd Rassam in Mosul ca. 1854. The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered during Rassam’s excavations in Babylon in February–March 1879.
Map of the site of Babylon as of 1829. Hormuzd Rassam’s team found the Cyrus Cylinder in the mound of Tell Amran-ibn-Ali (marked with an “E” at the centre of the map) under which lay the ruined Esagila temple.
He soon uncovered a number of important buildings, such as the Ésagila temple. This was a major shrine to the chief Babylonian godMarduk, although its identity was not fully confirmed until the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey‘s excavation of 1900.The excavators found a large number of business documents written on clay tablets and, buried in the temple’s foundations, the Cyrus Cylinder. Rassam gave conflicting accounts of where his discoveries were made. He wrote in his memoirs, Asshur and the land of Nimrod, that the Cylinder had been found in a mound at the southern end of Babylon near the Arab village of Jumjuma or Jimjima.However, in a letter sent on 20 November 1879 to Samuel Birch, the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, he wrote, “The Cylinder of Cyrus was found at Omran [Tell Amran-ibn-Ali] with about six hundred pieces of inscribed terracottas before I left Baghdad. He left Baghdad on 2 April, returning to Mosul and departing from there on 2 May for a journey to London which lasted until 19 June.
The discovery was announced to the public by Sir Henry Rawlinson, the President of the Royal Asiatic Society, at a meeting of the Society on 17 November 1879. He described it as “one of the most interesting historical records in the cuneiform character that has yet been brought to light”, though he erroneously described it as coming from the ancient city of Borsippa rather than Babylon.Rawlinson’s “Notes on a newly-discovered Clay Cylinder of Cyrus the Great” were published in the society’s journal the following year, including the first partial translation of the text.
The British Museum announced in January 2010 that two inscribed clay fragments, which had been in the Museum’s collection since 1881, had been identified as part of a cuneiform tablet that was inscribed with the same text as the Cyrus Cylinder. The fragments had come from the small site of Dailem near Babylon and the identification was made by Professor Wilfred Lambert, formerly of the University of Birmingham, and Dr Irving Finkel of the Museum’s Department of the Middle East.
A horse bone bearing cuneiform inscriptions apparently derived from the Cyrus Cylinder has also been discovered in China along with a second bone inscribed with an as yet unknown text. The bones were acquired by the Beijing Palace Museum in 1985. Their origin is unclear, but Irving Finkel has hypothesized that they may reflect a text inscribed or written in another format (perhaps leather or clay), derived from the Cyrus Cylinder’s text, though for some reason only one in twenty of the original cuneiform symbols were copied. Finkel suggests that this may indicate that the text (or even the original cylinder itself) was sent around the Persian Empire and was copied to make the bone’s inscription at some point.
A barrel-shaped cylinder of baked clay, the Cyrus Cylinder measures 22.5 centimetres (8.9 in) by 10 centimetres (3.9 in) at its maximum diameter. It was excavated in several fragments, having apparently broken apart in antiquity. Following restoration, today it exists in two main fragments, known as “A” and “B”, which were only reunited in 1972. The main body of the Cylinder, discovered by Rassam in 1879, is fragment “A”; the smaller fragment, “B”, is a section measuring 8.6 centimetres (3.4 in) by 5.6 centimetres (2.2 in). The latter fragment was acquired by J.B. Nies of Yale University from an antiquities dealer. Nies published the text in 1920.The fragment was apparently broken off the main body of the Cylinder during the original excavations in 1879 and was either removed from the excavations or was retrieved from one of Rassam’s waste dumps. It was not confirmed as part of the Cylinder until Paul-Richard Berger of the University of Münster attributed it in 1970. Yale University lent the fragment to the British Museum temporarily (but in practice indefinitely) in exchange for “a suitable cuneiform tablet” from the British Museum collection.
The Cylinder was created in several stages. Its core consists of a clay cone containing large grey stone inclusions. It was built up with extra layers of clay to give it a cylindrical shape before a fine surface slip of clay was added to add the outer layer, on which the text is inscribed. However, this structure was unstable, causing it to disintegrate while still buried. It was re-fired in 1961 as part of a conservation programme and some plaster filling was added.
Although the Cylinder clearly post-dates Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon, the date of its creation is unclear. It is commonly said to date to the early part of Cyrus’s reign over Babylon (hence around 539 BC). Professor Peter Bedford of Edith Cowan University calls this a mere assumption; there is no further evidence to date the works of Cyrus related in the Cylinder’s text. The British Museum puts the Cylinder’s date of origin at between 539–530 BC.
The surviving inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder consists of 45 lines of text written in Akkadian cuneiform script, the first 35 lines of which are on fragment “A” and the remainder of which are on fragment “B” A number of lines at the start and end of the text are too badly damaged for more than a few words to be legible.
The text is written in an extremely formulaic style that can be divided into six distinct parts:
Extract from the Cyrus Cylinder (lines 15–21), giving the genealogy of Cyrus the Great and an account of his capture of Babylon in 539 BC.
- Lines 1–19: an introduction reviling Nabonidus, the previous king of Babylon, and associating Cyrus with the god Marduk;
- Lines 20–22: detailing Cyrus’s royal titles and genealogy, and his peaceful entry to Babylon;
- Lines 22–34: a commendation of Cyrus’s policy of restoring Babylon;
- Lines 34–35: a prayer to Marduk on behalf of Cyrus and his son Cambyses;
- Lines 36–37: a declaration that Cyrus has enabled the people to live in peace and has increased the offerings made to the gods;
- Lines 38–45: details of the building activities ordered by Cyrus in Babylon.
Sample detail image showing cuneiform script.
The start of the text is partly broken; the surviving content begins with an attack on the character of the deposed Babylonian king Nabonidus. It lists his alleged crimes, charging him with desecration of the temples of the gods and the imposition of forced labor upon the populace. Because of these offences, the writer declares, the god Marduk has abandoned Babylon to seek a more righteous king. Marduk called forth Cyrus to enter Babylon and become its new ruler with the god’s blessing:
In [Nabonidus’s] mind, reverential fear of Marduk, king of the gods, came to an end. He did yet more evil to his city every day; … his [people …………….…], he brought ruin on them all by a yoke without relief … [Marduk] inspected and checked all the countries, seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything.
Midway through the text, the writer switches to a first-person narrative in the voice of Cyrus, addressing the reader directly. A list of his titles is given (in a Mesopotamian rather than Persian style): “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters [of the earth], son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, descendent of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel [Markuk] and Nebo love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves.” He describes the pious deeds he performed after his conquest: he restored peace to Babylon and the other cities sacred to Marduk, freeing their inhabitants from their “yoke”, and he “brought relief to their dilapidated housing (thus) putting an end to their (main) complaints”. He repaired the ruined temples in the cities he conquered, restored their cults, and returned their sacred images as well as their former inhabitants which Narbonidus had taken to Babylon. Near the end of the inscription Cyrus highlights his restoration of Babylon’s city wall, saying: “I saw within it an inscription of Ashurbanipal, a king who preceded me”. The remainder is missing but presumably describes Cyrus’s rededication of the gateway mentioned.
A partial transcription by F.H. Weissbach was supplanted by a much more complete transcription after the identification of the “B” fragment; this is now available in Germanand in English.Several editions of the full text of the Cylinder are available online, incorporating both “A” and “B” fragments.
A fake translation of the text – affirming, among other things, the abolition of slavery and the right to self-determination, a minimum wage and asylum – has been promoted on the Internet and elsewhere. As well as making claims that are not found on the real cylinder, it has been edited to “Persianize” the text by referring to the Zoroastrian divinity Ahura Mazda rather than the Mesopotamian god Marduk. The fake translation has been widely circulated; alluding to its claim that Cyrus supposedly said “Every country shall decide for itself whether or not it wants my leadership”, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi in her acceptance speech described Cyrus as “the very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that … he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it”.The authorship of the fake translation is unknown but the Dutch historian Jona Lendering has suggested that it was created to buttress the disputed claim that the Cylinder represents “the world’s first declaration of human rights”.
Mesopotamian tradition and Persian propaganda
Although it was written for a Persian king, the Cyrus Cylinder reflects a Mesopotamian tradition that was already over two thousand years old. Newly crowned kings of Babylon would make public declarations of their own righteousness when beginning their reigns, often in the form of declarations that were deposited in the foundations of public buildings. The Mesopotamians deposited a wide variety of items, including animal sacrifices, stone tablets, terracotta cones, cylinders and figures. Some contained messages, others did not. They had a number of purposes: elaboration of a building’s value, commemoration of the ruler or builder and the magical sanctification of the building, through the invocation of divine protection. In some cases, their locations were quite predictable; Nebuchadnezzar II had cylinders placed inside hollow foundation stones at each of the corners of his new temples, enabling Henry Rawlinson to direct his workers to their location when excavating them more than 2,500 years later.
These items were not intended to be seen again; their time span was for the duration of the building they commemorated. That said,Durham University‘s Dr Johannes Haubold notes that while the Cylinder itself was a foundation deposit, the text inscribed on it would have been used for public purposes. Archive copies were kept of important inscriptions and the Cylinder’s text may likewise have been copied. In January 2010, the British Museum announced that two cuneiform tablets in its collection had been found to be inscribed with the same text as that on the Cyrus Cylinder, which, according to BM, “show that the text of the Cylinder was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed across the Persian Empire.”
The text is a royal building inscription, a genre which had no equivalent in Old Persian literature. It illustrates how Cyrus co-opted local traditions and symbols to legitimize his control of Babylon.Amélie Kuhrt, a professor in the history of the Near East at University College London, comments that the text’s importance lies in how Cyrus used local traditions to legitimize his conquest of Babylon.Many elements of the text were drawn from long-standing Mesopotamian themes; Kuhrt notes that “such pious examples of temple work were part of a standard process of legitimisation in Babylonia, and thus follow conventional forms”. The standard tropes of this form all appear on the Cyrus Cylinder: the preceding king is vilified and he is proclaimed to have been abandoned by the gods for his wickedness; the new king has gained power through the divine will of the gods; the new king rights the wrongs of his predecessor, addressing the welfare of the people; the sanctuaries of the gods are rebuilt or restored, offerings to the gods are made or increased and the blessings of the gods are sought; and repairs are made to the whole city, in the manner of earlier rightful kings.
The text emphasizes both continuity and discontinuity. It asserts the virtue of Cyrus as a gods-fearing king of a traditional Mesopotamian type. On the other hand, it constantly stresses that Cyrus is not Nabonidus, reviling the deposed king’s deeds and even his ancestry and portraying him as an impious destroyer of his own people. As Fowler and Hekster note, this “creates a problem for a monarch who chooses to buttress his claim to legitimacy by appropriating the ‘symbolic capital’ of his predecessors.” The Cylinder’s denigration of Nabonidus also discredited Babylonian royal authority by association. It is perhaps for this reason that the Achaemenid rulers made greater use of Assyrian rather than Babylonian royal iconography and tradition in their declarations; the Cylinder refers to the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal as “my predecessor”, rather than any native Babylonian ruler.
Similarities with other royal inscriptions
The Cylinder of Nabonidus, a foundation text by the last king of Babylon with many similarities to the Cyrus Cylinder.
The Cyrus Cylinder bears striking similarities to older Mesopotamian royal inscriptions. Two notable examples are the Cylinder of Marduk-apla-iddina II, who seized the Babylonian throne in 722/1 BC, and the annals of Sargon II of Assyria, who conquered Babylon twelve years later. As a usurper, Marduk-apla-iddina faced many of the same issues of legitimacy that Cyrus did as conqueror of Babylon. He declares himself to have been chosen personally by Marduk, who ensured his victory. When he took power, he performed the sacred rites and restored the sacred shrines. He states that he found a royal inscription placed in the temple foundations by an earlier Babylonian king, which he left undisturbed and honored. All of these claims also appear in Cyrus’s Cylinder. Twelve years later, the Assyrian king Sargon IIdefeated and exiled Marduk-apla-iddina, taking up the kingship of Babylonia. Sargon’s annals describe how he took on the duties of a Babylonian sovereign, honouring the gods, maintaining their temples and respecting and upholding the privileges of the urban elite. Again, Cyrus’s Cylinder makes exactly the same points. Nabonidus, Cyrus’s deposed predecessor as king of Babylon, commissioned foundation texts on clay cylinders – such as the Cylinder of Nabonidus, also in the British Museum – that follows the same basic formula.
The text of the Cylinder thus indicates a strong continuity with centuries of Babylonian tradition, as part of an established rhetoric advanced by conquerors and usurpers. As Kuhrt puts it, the Cylinder
reflects the pressure that Babylonian citizens were able to bring to bear on the new royal claimant … In this context, the reign of the defeated predecessor was automatically described as bad and against the divine will – how else could he have been defeated? By implication, of course, all his acts became, inevitably and retrospectively, tainted.
The familiarity with long-established Babylonian tropes suggests that the Cylinder was authored by the Babylonian priests of Marduk, working at the behest of Cyrus.It can be compared with another work of around the same time, the Verse Account of Nabonidus, in which the former Babylonian ruler is excoriated as the enemy of the priests of Marduk and Cyrus is presented as the liberator of Babylon. Both works make a point of stressing Cyrus’s qualifications as a king from a line of kings, in contrast to the non-royal ancestry of Nabonidus, who is described by the Cylinder as merely maţû, “insignificant”.
The Verse Account is so similar to the Cyrus Cylinder inscription that the two texts have been dubbed an example of “literary dependence” – not the direct dependence of one upon the other, but mutual dependence upon a common source. This is characterised by the historian Morton Smith as “the propaganda put out in Babylonia by Cyrus’s agents, shortly before Cyrus’s conquest, to prepare the way of their lord. This viewpoint has been disputed; as Simon J. Sherwin of the University of Cambridge puts it, the Cylinder and the Verse Account are “after the event” compositions which reuse existing Mesopotamian literary themes and do not need to be explained as the product of pre-conquest Persian propaganda.
The Cylinder’s text has deeper roots in Babylonian tradition. The German historian Hanspeter Schaudig has identified a line on the Cylinder (“He [i.e. Marduk] saved his city Babylon from its oppression”) with a line from tablet VI of the Babylonian “Epic of Creation”,Enûma Eliš, in which Marduk builds Babylon. Johannes Haubold suggests that this allusion represents Cyrus’s takeover as a moment of ultimate restoration not just of political and religious institutions, but of the cosmic order underpinning the universe.
Veracity of the Cylinder’s claims
Stele depicting Nabonidus praying to the moon, sun and the planet Venus. The Babylonian king’s religious practices were harshly condemned by the Cyrus Cylinder’s inscription.
Many of the claims made about Cyrus and his Babylonian predecessor are not supported by known historical fact. Its vilification of Nabonidus fits the extensive Persian propaganda regarding the deposed king’s rule. In contrast to the Cylinder’s depiction of Nabonidus as an illegitimate ruler who ruined his country, the reign of Nabonidus was largely peaceful, he was recognised as a legitimate king and he undertook a variety of building projects and military campaigns commensurate with his claim to be “the king of Babylon, the universe, and the four corners [of the Earth]”.
Regarding the Cylinder’s accusations of blasphemy: Assyriologist Paul-Alain Beaulieu has interpreted Nabonidus’s exaltation of the moon god, Sin, as “an outright usurpation of Marduk’s prerogatives”,.Although the king continued to make rich offerings to Marduk, his greater devotion to Sin was unacceptable to the Babylonian priestly elite. Further, Nabonidus came from the unfashionable north of Babylonia, introduced foreign gods and went into a lengthy self-imposed exile which was said to have prevented the celebration of the vital New Year festival. Cyrus’s conquest of Babylonia was certainly resisted by Nabonidus and his supporters, as the preceding Battle of Opis demonstrated. Briant comments that “it is doubtful that even before the fall of [Babylon] Cyrus was impatiently awaited by a population desperate for a ‘liberator'”. However, Cyrus’s takeover as king does appear to have been welcomed by some of the Babylonian population.The Judaic historian Lisbeth S. Fried says that there is little evidence that the high-ranking priests of Babylonia during the Achaemenid period were Persians and characterises them as Babylonian collaborators.
The inscription goes on to describe Cyrus returning to their original sanctuaries the statues of the gods that Nabonidus had brought to the city before the Persian invasion. In the process, the normal cultic order was restored to the satisfaction of the priesthood. It alludes to temples being restored and deported groups being returned to their homelands, but makes a point of not describing this in general terms as an empire-wide programme of restoration. Instead, it refers to specific areas in the border region between Babylonia and Persia, including sites that had been devastated by earlier Babylonian military campaigns. Such locations were of significant strategic importance within the Persian empire. The Cylinder indicates that Cyrus sought to acquire the loyalty of the ravaged regions by funding reconstruction, the return of temple properties and the repatriation of the displaced populations. However, it is unclear how much actually changed on the ground; there is no archaeological evidence for any rebuilding or repairing of Mesopotamian temples during Cyrus’s reign.
Emphasis is placed on the fact of Cyrus’s peaceful entry into Babylon in implicit contrast with previous conquerors, notably the Assyrian rulers Tukulti-Ninurta I, who invaded and plundered Babylon in the 12th century BC, and Sennacherib, who did the same thing 150 years before Cyrus conquered the region. The massacre and enslavement of conquered peoples was common practice and was explicitly highlighted in statements by conquerors. In contrast, the text of the Cyrus Cylinder presents Cyrus as entering Babylon peacefully and being welcomed by the population as a liberator. Johannes Haubold notes that the text portrays Cyrus’s takeover as a harmonious moment of convergence between Babylonian and Persian history; not a natural disaster but the salvation of Babylonia. While the Persians do seem to have entered Babylon without serious resistance, the text does not mention the preceding Battle of Opis, in which Cyrus’s forces defeated and are said to have massacred the army of Nabonidus. Nor does it explain a two-week gap reported by the Nabonidus Chronicle between the Persian entry into Babylon and the surrender of the Esagila temple. Lisbeth S. Fried suggests that there may have been a siege or stand-off between the Persians and the temple’s defenders and priests, about whose fate the Cylinder and Chronicle are both silent. She speculates that they were killed or expelled by the Persians and replaced by more pro-Persian members of the Babylonian priestly elite.As Walton and Hill put it, the claim of a wholly peaceful takeover acclaimed by the people is “standard conqueror’s rhetoric and may obscure other facts”. Describing the claim of one’s own armies being welcomed as liberators as “one of the great imperial fantasies”, Bruce Lincoln, Professor of Divinity at the University of Chicago, notes that the Babylonian population repeatedly revolted against Persian rule in 522BC, 521BC, 484BC and 482BC (though not against Cyrus or his son Cambeses). The rebels sought to restore national independence and the line of native Babylonian kings – perhaps an indication that they were not as favourably disposed towards the Persians as the Cylinder suggests.
Traditionally, the Persians’ policy towards their subject peoples, as described by the Cylinder, was viewed as an expression of tolerance, moderation and generosity “on a scale previously unknown.Others argue that, while Cyrus’s behaviour was indeed conciliatory, it was driven by the needs of the Persian Empire, and was not an expression of personal tolerance. The empire was too large to be centrally directed; Cyrus followed a policy of using existing territorial units to implement a decentralized system of government. The magnanimity shown by Cyrus won him praise and gratitude from those he spared. The policy of toleration described by the Cylinder was thus, as Biblical historian Rainer Albertz puts it, “an expression of conservative support for local regions to serve the political interests of the whole [empire]. Another Biblical historian, Alberto Soggin comments that it was more “a matter of practicality and economy … [as] it was simpler, and indeed cost less, to obtain the spontaneous collaboration of their subjects at a local level than to have to impose their sovereignty by force.
Traditional view and the Old Testament studies
Main article: Cyrus in the Judeo-Christian tradition
For more details on this topic, see The Return to Zion.
Places in Mesopotamia mentioned by the Cyrus Cylinder. Most of the localities it mentions in connection with the restoration of temples were in eastern and northern Mesopotamia, in territories that had been ruled by the deposed Babylonian king Nabonidus (excepting Susa).
The Bible records that some Jews returned to their homeland from Babylon, where they had been settled by Nebuchadnezzar, to rebuild the temple following an edict from Cyrus. The Book of Ezra (1–4:5) provides a narrative account of the rebuilding project. Many scholars have linked one particular passage from the Cylinder to the Old Testament account[:
From [?] to Aššur and [from] Susa, Agade, Ešnunna,Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e., in Babylon], to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.
This passage has often been interpreted as a reference to a policy instituted by Cyrus of allowing exiled peoples such as the Jews to return to their original homelands. The Cylinder’s inscription has been linked with the reproduction in the Book of Ezra of two texts that are claimed to be edicts issued by Cyrus concerning the repatriation of the Jews and the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The two edicts (one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic) are substantially different in content and tone, leading some historians to argue that one or both may be a post hoc fabrication.The question of their authenticity remains unresolved, though it is widely believed that they do reflect some sort of Persian royal policy, albeit perhaps not one that was couched in the terms given in the text of the Biblical edicts.
The dispute over the authenticity of the biblical edicts has prompted interest in this passage from the Cyrus Cylinder, specifically concerning the question of whether it indicates that Cyrus had a general policy of repatriating subject peoples and restoring their sanctuaries. The text of the Cylinder is very specific, listing places in Mesopotamia and the neighboring regions. It does not describe any general release or return of exiled communities but focuses on the return of Babylonian deities to their own home cities. It emphasises the re-establishment of local religious norms, reversing the alleged neglect of Nabonidus – a theme that Amélie Kuhrt describes as “a literary device used to underline the piety of Cyrus as opposed to the blasphemy of Nabonidus.” She suggests that Cyrus had simply adopted a policy used by earlier Assyrian rulers of giving privileges to cities in key strategic or politically sensitive regions and that there was no general policy as such. Lester Grabbe, a historian of early Judaism, has written that “the religious policy of the Persians was not that different from the basic practice of the Assyrians and Babylonians before them” in tolerating – but not promoting – local cults, other than their own gods.
Cyrus may have seen Jerusalem, situated in a strategic location between Mesopotamia and Egypt, as worth patronising for political reasons. His Achaemenid successors generally supported indigenous cults in subject territories as an expression of their legitimacy as rulers, thereby currying favour with the cults’ devotees.Conversely, the Persian kings could, and did, destroy the shrines of peoples who had rebelled against them. The Babylonians had done the same; the Temple of Jerusalem had been razed as the result of a Babylonian invasion prompted by repeated Judean revolts against Babylonian rule. As such, it was clearly in a different category from the local Mesopotamian temples neglected by Nabonidus and restored by Cyrus. The Persians evidently did give permission for its reconstruction but this appears to have been a separate issue from the more local concerns addressed by the Cyrus Cylinder. The Cylinder text’s does not describe any general policy of a return of exiles or mention any sanctuary outside Babylonia; the Biblical historian Bob Becking comments that “it has nothing to do with Judeans, Jews or Jerusalem. Peter Ross Bedford concludes that the Cylinder “is thus not a manifesto for a general policy regarding indigenous cults and their worshippers throughout the empire.Kuhrt comments that “the purely Babylonian context of the Cylinder provides no proof” of the historicity of Cyrus’s return of the Jewish exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, though Becking links this with the lack of any references to the Jews in surviving Achaemenid texts – an indication that the Persians seem not to have regarded them as being of any great importance.
The German scholar Josef Wiesehöfer summarizes the widely held traditional view by noting that “Many scholars have read into […] sentences [from the text of Cylinder] a confirmation of the Old Testament passages about the steps taken by Cyrus towards the erection of the Jerusalem temple and the repatriation of the Judaeans” and this interpretation was, according to Wiesehöfer, for some scholars a strict belief “that the instructions to this effect were actually provided in these very formulations of the Cyrus Cylinder”.
Pre-revolutionary Iranian government’s view
Replica of the Cyrus Cylinder at United Nations Headquarters, New York, with translations of the text in Persian, English and French. The UN promotes the Cyrus Cylinder as “an ancient declaration of human rights”.
The Cyrus Cylinder was dubbed the “first declaration of human rights” by the pre-1979 Iranian government, a reading prominently advanced by its Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in a 1967 book, The White Revolution of Iran. The Shah made Cyrus the Great a key figure in government ideology and associated himself personally with the Achaemenids. He wrote that “the history of our empire began with the famous declaration of Cyrus, which, for its advocacy of humane principles, justice and liberty, must be considered one of the most remarkable documents in the history of mankind.” The Shah described Cyrus as the first ruler in history to give his subjects “freedom of opinion and other basic rights”– although the text of the Cylinder itself says nothing about citizens’ rights. In 1968, the Shah opened the first United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Tehran by saying that the Cyrus Cylinder was the precursor to the modern Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In his 1971 Nowruz (New Year) speech, the Shah declared that 1971 would be Cyrus the Great Year, during which a grand commemoration would be held to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. It would serve as a showcase for a modern Iran in which the contributions that Iran had made to world civilization would be recognized. The main theme of the commemoration was the centrality of the monarchy within Iran’s political system, identifying the Shah with the famous monarchs of Persia’s past, and with Cyrus the Great in particular.The Shah looked to the Achaemenid period as “a moment from the national past that could best serve as a model and a slogan for the imperial society he hoped to create.
The Cyrus Cylinder was adopted as the symbol for the commemoration, and Iranian magazines and journals published numerous articles about ancient Persian history. The British Museum loaned the original Cylinder to the Iranian government for the duration of the festivities; it was put on display at the Shahyad Monument (now the Azadi Tower) in Tehran. The 2,500 year celebrationscommenced on October 12, 1971 and culminated a week later with a spectacular parade at the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae. On October 14, the shah’s sister, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, presented the United Nations Secretary General U Thant with a replica of the Cylinder. The princess asserted that “the heritage of Cyrus was the heritage of human understanding, tolerance, courage, compassion and, above all, human liberty”. The Secretary General accepted the gift, linking the Cylinder with the efforts of the United Nations General Assembly to address “the question of Respect for Human Rights in Armed Conflict”. Since then the replica Cylinder has been kept at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City on the second floor hallway.
Monument to the Cyrus Cylinder in Balboa Park, San Diego, California erected by an Iranian emigré organisation, presenting a widely-circulated fake translation of the text.
The interpretation of the Cylinder as a “charter of human rights” has been criticized by many scholars and characterized as political propaganda devised by the Pahlavi regime. The German historian Josef Wiesehöfer argues that the image of “Cyrus as a champion of the UN human rights policy … is just as much a phantom as the humane and enlightened Shah of Persia. Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, wrote that the Cylinder was used by the Shah as “a mantra of his newly constructed national identity” that “must have startled many who had tried to assert the human rights under his regime.”
Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Shah’s commemorations, the British Museum’s C.B.F. Walker comments that the “essential character of the Cyrus Cylinder [is not] a general declaration of human rights or religious toleration but simply a building inscription, in the Babylonian and Assyrian tradition, commemorating Cyrus’s restoration of the city of Babylon and the worship of Marduk previously neglected by Nabonidus. Two linguists of the ancient Near East, Bill T. Arnold and Piotr Michalowski, comment: “Generically, it belongs with other foundation deposit inscriptions; it is not an edict of any kind, nor does it provide any unusual human rights declaration as is sometimes claimed.
Cyrus’s policies toward subjugated nations have been contrasted to those of the Assyrians and Babylonians, who had treated subject peoples harshly; he permitted the resettling of those who had been previously deported and sponsored the reconstruction of religious buildings. While the Shah cited this as evidence of respect for human rights, the historianElton L. Daniel has described such an interpretation as “rather anachronistic” and tendentious.
T.C. Mitchell, a former Keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, takes the view that interpreting the Cylinder as the first charter of human rights “reflects a misunderstanding. Curtis and Tallis note that despite the Cylinder’s reference to a just and peaceful rule, and repatriation of deported peoples, the modern concept of human rights would have been quite alien to Cyrus’s contemporaries and is not mentioned by the Cylinder. Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s Director, comments:
Comparison by scholars in the British Museum with other similar texts, however, showed that rulers in ancient Iraq had been making comparable declarations upon succeeding to the [Babylonian] throne for two millennia before Cyrus […] it is one of the museum’s tasks to resist the narrowing of the object’s meaning and its appropriation to one political agenda.
He cautions that while the Cylinder is “clearly linked with the history of Iran“, it is “in no real sense an Iranian document: it is part of a much larger history of the ancient Near East, of Mesopotamian kingship, and of the Jewish diaspora.
Cyrus has often been depicted as a particularly humane ruler, based on his characterization by ancient sources such as Persian texts, the Old Testament of the Bible and Herodotus,. M.A. Dandamaev, the leading Russian scholar of the neo-Babylonian and Persian periods, has written that “almost all the texts … which praise Cyrus have the character of propagandistic writings and demand a very critical approach … by accepting everything said in the texts which were composed by Babylonian priests, we ourselves become the victims of Cyrus’s propaganda.
Nonetheless, some scholars have supported the Shah’s interpretation of the Cylinder as a human rights charter. Neil MacGregor has written “the Cylinder may indeed be a document of human rights”. W.J. Talbott, an American philosopher, believes the concept of human rights is a 20th century concept but describes Cyrus as “perhaps the earliest known advocate of religious tolerance” and suggests that “ideas that led to the development of human rights are not limited to one cultural tradition.” The Iranian lawyer Hirad Abtahi argues that viewing the Cylinder as merely “an instrument of legitimizing royal rule” is unjustified, as Cyrus issued the document and granted those rights when he was at the height of his power, with neither popular opposition nor visible external threat to force his hand. A former Iranian prime minister Hassan Pirnia, writing in the early 20th century, characterizes the Cylinder as “discuss[ing] human rights in a way unique for the era, dealing with ways to protect the honor, prestige, and religious beliefs of all the nations dependent to Iran in those days.”
The Cyrus Cylinder in Room 55 of the British Museum in London.
The Cyrus Cylinder has been displayed in the British Museum since its formal acquisition in 1880. It has been loaned twice – once to Iran, between 7–22 October 1971 in conjunction with the 2,500 year commemorations of the Persian monarchy, and once to Spain from March–June 2006. Many replicas have been made; some were distributed by the Shah following the 1971 commemorations, while the British Museum and National Museum of Iranhave sold them commercially.
The British Museum’s ownership of the Cyrus Cylinder has been the cause of some controversy in Iran, although the artifact was obtained legally and was not excavated on Iranian soil but on former Ottoman territory (modern Iraq). When it was loaned in 1971 the Iranian press campaigned for its transfer to Iranian ownership. The Cylinder was brought back to London without difficulty, but the British Museum’s Board of Trustees subsequently decided that it would be “undesirable to make a further loan of the Cylinder to Iran.
In 2005–2006 the British Museum mounted a major exhibition on the Persian Empire, Forgotten Empire: the World of Ancient Persia. It was held in collaboration with the Iranian government, which loaned the British Museum a number of iconic artifacts in exchange for an undertaking that the Cyrus Cylinder be loaned to National Museum of Iran in return.
Dispute with Iranian government
In January 2009 Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, agreed to a three-month loan of the Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran for later in 2009. This followed the 2005 agreement of mutual cooperation in which the National Museum of Iran had lent artifacts to the British Museum and the British Museum had promised a reciprocal loan of the Cylinder. The 2009 agreement was regarded as a “diplomatic breakthrough”.
In October 2009 the British Museum announced that it was postponing the loan following the June presidential election so that it could be “assured that the situation in the country was suitable.” In response, the Iranian government threatened to end cooperation with the British Museum if the Cylinder was not loaned within the next two months. The delivery was scheduled for January 2010.
The opening date for the Iranian exhibition was 16 January 2010, but on 11 January the British Museum announced another postponement. Researchers had discovered two fragments in its collections bearing cuneiform inscriptions similar to those of the Cyrus Cylinder. The fragments were identified as coming from two pieces of cuneiform tablets, measuring little more than an inch across, that were inscribed with the same text as that on the Cyrus Cylinder. The British Museum stated that the fragments would be studied and presented at a workshop in London and that “it is intended that the two new pieces should be exhibited for the first time in Tehran, together with the Cylinder itself”. The Museum agreed that it would lend the Cylinder and the fragments to the National Museum of Iran in July 2010. However, in February 2010 the Iranian government’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization announced that it would be cutting all ties with the British Museum, accusing the Museum of making a “politically motivated” decision to hold on to the Cylinder.
In April 2010 the National Museum of Iran announced that it would be seeking compensation from the British Museum for the “$300,000 showcase” constructed to protect the Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran.Iranian Head of Cultural Heritage, Hamid Baghaei linked the dispute to deteriorating UK-Iranian diplomatic relations over the presidential election and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology.
Exhibition in Iran (2010)
Having reached agreement with the British Museum for a four-month loan of the Cyrus Cylinder, the National Museum of Iran put the cylinder on display in Tehran in September 2010. It was installed at the National Museum by a joint group of Iranian and British archaeologists and specialists. The exhibition was opened on 12 September 2010 by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.; it was reported that over 48,000 people had visited within the first ten days.
The exhibition prompted some controversy over its symbolism and the form of Ahmadinejad’s opening ceremony, which involved the president draping a man dressed as Cyrus the Great with part of the uniform of the pro-government Basij militia. The hard-line Fars News Agency proclaimed: “Cyrus The Great Becomes A Basij Member”. Commentators described the ceremony as part of a new strategy to promote a form of religious nationalism, drawing on Iran’s ancient past in a way that had hitherto been highly unusual in the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad’s invocation of the cylinder as “represent[ing] respect for human beings’ greatness and basic rights” was criticized by supporters of the Iranian opposition in the light of the Iranian government’s own human rights abuses.
The conservative daily newspaper Kayhan stirred further controversy by arguing that Iran should keep the Cylinder, asking whether it was not true that it belonged to Iran and “that the British government stole this valuable and ancient object of ours”. The British Museum responded by pointing out that it had not been stolen but had legally been excavated in Iraq and that “there is no sense that this is anything other than a loan.