The Cyrus Cylinder, sometimes referred to as the first “bill of human rights,” traces its origins to the Persian king Cyrus the Great’s (ca. 580 – 530 B.C.E.) conquest of Babylon in the sixth century B.C. Almost 2,600 years later, its remarkable legacy continues to shape contemporary political debates, cultural rhetoric and philosophy. The origins of this baked clay object, which was buried as a foundation deposit, can be traced to the Persian king Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in the sixth century BCE. He encouraged Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the second temple, which earned him the title “shepherd of God” and even the “Lord’s anointed” (Messiah) in the Book of Isaiah. Although the Cylinder was not discovered until 1879, Cyrus’s support for religious tolerance has inspired generations of philosophers, rulers, and statesmen.
The Cylinder—a football-sized, barrel-shaped clay object covered in Babylonian cuneiform, one of the earliest written languages—announced Cyrus’ victory and his intention to allow freedom of worship to communities displaced by the defeated ruler Nabonidus. At the time, such declarations were not uncommon, but Cyrus’ was unique in its nature and scope. When contextualized with other contemporary sources, such as the Bible’s Book of Ezra, it becomes evident that Cyrus allowed displaced Jews to return to Jerusalem.
The Babylonian scribe who engraved the Cylinder attributed Cyrus’ victory to the Babylonian god Marduk, a stroke of what could be considered royal and religious propaganda. In the fourth century B.C.E., the Greek historian Xenophon wrote Cyropaedia, a text that romanticizes the philosophies and education of Cyrus as the ideal ruler, which greatly influenced both Alexander the Great and, much later, Thomas Jefferson in his creation of the Declaration of Independence.
On loan from the British Museum, it is shown with a number of key items that offer insight into the religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions of the vast and powerful Achaemenid Empire (539 – 331 BCE) founded by Cyrus the Great.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Website