The Cyrus Cylinder: history’s first bill of rights?

Juliet Highet

A Persian artefact – whose inscriptions tell the remarkable story of an ancient leader who broke with tradition to free slaves and introduce religious tolerance – has been touring museums internationally 

You could almost say that the Cyrus Cylinder is a history of the Middle East in one object, creating a link to a past that we all share and to a key moment in history that has shaped the world around us,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, where the Cyrus Cylinder is normally on display. “Objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space, and this object must be shared as widely as possible.” And so the cylinder has been travelling along with other associated objects in an exhibition titled The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning. 

The Cyrus Cylinder dates back to the sixth century BCE, to the Persian king Cyrus the II, known as ‘the Great’ and remembered for his conquest of Babylon. So what’s so special about it, this somewhat unprepossessing object, which is one of the most iconic objects in world history? It’s a baked clay cylinder, 22 cm by 10 cm, barrel-shaped and inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform text – the earliest form of writing. It was discovered about 130 years ago in the ruins of Babylon in Iraq, buried as a foundation deposit – it was the custom for Achaemenid Persians like Cyrus, as well as Babylonian and Assyrian kings, to place such precious objects under new buildings. It was excavated in several fragments, which were immediately glued together again. After it arrived at the British Museum, it was translated. 

The Cyrus Cylinder tells a remarkable story – it’s a declaration about the Iran/Iraq war of 539 BCE, the struggle between the Persian and Babylonian empires, one of the great turning points in ancient history. The cylinder establishes Cyrus as a king from a great lineage of kings and denounces the despotic king of Babylon, Belshazzar, but then it talks about peace. It tells how Marduk, the god of Babylon, has chosen Cyrus to improve not only the lives of the oppressed Babylonians, but those of many other captured and enslaved peoples, including Jews. When Belshazzar conquered Israel, he took a large number of Jewish people back to Babylon, having ransacked Jerusalem and desecrated its temple. With Marduk on his side, in one night Cyrus entered Babylon and, without a fight, the great empire, which ran from southern Iraq to the Mediterranean, fell into his hands. 

So what does the ‘king of kings’, Cyrus, the most powerful man in ‘the four corners of the world’, do? He sets everyone free, organising the return of the captives to their homelands. Amazingly, and in such contrast to the ethics of the era, he lets them recover their sacred statues, normally confiscated as symbols of victory. He instructs that the great variety of conquered people in his vast domain, with their different religions, should be allowed to follow their beliefs, performing their own ritual ceremonies freely. Unbelievably, they were to be provided with financial aid for rebuilding their temples and shrines. The message is one of tolerance, pluralism and peace. 

Iranians are proud of the Cyrus Cylinder because it was a Persian king whose enlightened acts broke with tradition. To Jewish people, the story told is one of redemption, corroborating Biblical passages about their return home and the rebuilding of their temple. The reforming, humanitarian deeds of Cyrus inspired philosophers and rulers from ancient Greece to the Founding Fathers of the USA. Thomas Jefferson declared that a book about him – written in Greece in the fourth century BCE and published in Europe in 1767 – was “a mandatory read for statesmen”. 

Appropriately, the exhibition began its journey in Iran in 2010, where around half a million people saw it. Then last year it toured around five American museums. The cylinder has cross-cultural significance as a symbol of religious tolerance, respect and freedom, and has been called ‘the first bill of rights’. It is valued by people all around the globe, so much so that a replica is kept at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Most recently, the Cylinder visited Mumbai, where it is ideologically linked to the first Indian evidence of proclamation of human values in the Ashokan Edicts of 300 BCE, given by king Ashoka the Great. 

The 32 key objects that accompany the Cylinder on its current travels include a gold plaque from the Oxus Treasure, associated with Zoroastrianism, the principle faith of ancient Iran. The gold and silver coins on display came into Achaemenid Persian circulation after Cyrus had conquered Sardis in 547 or 546 BCE. Persia was favoured with an abundance of natural resources, and became famous for its splendid metalwork, especially in gold and silver, characterised by artistic and technical excellence. For the wealthy, it was a highly sophisticated world of portable luxury goods such as elaborate tableware and dazzling jewellery. Tributes from what was the first great world empire, vast and diverse, brought in more precious items like gemstones. Gold drinking vessels and jewellery, often decorated with royal imagery, functioned as diplomatic gifts to impress foreign trading partners and local rulers in far-flung corners of the empire – impressive reminders of Persian royal authority, controlled by an efficient administrative system and backed, of course, by military might. 

Asked about the significance of the Cyrus Cylinder for Asia, and India in particular, Dr John Curtis, keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum and curator of this exhibition, replied during the exhibition’s visit to the sub continent: “It has immense importance here in Mumbai for Parsees, as Cyrus was a Persian king and it’s an intrinsic part of their religious history. We’ll also get to witness the first Indian evidence of proclamation of human values – the Ashokan Edicts of 300 BCE, promoted by Ashoka the Great.” 

King Ashoka has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. Initially, he was a cruel and ruthless tyrant who had many of his brothers killed in order to seize the throne. In 262 BCE, Ashoka’s armies conquered Kalinga. The suffering and loss of life, reprisals and general turmoil of war so horrified Ashoka that it brought about a complete change in his personality. Formerly a lukewarm Buddhist, he dedicated the rest of his life to applying Buddhist principles to the administration of his vast empire, and ruled wisely and justly. 

Inscribed on pillars and rocks, the Ashokan Edicts proclaim the reforms he instituted, his ethical policies and the moral principles he recommended to his subjects. Although it’s clear that Ashoka saw his reforms as being part of his duties as a Buddhist, and he became a devout follower, he was not partisan towards his own religion or intolerant of other faiths. 

So the purpose of the edicts, like his reforms, was to create a just, humane and more spiritually inclined society. The Ashokan state renounced its predatory foreign policy, replacing it with peaceful co-existence. The judicial system was reformed, making it fairer and less harsh, and state resources were targeted at useful public works. 

So almost 2,600 years after the Cyrus Cylinder, the remarkable legacy of both Persian and Indian tolerance and respect are parallel and of continuing relevance to contemporary politics and philosophy. 

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning is back at the British Museum, having visited the USA and India in 2013 and early 2014. The exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same name: ISBN 978-0-7141-1187-2

About the author:

Juliet Highet is an author and photographer specialising in travel, the arts and culture


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International