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Global_18

Arena Arts The Cyrus Cylinder: history’s first bill of rights? 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 Juliet Highet “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 The Cyrus Cylinder with its Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions 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 Washington DC opening of the Ancient Persia exhibition 52 l www.global -br ief ing.org second quar ter 2014 global


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