No larger than a rugby ball, its brittle clay cracked and broken in places, the Cyrus cylinder may seem unimpressive at first glance. The barrel-shaped object, covered in cuneiform Akkadian script proclaiming Cyrus II, better known as Cyrus the Great, as Persia’s new emperor, was not even intended to be seen again when it was buried in the foundations of a Babylonian temple (probably to sanctify it) around 2,500 years ago. But in 1879 it was unearthed by diggers on an expedition to Iraq sponsored by the British Museum, and became one of the museum’s most prized artifacts. This year it is touring five American museums. What’s all the fuss about?
Part of the answer is that Cyrus himself has long been revered by leaders of all stripes. His statesmanship fascinated Niccolò Machiavelli and inspired Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, as he drafted the country’s Declaration of Independence. Iran’s last Shah threw a glitzy party in his honour in 1971 and minted coins depicting himself and Cyrus on one side, and the cylinder on the other, to project himself as Cyrus’ direct descendant. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, have each lauded the emperor as a hero, though for very different reasons.
The key to Cyrus’s broad appeal, and the wider significance of the cylinder, lies in the text inscribed on its surface. Following a thousand-year-old tradition in Mesopotamia, Cyrus began his reign with a declaration that was issued and distributed on clay tablets, cones and cylinders. He took the unusual and unprecedented step of decreeing that people who had been captured and enslaved by his predecessors could go back to their homes and that the statues of their various gods should be returned to their original shrines to be freely worshipped. As the Bible recounts, this meant the exiled Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Accordingly, the cylinder can be considered as both the earliest declaration of human rights and the oldest articulation of a multifaith, multicultural state—and not in some historical backwater or obscure city-state, but in an empire that was, at the time, the largest the world had ever seen.
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