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The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. It was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform on the orders of Persian King Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.E.) after he captured Babylon in 539 B.C.E. It was found in Babylon in modern Iraq in 1879 during a British Museum excavation.

Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. He then describes measures of relief he brought to the inhabitants of the city, and tells how he returned a number of images of gods, which Nabonidus had collected in Babylon, to their proper temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Iran. At the same time he arranged for the restoration of these temples, and organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. Although the Jews are not mentioned in this document, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II, was part of this policy.

The cylinder is often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium B.C.E., kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms. 


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Video transcript

One of the great things about the objects we make is that they live longer than we do. So they can have many different lives. In every one of their lives, in every different generation, they can acquire different meanings. So the meaning can become richer as time goes on. One of the most extraordinary objects in that regard, is the so called Cyrus Cylinder. It's about two and a half thousand years old, it's a small barrel shaped piece of clay covered in cuneiform inscriptions. Discovered in 1879 by a British Museum expedition to Babylon, now in modern Iraq But to understand the Cyrus Cylinder, we need to start with the world from which it came. A world in which Iran/Persia reigned supreme. Our story begins five hundred and fifty years before Christ with Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. After uniting the Persian and Median tribes, Cyrus came into conflict with King Croesus of Lydia, in what's now modern day Turkey. He defeated Croesus in battle, Cyrus then clashed with the powerful Babylonian empire to the West. In 539 B.C. he besieged their capital Babylon, it fell with barely a fight. Persia under Cyrus became a superpower of the ancient world. Cyrus' conquest of Babylon had been predicted and was described in the old Testament by the Jewish prophet Daniel. That very night, the Babylonian region Belshazzar had held a feast. He feasted using the sacred gold vessels from the temple in Jerusalem and then suddenly miraculously there was a hand writing on the wall and the writing said "you have been weighed in the balance, you've been found wanting and your kingdom will be given to the Medes and the Persians". So from this we have the expression 'the writing is on the wall' and we have Rembrandt's great painting Balshaazar's feast. Within hours the great empire of Babylon was no more. Cyrus justified his invasion to the Babylonian people in a proclamation written on clay tablets such as this one which are likely to have been widely distributed. Surviving fragments along with the Cyrus Cylinder carry identical wording. Because the Cyrus Cylinder was meant for a Babylonian audience, it was written in the Babylonian language which is a Semitic tongue related to the modern languages of Hebrew and Arabic and Aramaic. The writing system which Cyrus' officials used was the traditional cuneiform script which had been invented in Ancient Iraq well before 3000 B.C it is written by pressing a stylus, something a bit like a chopstick into the surface of the clay which is nearly dry and the signs which convey the sound of the language consist of different arrangements of these strokes, they're written one by one and the reader has to join them up and the sound emerges from the clay. This is the line that says "I am Kurash, shar kishshati King of the world, the Great King, King of Babylon" and so it goes on. So we're going to write Kurash... So the first sign 'Ku', has a big vertical, two small horizontals, one bigger horizontal a little vertical and another horizontal like a box. This is 'Ku'. Then 'Ra', we have three strong horizontals to begin, one big one next to it, and then one little vertical wedge and one bigger vertical wedge. "Ku-Ra'. Now we do 'Ash', which is three long horizontals comme ça and then a vertical in the middle. So we can read this Kurash, the name of Cyrus. The early lines on the Cylinder extol Cyrus' virtues and his reasons for invading Babylon but it's lines 30-35 that set Cyrus up as a great leader in the modern liberal sense. One of Cyrus' first acts after his conquest was to release those who had been made captive by the Babylonians. Now this was a mark of his style of rule and it's this very event that is recorded on the cylinder. So this was a key moment in the history of the Jewish people, they had spent many years weeping by the rivers of Babylon and now finally they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and then to rebuild the temple. The return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, the permission from Cyrus to rebuild the second temple reshaped Judaism and the notion of return is central to Jewish life and mythology. No lesser person than David Ben-Gurion wrote - 'Cyrus displayed a spirit of charity towards his adversaries, a unique tolerance towards all religions, he Cyrus played a decisive role in the first return to Zion'. Although Cyrus' empire was eventually broken up the idea of Cyrus himself remained, Cyrus as the model ruler. The principle source for that view of Cyrus came from the Greek historian Xenophon, his book Cyropaedia was really about how to run an empire with Cyrus as the model. It was very popular all through the Renaissance and particularly with the founding fathers of America. And we know that Jefferson had two, possibly three copies of Xenophon's 'Life of Cyrus' and referred to it regularly, so there's a very direct link between the Cyrus Cylinder and the making of the United States. The Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great reached its peak under the later King Darius. Extending from Libya in the the Central Mediterranean to the Indus Valley, in modern day Pakistan. It is the beginning of the idea of the Middle East, an idea that we still live with today. And when we use the words the 'Near East', the 'Middle East', we're talking about exactly the area that was the Persian Empire. The frieze behind me is a cast of the frieze in the Royal Palace at Persepolis, the Persian capital. And it shows the different peoples of the Empire, bringing their different tributes. It's a perfect emblem of the variety of the Empire. Every people brings their own kind of tribute and the Persian Empire, unlike others didn't try to crush people into one way of being or doing, it allowed a great diversity of habits and patterns, language and faith to live together. It became the great model of how to run an empire of dizzying diversity. Because it was such a vast area, new practices and techniques had to be introduced to administer this vast space. The exhibition has tried to highlight some of these all as the introduction of old Persian cuneiform, there are technological introductions, wonderful new forms of jewelery and gold and silver bowls, we find Aramaic becoming widely used at this time and we've got the introduction on a large scale of coinage. The King of Lydia is Croesus who rules a very prosperous nation and Cyrus sees Lydian coinage in silver and in gold and he adopts that coinage and produces Croesids as we call these coins. These coins show a lion attacking a bull and it is until the time of Darius in 522 that this coinage is continued. Darius introduces a completely new monetary coinage, the gold daric, named after him. And the silver siglos which derives from the Hebrew word for silver shekel. He describes himself as a competent archer, as a competent horseman, as a competent spearman. So this imagery of the archer on his coins is something definitely that the Persians would like to be portrayed as. This armlet is actually one of a pair, from the Oxus treasure, the griffin terminals possibly show these are Zoroastrian Veragna bird the surface is covered with lots of little cavities for inlaying with semi-precious stone, glass or coloured paste characteristic of the Achaemanid period. Armlets were particularly precious diplomatic gifts at this time, they're shown being brought by four of the different delegations on the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis. Amongst the objects of the Oxus treasure, there are some fascinating votive objects in the form of gold plaques. These figures wear a soft cap perhaps made of felt. They had a chin guard this could be pulled up to cover the mouth . When they were engaged in a religious act or ritual act in front of the fire they had to protect the fire which is a holy element and must not be polluted. They hold consecrated wooden sticks the barsom. We think the Achaemenids were Zoroastrians, an ancient religion which gets its name from the prophet Zarathustra or Zoraster in Greek. At a time when a number of Gods were worshiped Zarathustra came and said no the creator of all is Ahura Mazda. This is the official seal of the later King Darius who put the Empire on a secure administrative and financial footing. King Darius hunts a lion, above him is a winged figure with the head of a human being thought to be the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda, the wording declares; 'I am Darius, the Great King'. It's in three languages, old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. These monumental official languages which sometimes also include Egyptian hieroglyphs are another sign of the multi-cultural nature of the empire. Almost everything that we know about the Persian Empire actually comes from Greek sources, so was written by their enemies. So it's a bit like knowing the story of 20th America entirely through Soviet sources. And thats why this cylinder is so important this is the Persians speaking as the Persians addressing the world it's a message direct from Cyrus. When the Cyrus Cylinder was excavated in 1879, it brings Cyrus and indeed the cylinder into a totally different kind of debate not about government, but about the reliability of scripture. The middle of the 19th Century was of course a moment when the authenticity and the authority of scripture was being challenged. Darwin is writing about evolution, the discoveries of geology are making people wonder whether you can rely on scripture. The Cylinder tells us that Cyrus is governed, led by the God of Babylon Marduk, the Hebrew Bible tells us that it was the Lord God of Israel who governed Cyrus who conducts him through the whole military campaign and so what we have in the Cyrus Cylinder put beside the Hebrew Bible, the book of Chronicles, the book of Ezra are two different priestly interpretations of the same military campaign. It suggested that the Hebrew scriptures must be part of a much bigger Middle Eastern religious tradition. But the life that the Cyrus Cylinder could breathe into contemporary affairs was only just beginning. In 1971 for the two thousand five hundred year anniversary of the Persian monarchy. The shah of Iran held lavish celebrations in the ancient capital Persepolis and in Pasargadae the site of Cyrus' mausoleum. The Cyrus Cylinder was the official symbol of the celebrations once again it took on a new story. The invention by the Shah of a return to Iranian history to put him at the centre of a great tradition. Coins were minted portraying the Shah and the Cylinder. The Cyrus Cylinder as guarantor of the Shah but soon the Shah was gone and revolutionary Iranians wanted an Islamic history. Since the Iran-Iraq war, it's become a symbol of unity for all Iranians to remember when two and a half thousand years ago they fought Iraq and won. It's worth reflecting on a moment when a Persian released the Jews enabling them to go back to Jerusalem. When the Cyrus Cylinder went to Tehran for exhibition in 2010 it was seen by about half a million people. Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, everybody, and it became the focus of a very particular debate about what Iran is today., What are the histories that will shape Iran now and in the future and how will those affect therefore the future of the whole of the region and indeed of the world. In that intense debate I think it's possible that one of the most persuasive and most powerful voices may well be the voice of this mute broken clay cylinder.