Cyrus Clyinder

The ancient clay cylinder said by some to be the World’s charter on human rights © Prioryman, Wikipedia

News from the British Museum today is that the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, promoted by the United Nations as an “ancient declaration of human rights”, is to tour the United States of America next year for the first time. Along with 16 other ancient Persian objects, an exhibition entitled The Cyrus Cylinder in Ancient Persia has been curated that explores the innovations initiated by Persian rule in the Ancient Near East between 550 BC and 331 BC, and will be on show in five major museums and art galleries in the US.

The Cyrus Cylinder in Ancient Persia is certainly going to be an interesting exhibition, not least because of the politics it will almost certainly become embroiled in once on the other side of the Atlantic. The Museum’s press release prominently proclaims ‘First declaration of human rights’ to tour five cities in the United States. If that is not enough international socio-political pressure, the exhibition’s subtitle is ‘a new beginning for the Middle East’. A bold claim indeed, which is included on the exhibition’s webpage (which has since been removed), but omitted, perhaps not surprisingly, from the museum’s press release.

Cyrus Cylinder at the British Museum

The Cyrus Cylinder on display in the British Museum, London © Kaaveh Ahangar, Wikipedia

The Cylinder
This ancient clay cylinder inscribed with an Akkadian cuneiform script was discovered in the ruins of Babylon during excavations funded by the British Museum. It was created following the Persian Conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BC. Although now in several fragments, much of the text is intelligible. The text praises Cyrus, and establishes his right to the throne, while denouncing the defeated and deposed Babylonian king Nabonidus. It states that Cyrus was chosen by the Babylonian god Marduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians, who welcomed Cyrus as their new ruler. Cyrus is praised for his benevolence towards Babylonians by improving their lives, repatriating displaced people as well as restoring temples and cult sanctuaries across the region. Finally, Cyrus is credited with repairing Babylon’s city wall – in which an inscribed cylinder from an earlier king was found.

This text has been taken as evidence for the repatriation of Jewish people to Palestine folllowing their captivity in Babylon – the Book of Ezra claims this was enabled by Cyrus. But this interpretation is contested as there is no specific mention of Jews, Jerusalem, or Judea, only Mesopotamia generally. As if that is not legacy enough, it was the last Shah of Iran who not only adopted the Cyrus cylinder as a national symbol, but he also placed Cyrus at the head of a 2,500 year old Persian/Iranian monarchy.

Bill of Rights?
In his 1967 The White Revolution of Iran, the Shah suggested that “the history of our empire began with the famous declaration of Cyrus, which, for its advocacy of humane principles, justice and liberty, must be considered one of the most remarkable documents in the history of mankind.” The Shah also suggested that Cyrus was the first leader in history to afford his subjects freedom of opinion and other basic human rights.

The Shah went further the following year, in opening the first United Nations Conference on Human Rights (held in Tehran), and suggested that the Cyrus Cylinder was the precursor to the modern Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then in 1971 during national celebrations to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy, the Shah’s sister presented the United Nations Secretary General with a replica of the cylinder; claiming that “the heritage of Cyrus was the heritage of human understanding, tolerance, courage, compassion and, above all, human liberty”. The replica is displayed in the New York headquarters of the United Nations, and the UN continues to interpret the cylinder as ‘an ancient declaration of human rights.’

Up until now, it has been widely noted that the British Museum, along with many Near Eastern scholars, challenged this legacy heaped upon this ancient cylinder by the Shah of Iran. In fact, the museum’s webpage for the Cyrus cylinder (last accessed 4pm UK time 28.11.2012) still offers the following:

This cylinder has sometimes been described as the ‘first charter of human rights’, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.

Nothing like this appears in their press release. On the contrary, the various quotes from institutional heads, curators and others involved in the travelling exhibition promote the Shah’s construction of Middle Eastern history and further embellish his views of Cyrus and the cylinder. Cyrus is now a ‘paragon of the virtuous ruler’, who even inspired America’s Founding Fathers. The more educated view, that the Cyrus Cylinder was the propaganda of a despot who had his enemies tortured, will surely not be part of this temporary exhibition. I dare say, this exhibition may be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

The exhibition will travel to the following five institutions in the US:

  • Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.)
  • Museum of Fine Arts (Houston)
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
  • Asian Art Museum in (San Francisco)
  • J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa (Los Angeles)

For dates, and details of other temporary archaeology exhibitions, click here.