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CYRUS THE GREATS' CYLINDER

The World's First Charter of the Human Rights


 

Shapour Suren-Pahlav

 

Abstract: During excavations at Babylon (1879-82), Assyrian archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered a small (ten inches), clay, barrel-shaped cylinder that contained an inscription from Cyrus the Great. Now housed in the British Museum, the cylinder reported the Emperor’s policy regarding captives: “I [Cyrus] gathered all their [former] inhabitants and returned [to them] their habitations”.

 


 

Cyrus the Great' Cylinder 

(Picture courtesy of the British Museum)

 

 

   

The cylinder of Cyrus the Great was discovered in 1879 by the Assyrian archaeologist Hormuz Rassam in his excavations at the site of Babylon. It is barrel-shaped, around 23cm long and 11cm wide, and is inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform. Now housed in the British Museum, it includes a detailed account by Cyrus of his conquest of Babylon in 539BCE and his subsequent humane treatment of his conquered subjects. It has been hailed as the world’s first declaration of human rights.

 

Cyrus TG Cylinder 2500 Years Stamp.JPG (35357 bytes)

Cyrus Cylinder depicted on a postage stamps issued on 12 October 1971 to celebrate the 2,500-year anniversary of the Imperial Regime in Iran 

(Click to enlarge)

2500_Year_symbol.jpg (72507 bytes)

Cyrus Cylinder chosen as  the symbol of 2,500-year anniversary of the Imperial Regime in Iran (Click to enlarge)

The (incomplete) inscription on the cylinder starts by describing the criminal deeds of the Babylonian king Nabonidus (lines 4-8); as well as how Marduk, the Babylonian god, had looked for a new king and chosen Cyrus (lines 9-19). It continues with the famous:  

I am Cyrus, king of the world, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world” (line 20)

 

After a description of Cyrus’ ancestry and of royal protocol (lines 21-22), it goes on to explain how Cyrus established peace and abolished forced labour (lines 22-25):  

“The people of Babylon . . . the shameful yoke was removed from them” (line 25)

 

The inscription continues by detailing reparative building activities in Babylon as well as asking for prayers for Cyrus (lines 25-28). It makes specific reference to the Jews, who have been brought to Babylon – and who Cyrus supported in leaving for their homeland.

 

Demonstrating his religious tolerance, Cyrus restored the local cults by allowing the gods to return to their shrines:  

“ . . the gods, who resided in them, I brought back to their places, and caused them to dwell in a residence for all time.

 

And the gods of Sumer and Akkad – whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon – by the command of Marduk, the great lord, I caused them to take up their dwelling in residences that gladdened the heart” (lines 32-36)

 

The cylinder describes the Great King not as a conqueror, but as a liberator and the legitimate successor to the crown of Mesopotamia. Cyrus seems to have had no idea of forcing his new subjects into a single Persian identity, and had the wisdom to leave intact the functioning institutions of each kingdom he attached to the Imperial Crown.

 

Cyrus officially crowned himself “King of Babylon and King of the Land”. After the coronation, which was in Marduk Temple, Cyrus apparently publicly declaimed the words found on the cylinder.

 

Inscription corroborates many of the details in Ezra 1:1-5 describing Cyrus supporting the Jews in returning to Judea from captivity to rebuild the Temple in 537BCE. Isaiah also backs up the idea of Cyrus as a benign and chosen ruler:

“Thus saith the Lord to the anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden . . . he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the Lord of hosts” Isaiah 45: 1-13

 


Notes and
Bibliography

 

C. B. F. Walker, Cuneiform Brick Inscriptions in the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the City of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, London, 1981.

—, “A Recently Identified Fragment of the Cyrus Cylinder,” Iran 10, 1972, pp. 158-59.

A. Kuhrt, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testa­ment 25, 1983, pp. 83-97.

M. E. L. Mallowan, “Cyrus the Great (558-529 B.C.),” Iran 10, 1972, pp. 1-17.

M. A. Dandamaev, A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire, tr. W. J. Vogelsang, Leiden, 1989, pp. 1-69.

E. Bickerman, “The Edict of Cyrus in Ezra 1,” in E. Bickerman, Studies in Jewish and Christian History I, Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums 9, Leiden, 1976, pp. 72-108.

A. L. Oppenheim, “The Babylonian Evidence of Achaemenian Rule in Mesopotamia,” in Camb. Hist. Iran II, pp. 537-54

—, “Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts,” in J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton, 1969, pp. 315-16 (translation of the cylinder text).

 

 

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