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Latest Archaeological and Cultural News of Iran and the Iranian World


The Father of the Iranian nation visits the United States

‘The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia’


08 March 2013


The 'Cyrus Cylinder' of ancient Iran, a landmark in social and religious freedom, a potent symbol of Iranian national identity, will begin its first U.S. tour with an exhibit that opens Saturday in Washington.


By Shimon D. Cohen - CAIS


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  (Click to enlarge)


LONDON, (CAIS) -- The Exhibition of ‘The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia’ opens Saturday 9th March, marking the first U.S. appearance of one of the most celebrated objects from antiquity known as the Cyrus Cylinder, declared by many as the ‘World’s First Charter of Human Rights’, an American football-shaped artefact inscribed with orders issued by Cyrus the Great after his conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE.


The exhibition "is about understanding the way Iranians see themselves in the world, and that's obviously important at the moment," said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which loaned the priceless artefact.

Although it is the first time that the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ is going to the US, the cylinder’s principle message, which is the Cyrus the Great doctrine is no stranger to Americans, particularly to one of the U.S. Founding Fathers. 

When the third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson was in need of guidance for drafting the US Constitution, he turned to "Cyropaedia", the biography of the ancient Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, written by the 4th century BCE Athenian historian Xenophon.

What attracted Jefferson to the ancient Emperor was not his military prowess but his enlightened approach to government, and he admired the book so much he owned two copies. Cyropaedia (Kyropaideia) meaning "The Education of Cyrus", told the story of the great Zoroastrian Emperor, the founder of the second Iranian dynastic Empire, the Achaemenids (550-330 BCE), which portrays both his virtue and skills as a soldier and a just leader, a paragon of every conceivable moral virtue. His benevolent character was also confirmed in the Bible, who was chosen as the ‘anointed of the God’.

The Empire that Cyrus founded was not only the world’s first superpower, but also the only Empire that was based on tolerance, justice, respect and equality for its subjects. It stretched into three continents, and covered portions of current-day Greece and all of the Near and Middle East to the southern shores of the Persian Gulf, central Asia, caucuses, North Africa and Indian subcontinent. The Imperial dynasty brought such innovations as an annual budget, monitory, legal and postal systems, a network of roads stretched throughout the empire, a standing professional army and navy and civil service before collapsing in 330 BCE.

Cyrus Cylinder
After it had been buried, the cylinder lay undisturbed for more than 2,400 years until it was dug up by Assyrian Archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in 1879. When the text was translated, “it was immediately realised that the cylinder had a very special significance”, says MacGregor.

The Cylinder in the shape of American football is about nine inches long and four inches wide and inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform. Evidently, the cylinder was created sometime after the inclusion of Babylon into the Persian Empire, while copies were made and dispatched to different parts of his realm. In 1940 a portion of the Cylinder text was discovered in China, which was written on horse bones.

Cyrus is regarded by Iranians as the ‘Father’ and his Cylinder is prized by them as an emblem of their civilisation and it is the most famously referred to and the most internationally recognised as the early human rights charter in the world, said Pardis Minuchehr, director of the Persian program at George Washington University. “It has a message that resonates over centuries and is very inspirational”, he added.

“Once he had entered the city, Cyrus [the Great] did not burn it to the ground (as usually happened with conquered cities in this period) but he freed the population from forced labour obligations and allowed the people who had been brought to Babylon by the Babylonian kings to return to their homes. By this act, he was effectively allowing people to pursue their own religious practices”, eloquently described by Neil MacGregor. 

Dr John Curtis, Keeper of the Middle East collections at the British Museum, adds "one of the most iconic objects in the museum," it is a small, unremarkable oblong of clay almost 9 inches long and 4 inches in circumference. It is battered and broken—and almost half of it is missing—but on the cylinder, densely carved, is the new king's manifesto. It offers the abolishment of Babylonian slavery and promotes religious freedom.

Curtis emphasised "no conqueror had ever spoken like this before, so to that extent it is the first step toward a declaration of human rights."

At a gala dinner on Tuesday March 5th, honouring the cylinder’s arrival at Washington’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Neil MacGregor emphasised on the importance of the ancient Persian artefact saying “more important now than ever” for the light it sheds on Iranian history and the guidance it provides for dealing with “the great diversity in our societies.” 

The charter inscribed on the cylinder is, he said, “the first attempt we know about running a society, a state with different nationalities and faiths — a new kind of statecraft.”

This was a revolutionary approach, totally unheard of and a completely new idea to the world some twenty six centuries ago – and was not heard again in the history of mankind until the establishment of the twentieth century democratic societies in Europe and elsewhere. 

Perhaps today the only country in the world that echoes the past and practices Cyrus’s ideas is the United Kingdom – where justice and tolerance govern the land, which could be a role model for future Iran.

Among the many tribes permitted to return to their settlements were the Jews, who were allowed to take their statues and ceremonial vessels back to Jerusalem, where they were allowed to rebuild their temple. It is a defining moment in their history. In the Bible's 2 Chronicles 36:23, which was probably composed between 350 and 300 BCE, we are told: "Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem. . ." That was written some 200 years after the proclamation by Cyrus the Great, but it was not until a British Museum team in 1879 discovered the cylinder under the walls of Babylon that the Jewish account was corroborated.

Pahlavi II delivers his speech at the 2500 anniversary of the Iranian monarchy at the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great  in 1971.


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


Sadeq Khalkhal


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Sadeq Khalkhali and his mentor Ruhollah Khomeini, who shared the same view regarding Cyrus the Great and the ancient Iranian civilisation


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Modern Politics; Friends and Foes of Cyrus the Great and his Cylinder
Cyrus the Great has been hailed as one of the world’s greatest liberators and humanitarians and therefore many have basked in his lustre; His declarations of tolerance, justice and religious freedom inspired philosophers and policymakers for centuries.

“Just as Cyrus has long been a role model, the cylinder itself has now acquired iconic status for people around the world”, according to Neil MacGregor.

In Iran, the eulogies heaped upon him at the 2500th commemorative celebrations in Iran in 1971, inaugurated by the late Shah if Iran, held in the ancient ruins of Persepolis. And in 2010, hoping to regain a measure of legitimacy in the wake of a rigged election in 2009, the Islamic Republic’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tried to recast himself as a nationalist leading a struggle against foreign foes. More than a million Iranians visited the cylinder, in one of the most-viewed exhibits in the Iran's history.

Since Cyrus the Great freed Jews and encouraged them to return and rebuild their temple at Jerusalem, his Cylinder has played a role. It has been favourably viewed by many Jewish writers, such as Maurice Leory of Brussels’s who described the Cyrus Cylinder as introducing a new and humanitarian tone in the world; while, King George V referred to Cyrus in approving the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which the British government said it viewed with “favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, in the context of the foundation of the state of Israel, called the Persian Emperor a "Zionist hero." Former US President Harry Truman in consequence have exclaimed “I am Cyrus” when he went against the Washington establishment consensus and recognised the state of Israel. 

A replica of the Cyrus Cylinder is also kept at the United Nation Headquarters in New York on the second floor hallway between the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council chambers. But it is for the first time the real ‘Cyrus Cylinder’, travels to the U.S. for a five months tour in five major museums, before returning to his home and case at the British Museum in London. 

But not all have basked in his lustre, as many have committed to a crusade to tarnish Cyrus’s image, by forming a coalition of the Muslim-fundamentalists in Iran and Eurocentrics and Neo-Nazis (anti-Semitics) alike in Europe. These extremists, which have become to be known as the "the Axis of Prejudice" directly or indirectly subscribe to the thoughts of Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali regarding Cyrus the Great. Khalkhali was one of the most notorious clerics in Iran who was renowned for his brutality and mass executions in post-revolutionary Iran that claimed the tile of ‘the hanging judge’ for himself.

Khalkahali, who was a devoted anti-Semitic, in his book "Cyrus the Despot and Liar" published in 1971, called Cyrus the Great "a liar, tyrant and a homosexual-Jew Lover". He describes that “Cyrus freeing the Jews and rebuilding the temples in Jerusalem as a hoax story, propagated by Zionists in order to legitimise the existence of the state of Israel. And if he done that, he did it for propaganda." Not surprisingly, Eurocentrics and Anti-Semitics in the West are also use the same terminology like the hardliner Ayatollah to describe Cyrus – apart from the ‘a Homosexual and a Jew-lover’ for the obvious reasons, which would set them in collision with the law.

Since 1979 and the rise of the clerics to power in Iran, the grime has also commissioned a number of books to be written by newly and over-night-created ‘scholars’, such as Nasser Pourpirar, Abbas Salimi Namin and Hassan Abbassi, denouncing Cyrus the Great and pre-Islamic Iranian civilisation – a few of them have gone as far as claiming Cyrus the Great is a fictional character created by the Israelis and Persepolis was created like theatre stage by the Americans.

In addition, outside Iran, the regime has also hired a number of foreigners to attack Cyrus the Great’ historical figure – some of which claim Cyrus was not even a Persian. It is alleged, that a well known among them is a pseudo-historian who calls himself Jona Lendering, and runs a blog that provides the most biased and inaccurate information about pre-Islamic Iran. It is believed that the majority of the Wikipedia articles concerning the Achaemenid history, particularly those referenced to Cyrus the Great, has been edited by Lendering. To back his propaganda, he references all the entries – majority back to his blog ‘’, or other likeminded blogs and websites. It was also alleged a few years ago that the Islamic republic has opened an office for him in Central Tehran and put him on their pay list for his supererogatory services. To promote himself as a ‘historian’, one of his friends even created a page in Wikipedia. He also began a hate campaign against those Iranian academics not favoured by the Islamic Republic, who are living outside Iran and are expert in Pre-Islamic Iranian history, in particular Dr Kaveh Farrokh. Lendering also succeeded to influence two prominent European newspapers; Der Spiegel and the Daily Telegraph which have fallen for his propaganda and began a hate campaign against Cyrus the Great and ancient Persia.

A Persian Rabbi in 2008 accused Der Spiegel of inciting anti-Semitism and called for a legal action against the editor. Rabbi Yohanna Hamadani described the article as a “dark coalition of anti-Semitic-Neo-Nazis, [Muslim] fundamentalists and Eurocentrics embodied in an article.”

What will U.S. audiences draw from the Exhibition of “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia”?
Those bringing the Cyrus Cylinder to America for the first time, hope some of that cultural diplomacy breaks down contemporary barriers, where political diplomacy has not.

Julian Raby, the director of the Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art, said the show was small in terms of numbers of objects but had a big potential impact.

“One of the goals of this exhibition is to encourage us to reflect that relations between Persians and Jews have not always been marked with the discord that disfigures the political map of the Near East today,” said Julian Raby.

"We're at a very, very tough moment in terms of how we view Iran and how we view Israeli-Iranian relationships. Anything that gets us to reflect on these things is, I think, a good thing," he said.

He noted the Bible refers to Cyrus as “the anointed” of the Lord and that philosophers for thousands of years viewed the king as the model of a virtuous ruler.

“This must be one of the chief tasks of our time: to build the global community where people of all persuasions, all ethnicities, can look with respect at one another’s most sacred traditions and learn to co-exist,” said Karen Armstrong, a religious scholar, at the British Museum during the send-off of the cylinder to the US.

Dr Curtis says: "It will be interesting for expatriate Iranians, who hold it in special reverence, and also for Jewish groups. Above all, it is helpful that Americans should be informed about the very rich cultural legacy of Iran and its contribution to the development of world civilisation. People tend to think that Iran and other countries in the Middle East don't have any ancient history—that it is all intertwined with religious fanaticism. It's good to set the record straight." 

It is expected large number of American and Iranian audiences will flock to see the cylinder during the US visit, where it will inevitably provoke comparisons with the Bill of Rights.

The British Museum Director Neil MacGregor said in a recent lecture at TEDGlobal 2011: "It bears comparison with the American Constitution, in spite of the [twenty five] centuries that divide them, as an historic statement of how a disparate polity may be humanely governed."

He continues, “The cylinder may still have a role to play on the international stage today. It advocates -- or can be argued to advocate -- religious tolerance and acceptance of diversity.”

The exhibit ‘The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia,’ features architectural fragments, carvings and plaques showing the spread of the Zoroastrian religion, and luxury objects such as bracelets and gold and silver bowls. The show is debuting in D.C. at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington in March 9 through till April 28. After the display at the Sackler gallery, the Cyrus Cylinder will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and will conclude at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles in October.

The Exhibition is backed by the British museum and is sponsored by members of the Iranian diaspora — in particular, the Iran Heritage Foundation.


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