"I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world," reads the inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder, now showing at the Asian Museum.
Inscribed with Babylonian cuneiform, one of the world's earliest known forms of writing, the text denounces Nabonidus, the last kind of the neo-Babylonian empire, and boasts of liberating Cyrus’s newly conquered people from religious persecution by restoring their temples, their temple goods and their ceremonial vessels; and sending prisoners and the enslaved home to worship their own gods. ”[I] returned [the people] to their settlements, and the gods of the land . . . I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy,” Cyrus declares in the text. “I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.”
The barrel-shaped clay cylinder was buried as a foundation deposit and was broken at the time of its discovery or soon after. It is comprised of several pieces fixed together; just over one third is missing. A small fragment belonging to Yale University, identified in 1971, is represented by a cast that has been affixed to the Cylinder.
The cylindrical shape was typical of royal inscriptions buried in the foundations of buildings and city walls in Mesopotamia in the first millennium B.C., and was a standard form used for proclamations. According to Hormuzd Rassam (1826–1910), who supervised excavations on behalf of the British Museum, the Cylinder was found to the south of the Amran ibn Ali mound.
The Cyrus Cylinder bears striking similarities to older Mesopotamian royal inscriptions. Previous discoveries are the Cylinder of Marduk-apla-iddina II, who seized the Babylonian throne in 722/1 BC, and the annals of Sargon II of Assyria, who conquered Babylon twelve years later. Both conquerers declare themselves to have been chosen personally by Marduk, the patron god of Babylon.
Cyrus's Cylinder makes exactly the same points. Nabonidus, Cyrus's deposed predecessor as king of Babylon, commissioned foundation texts on clay cylinders – such as the Cylinder of Nabonidus, also in the British Museum – that follows the same basic formula
The Persians' policy towards their subject people, as described by the Cylinder, was traditionally viewed as an expression of tolerance, moderation and generosity "on a scale previously unknown." The policies of Cyrus toward subjugated nations have been contrasted to those of the Assyrians and Babylonians, who had treated subject peoples harshly. He permitted the resettling of those who had been previously deported and sponsored the reconstruction of religious buildings.
Cyrus was often depicted positively in Western tradition by sources such as the Old Testament of the Bible and the Greek writers Herodotus and Xenophon. The Cyropaedia of Xenophon was particularly influential during the Renaissance when Cyrus was romanticised as an exemplary model of a virtuous and successful ruler.
The British Museum's C.B.F. Walker comments that the "essential character of the Cyrus Cylinder [is not] a general declaration of human rights or religious toleration but simply a building inscription, in the Babylonian and Assyrian tradition, commemorating Cyrus's restoration of the city of Babylon and the worship of Marduk previously neglected by Nabonidus.
He cautions that while the Cylinder is "clearly linked with the history of Iran," it is "in no real sense an Iranian document: it is part of a much larger history of the ancient Near East, of Mesopotamian kingship, and of the Jewish diaspora."
In the course of her long history, the land of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley has been ruled by the Amorites, Kassites, Elamites, Assyrians and Chaldeans and the dynasties that followed them to the present day. Yet, it is the name of Cyrus the Great that stands out among the long lists of rulers, good, bad and indifferent. The captains and the kings depart. Their monuments crumble and decay. Yet the most humble material - clay - survives to open a door onto the past.
At the Asian through September 22, 2013