The Cyrus Cylinder or Cyrus Charter is an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several fragments, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of Persia’s Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. It dates from the 6th century BCE and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in 1879. It is currently in the possession of the British Museum, which sponsored the expedition that discovered the cylinder. It was created and used as a foundation deposit following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, when the Neo-Babylonian Empire was invaded by Cyrus and incorporated into his Persian Empire.
The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus, sets out his genealogy and portrays him as a king from a line of kings. The Babylonian king Nabonidus, who was defeated and deposed by Cyrus, is denounced as an impious oppressor of the people of Babylonia and his low-born origins are implicitly contrasted to Cyrus’s kingly heritage. The victorious Cyrus is portrayed as having been chosen by the chief Babylonian god Marduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians. The text states that Cyrus was welcomed by the people of Babylon as their new ruler and entered the city in peace. It appeals to Marduk to protect and help Cyrus and his son Cambyses. It extols Cyrus as a benefactor of the citizens of Babylonia who improved their lives, repatriated displaced people and restored temples and cult sanctuaries across Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the region. It concludes with a description of how Cyrus repaired the city wall of Babylon and found a similar inscription placed there by an earlier king.
The Cylinder’s text has traditionally been seen by biblical scholars as corroborative evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity (an act that the Book of Ezra attributes to Cyrus), as the text refers to the restoration of cult sanctuaries and repatriation of deported peoples. This interpretation has been disputed, as the text identifies only Mesopotamian sanctuaries, and makes no mention of Jews, Jerusalem, or Judea. The Cylinder has also been called the oldest known charter or symbol of universal human rights, a view rejected by others as anachronistic and a misunderstanding of the Cylinder’s generic nature as a typical statement made by a new monarch at the beginning of his reign. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has stated that the cylinder was “the first attempt we know about running a society, a state with different nationalities and faiths—a new kind of statecraft.” It was adopted as a national symbol of Iran by the Imperial State which put it on display in Tehran in 1971 to commemorate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy.
The Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered the Cyrus Cylinder in March 1879 during a lengthy programme of excavations in Mesopotamia carried out for the British Museum. It had been placed as a foundation deposit in the foundations of the Ésagila, the city’s main temple. Rassam’s expedition followed on from an earlier dig carried out in 1850 by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who excavated three mounds in the same area but found little of importance. In 1877, Layard became Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia at the time. He helped Rassam, who had been his assistant in the 1850 dig, to obtain a firman (decree) from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to continue the earlier excavations. The firman was only valid for a year but a second firman, with much more liberal terms, was issued in 1878. It was granted for two years (through to 15 October 1880) with the promise of an extension to 1882 if required. The Sultan’s decree authorised Rassam to “pack and dispatch to England any antiquities [he] found … provided, however, there were no duplicates.” A representative of the Sultan was instructed to be present at the dig to examine the objects as they were uncovered.
With permission secured, Rassam initiated a large-scale excavation at Babylon and other sites on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum.He undertook the excavations in four distinct phases. In between each phase, he returned to England to bring back his finds and raise more funds for further work. The Cyrus Cylinder was found on the second of his four expeditions to Mesopotamia, which began with his departure from London on 8 October 1878. He arrived in his home town of Mosul on 16 November and travelled down the Tigris to Baghdad, which he reached on 30 January 1879. During February and March, he supervised excavations on a number of Babylonian sites, including Babylon itself.
He soon uncovered a number of important buildings including the Ésagila temple. This was a major shrine to the chief Babylonian god Marduk, although its identity was not fully confirmed until the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey’s excavation of 1900. The excavators found a large number of business documents written on clay tablets buried in the temple’s foundations where they discovered the Cyrus Cylinder. Rassam gave conflicting accounts of where his discoveries were made. He wrote in his memoirs, Asshur and the land of Nimrod, that the Cylinder had been found in a mound at the southern end of Babylon near the village of Jumjuma or Jimjima. However, in a letter sent on 20 November 1879 to Samuel Birch, the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, he wrote, “The Cylinder of Cyrus was found at Omran [Tell Amran-ibn-Ali] with about six hundred pieces of inscribed terracottas before I left Baghdad.” He left Baghdad on 2 April, returning to Mosul and departing from there on 2 May for a journey to London which lasted until 19 June.
The discovery was announced to the public by Sir Henry Rawlinson, the President of the Royal Asiatic Society, at a meeting of the Society on 17 November 1879. He described it as “one of the most interesting historical records in the cuneiform character that has yet been brought to light,” though he erroneously described it as coming from the ancient city of Borsippa rather than Babylon. Rawlinson’s “Notes on a newly-discovered Clay Cylinder of Cyrus the Great” were published in the society’s journal the following year, including the first partial translation of the text.
The Cyrus Cylinder is a barrel-shaped cylinder of baked clay measuring 22.5 centimetres (8.9 in) by 10 centimetres (3.9 in) at its maximum diameter. It was created in several stages around a cone-shaped core of clay within which there are large grey stone inclusions. It was built up with extra layers of clay to give it a cylindrical shape before a fine surface slip of clay was added to the outer layer, on which the text is inscribed. It was excavated in several fragments, having apparently broken apart in antiquity. Today it exists in two main fragments, known as “A” and “B”, which were reunited in 1972.
The main body of the Cylinder, discovered by Rassam in 1879, is fragment “A”. It underwent restoration in 1961, when it was re-fired and plaster filling was added. The smaller fragment, “B”, is a section measuring 8.6 centimetres (3.4 in) by 5.6 centimetres (2.2 in). The latter fragment was acquired by J.B. Nies of Yale University from an antiquities dealer. Nies published the text in 1920. The fragment was apparently broken off the main body of the Cylinder during the original excavations in 1879 and was either removed from the excavations or was retrieved from one of Rassam’s waste dumps. It was not confirmed as part of the Cylinder until Paul-Richard Berger of the University of Münster definitively identified it in 1970. Yale University lent the fragment to the British Museum temporarily (but, in practice, indefinitely) in exchange for “a suitable cuneiform tablet” from the British Museum collection.
Although the Cylinder clearly post-dates Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, the date of its creation is unclear. It is commonly said to date to the early part of Cyrus’s reign over Babylon, some time after 539 BC. The British Museum puts the Cylinder’s date of origin at between 539–530 BC.
The surviving inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder consists of 45 lines of text written in Akkadian cuneiform script. The first 35 lines are on fragment “A” and the remainder are on fragment “B.” A number of lines at the start and end of the text are too badly damaged for more than a few words to be legible.
The text is written in an extremely formulaic style that can be divided into six distinct parts:
Lines 1–19: an introduction reviling Nabonidus, the previous king of Babylon, and associating Cyrus with the god Marduk;
Lines 20–22: detailing Cyrus’s royal titles and genealogy, and his peaceful entry to Babylon;
Lines 22–34: a commendation of Cyrus’s policy of restoring Babylon;
Lines 34–35: a prayer to Marduk on behalf of Cyrus and his son Cambyses;
Lines 36–37: a declaration that Cyrus has enabled the people to live in peace and has increased the offerings made to the gods;
Lines 38–45: details of the building activities ordered by Cyrus in Babylon.
The beginning of the text is partly broken; the surviving content reprimands the character of the deposed Babylonian king Nabonidus. It lists his alleged crimes, charging him with the desecration of the temples of the gods and the imposition of forced labor upon the populace. According to the proclamation, as a result of these offenses, the god Marduk abandoned Babylon and sought a more righteous king. Marduk called forth Cyrus to enter Babylon and become its new ruler.
In [Nabonidus’s] mind, reverential fear of Marduk, king of the gods, came to an end. He did yet more evil to his city every day; … his [people …………….…], he brought ruin on them all by a yoke without relief … [Marduk] inspected and checked all the countries, seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything.
Midway through the text, the writer switches to a first-person narrative in the voice of Cyrus, addressing the reader directly. A list of his titles is given (in a Mesopotamian rather than Persian style): “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters [of the earth], son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, descendent of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel [Marduk] and Nebo love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves.” He describes the pious deeds he performed after his conquest: he restored peace to Babylon and the other cities sacred to Marduk, freeing their inhabitants from their “yoke,” and he “brought relief to their dilapidated housing (thus) putting an end to their (main) complaints.” He repaired the ruined temples in the cities he conquered, restored their cults, and returned their sacred images as well as their former inhabitants which Nabonidus had taken to Babylon. Near the end of the inscription Cyrus highlights his restoration of Babylon’s city wall, saying: “I saw within it an inscription of Ashurbanipal, a king who preceded me.” The remainder is missing but presumably describes Cyrus’s rededication of the gateway mentioned.
A partial transcription by F.H. Weissbach in 1911 was supplanted by a much more complete transcription after the identification of the “B” fragment; this is now available in German and in English. Several editions of the full text of the Cyrus Cylinder are available online, incorporating both “A” and “B” fragments.
A false translation of the text – affirming, among other things, the abolition of slavery and the right to self-determination, a minimum wage and asylum – has been promoted on the Internet and elsewhere. As well as making claims that are not found on the real cylinder, it refers to the Zoroastrian divinity Ahura Mazda rather than the Mesopotamian god Marduk. The false translation has been widely circulated; alluding to its claim that Cyrus supposedly has stated that “Every country shall decide for itself whether or not it wants my leadership.” Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi in her acceptance speech described Cyrus as “the very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that … he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it”. Similarly, in a 2006 speech, United States President George W. Bush referred to Cyrus, declaring that his people had “the right to worship God in freedom” – a statement made nowhere in the text of the Cylinder.
The British Museum announced in January 2010 that two inscribed clay fragments, which had been in the Museum’s collection since 1881, had been identified as part of a cuneiform tablet that was inscribed with the same text as the Cyrus Cylinder. The fragments had come from the small site of Dailem near Babylon and the identification was made by Professor Wilfred Lambert, formerly of the University of Birmingham, and Irving Finkel, curator in charge of the Museum’s Department of the Middle East
A horse bone bearing cuneiform inscriptions apparently derived from the Cyrus Cylinder has also been discovered in China along with a second bone inscribed with an as yet unknown text. The bones were acquired by the Beijing Palace Museum in 1985. Their origin is unclear, but Irving Finkel has hypothesized that they may reflect a proclamation in another format (perhaps leather or clay), derived from the Cyrus Cylinder’s text, though for some reason only one in twenty of the original cuneiform symbols were copied. Finkel suggests that this may indicate that the text (or even the original cylinder itself) was sent around the Persian Empire and was copied to make the bone’s inscription at some point.