The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered in the ruins of Babylon, in modern Iraq, in March 1879. The ancient relic, which was a foundation deposit at the city’s main temple, the Ésagila, was made of baked clay, and measured 22.5 cm (8.85 in) in length. On the Cyrus Cylinder is an account detailing the conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. by Persian king Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, who had created the largest empire of the era. It also describes the capture of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon. The account was inscribed in cuneiform text, and has been dated to between 539 and 530 B.C.
“I am Cyrus, emperor, king of kings, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world, son of Cambyses, great king, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, of the lineage of kings whose reign is blessed by Bel and Nabu, and whose kingship they are pleased to protect.”
The Cyrus Cylinder has a cross-cultural significance. People from different backgrounds, nationalities, and religions recognize it as relevant and important. A replica of the Cyrus Cylinder is kept at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, on the second floor hallway. The main reason for this is how the Cyrus Cylinder is symbolic of tolerance and freedom.
The Cyrus Cylinder Story
The Cyrus Cylinder tells an amazing story: Cyrus conquers Babylon, and what does this king of kings, this greatest king chosen by god, this most powerful man in “the four corners of the world” do? He sets all the peoples free, lets them go back to their homes and homelands.
Most amazingly, he lets them recover their statues and gods – all the things that were confiscated as symbols of victory – and go back to their lives and religions, worshiping their gods in their own way and in their own temples. This is what sets the Cyrus Cylinder apart from a number of other ancient objects. The message is one of tolerance, peace, and multi-culturalism. It portrays a very modern way of ruling with pluralism and tolerance at its core. No wonder many have called the Cyrus Cylinder “the first bill of human rights.”
“I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of the others by force or without compensation. While I am alive, I prevent unpaid, forced labor. Today, I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate other’s rights.”
It is fascinating that 2600 years later, the Cyrus Cylinder still unites people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions in cherishing the wisdom of tolerance. Iranians are proud of the Cyrus Cylinder because it was a Persian King who decided to break the tradition and allowed deported peoples to return home.
To Jewish people the story told by the Cyrus Cylinder is a magnificent one, as it corroborates the events in the Old Testament about King Cyrus allowing captive Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. In fact, in the book of Ezra, King Cyrus permits the Jewish exiled people to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.
The inscription on the cylinder speaks of Cyrus’ promotion of religious, racial, and linguistic freedom and his permission to those deported by the Babylonians to return to their homelands. It extols Cyrus as a benefactor of the citizens of Babylonia who improved their lives, and restored temples and cult sanctuaries across Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the region.
“I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them while I am alive. From now on…, I never let anyone oppress any others, and if it occurs, I will take his or her right back and penalize the oppressor.”