The Cyrus Cylinder, one of the ancient world’s most iconic objects, went on display March 9 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., where it sits at the heart of a small but priceless exhibition that seeks to inspire people to learn from the past for the sake of a better future.
Julian Raby, director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries at the Smithsonian, noted that the cylinder – the size and shape of a rather blunt football – had become quite a political football as various regimes had sought to impose their own meanings on it.
Why should we care about that sort of game? To answer that question, we begin with a brief review.
The barrel-shaped object in question, made of clay that was incised with 45 lines of neat cuneiform wedges before being baked, was commissioned shortly after 539 B.C. by a ruler known as Cyrus the Great, who could lay claim to having been the first “king of the world.”
Cyrus began his political career as the hereditary king of Persia (roughly equivalent to modern Iran).
As an ambitious young king, he sought to expand his influence, defeating his own grandfather in battle in 550 B.C. and uniting the Medes and the Persians into a single kingdom.
Moving westward, Cyrus defeated king Croesus of Lydia in 547-546. He then turned south to Babylon, which he conquered in 539 B.C.
Eventually, Cyrus ruled an empire stretching from the Indus Valley in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, as far south as Egypt and north to the Hellespont in northwestern Turkey.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, noted that previous empire-builders had ruled “river kingdoms” that spoke predominantly one language and had one generic faith.
Cyrus brought about an entirely different situation as he ruled an empire that was thousands of miles across. It was the first “road empire,” MacGregor said, the first truly multicultural and multifaith empire.
Cyrus’ fame results from allowing the various peoples under his sway to live in their own lands and worship their own gods, so long as they paid regular tribute and asked their gods to bless him.
Previous empire-builders deported conquered peoples and deprived them of avenues to worship their gods.
This is where the story impacts those for whom the Bible is important.
Though written about 200 years after Cyrus’ time, 2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1 and 5 cited royal decrees in which Cyrus had proclaimed liberty to the captives and allowed Hebrews who had been deported by Nebuchadnezzar to return to Jerusalem and the surrounding lands.
The book of Isaiah, in words portrayed as a prophecy, referred to Cyrus as one whom Yahweh had spoken as “my shepherd” who would “carry out my purpose” and rebuild the temple (Isaiah 44:28); as God’s anointed, “whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him” (Isaiah 45:1); and as one whom Yahweh had raised in righteousness “to build my city and set my exiles free” (Isaiah 45:13).
There was no contemporary extrabiblical evidence of Cyrus’ magnanimity, though – until 1879, when an expedition from the British Museum discovered the Cyrus Cylinder in the ruins of a wall while excavating in the city of Babylon.
The Cyrus Cylinder does not mention the Hebrews, but it does name a variety of peoples from the southern part of Babylon who would be allowed to return to their homes and take the images of their gods.
This confirmed that Cyrus did have a policy of allowing conquered peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their temples.
Although a specific decree relative to the Hebrews’ return has yet to be found, we may assume that one existed, and similar language used in the cylinder and Isaiah about this policy can hardly be a coincidence.
Some – most notably Iranian leaders wanting to claim Cyrus’ heritage and portray themselves as righteous and tolerant rulers – have spoken of it as the world’s first Bill of Rights.
Yet, we must keep in mind that Cyrus built his empire through war, conquering other kingdoms by bloody force of arms.
Even though he allowed subjugated peoples freedom of religion and some measure of home rule, he still required of them heavy tribute.
The cylinder is hardly a Bill of Rights, for the concept of individual “human rights” as we know it was largely unknown in the ancient world. Cyrus’ granting of some community rights was a step forward but did not make him a great humanitarian.
Even so, the Cyrus Cylinder stands as an emblem of an innovative king who built a relatively unified empire of disparate peoples by allowing some measure of national and religious freedom beneath the banner of a single ruler.
Cyrus’ governing principles and allowance of religious freedom enabled the Persian Empire to last for 200 years, and was so enduring that Thomas Jefferson was a great admirer.
Can contemporary societies learn something from Cyrus?
Can we as a world, as a nation – or even as Baptists – learn to find greater unity through greater appreciation for each other despite our differences?
Can we forgo the desire to make others over in our image and live together beneath a banner of peace?
Cyrus didn’t go as far as we might like in the arena of human rights, but he pointed us in the right direction.
How far can we advance the ball?
Tony Cartledge is professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs and writes the Nurturing Faith Bible study curriculum. A longer version of this column first appeared on Baptists Today and is used with permission.