In an age when “going on tour” commonly refers to musical shows, relics of an 2600-year-old royal rock star have begun a seven-city tour of the U.S., and it’s well worth making the effort to see.

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 on loan from the British Museum. Entitled “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning,” it seeks to inspire people to learn from the past for the sake of a better future.

On March 7 I attended a preview and press conference hosted by the Smithsonian and featuring officials from both the Smithsonian Institute and the British Museum. 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.

But why, many readers may be asking, should I care about that sort of game — especially when I don’t even know what the Cyrus Cylinder is?

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 BCE 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), the son of Cambyses I and his wife Mandane, who was the daughter of Astyages, the king of the Medes. As an ambitious young king, Cyrus sought to expand his influence, defeating his own grandfather in battle in 550 BCE, thus uniting the Medes and the Persians into a single kingdom and beginning what is called the Achaemenid period (both the Medes and the Persians claimed to be descended from an earlier king named Achaemenes).

Moving westward, Cyrus went on in 547 or 546 to defeat king Croesus of Lydia, whose wealth was so legendary that “as rich as Croesus” became a byword that is used to this day. He then turned south to Babylon, which he conquered in 539 BCE, routing the absentee king Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar, famously known from Daniel 5 as the potted potentate who desecrated the temple vessels from Jerusalem before seeing the portentous “handwriting on the wall.”

Eventually, Cyrus ruled an empire stretching from the Indus Valley in the east to the Mediterranian Sea in the west, as far south as Egypt and north to the Hellespont in northwestern Turkey. He built an impressive capital in Pasagardae, in what is now the Fars province of southwestern Iran.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British MuseumNeil 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, even if it had to be imposed over indigenous gods. Cyrus brought about an entirely different situation, said MacGregor, as he ruled an empire that was thousands of miles across. It was the first “road empire,” MacGregor said: the first truly multicultural and multi-faith empire.

Cyrus’ fame results from his strategy of 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 the one king, namely Cyrus. Previous empire-builders, such as the Babylonians and Assyrians, had favored a strategy of deporting conquered peoples and depriving 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, repatriating the implements and vessels that had been taken from Solomon’s temple.

A cylinder seal belonging to Darius the Great, who succeeded Cyrus’ son Cambyses IIThe 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 (Isa. 44:28); as God’s anointed, “whose right hand I have grasped to subue nations before him” (Isa. 45:1); and as one whom Yahweh had raised in righteousness “to build my city and set my exiles free” (Isa. 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. It was customary for Babylonian kings to have their deeds recorded on clay tablets, cylinders, or cones that would be embedded in the foundations of their building projects, and Cyrus apparently adopted the tradition when he rebuilt the wall.

The Cyrus Cylinder does not mention the Hebrews (a common misconception), 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, which Nabonidus had apparently consolidated in Babylon, back to their cities.

Lines 32b-34a of the inscription claims:

I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus—to the fury of the lord of the gods—had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. (Shu-anna was a section of the city of Babylon where temples were concentrated).

Cyrus declared his hope that all the gods would show their gratitude toward him. In lines 34b-36, we read:

May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant (?) days, and the population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship. I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.”

The Cyrus Cylinder, then, confirmed that Cyrus did in fact 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.

Take note of this: lines 12-13 of the Cyrus Cylinder, written in Babylonian, indicate that the god Marduk searched for and called out Cyrus as an “upright king,” that he “took the hand of Cyrus” and “called him by his name,” proclaiming his “kingship over all of everything,” after which Cyrus “shepherded in justice and righteousness the black-headed people.” (“Black-headed people” was a term the Babylonians used to describe themselves.)

Recall that Isaiah (cited above) claimed that Yahweh called out Cyrus as one who was righteous, that he called him by name, took him by the right hand, and established him as king so that he might shepherd the people. The similarity of language in Isaiah and the Cyrus Cylinder can hardly be a coincidence.

Alex Nagel, assistant curator for the ancient Near East at the Smithsonian, speaks with a member of the press. So again — beyond its impressive confirmation of a biblical story, why should I care about the Cyrus Cylinder? 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.

Forgive them the hyperbole: they are politicians. For all of his fame as a benevolent leader, we must keep in mind that Cyrus built his empire through war, conquering other kingdoms (including his grandfather’s) 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: lines 29-30 of the cylinder speak of how kings from every quarter “brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna and kissed my feet.”

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 managed to build 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. He owned two copies of the Greek historian Xenophon’s biography of Cyrus, the Cyropaedia, and recommended it to other potential leaders.

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 apprecation 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?


[All translations from the Cyrus Cylinder are by Irving Finkel, who is assistant keeper for the Middle East at the British Museum. A “TED Talks” presentation by Neil MacGregor on the Cyrus Cylinder can be found at this link:]

The Cyrus Cylinder exhibition will make several stops in the U.S.:

  • Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.,
    9 March – 28 April 2013
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
    3 May – 14 June 2013
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
    20 June – 4 August 2013
  • Asian Art Museum, San Francisco,
    9 August – 22 September 2013
  • J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles,
    2 October – 2 December 2013
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