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The Cyrus Cylinder: Its Significance for Today


By Farhang Jahanpour

The Cyrus Cylinder has traveled to the United States for the first time, and it will tour five major metropolitan centers, starting March 9th at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., traveling afterwards to Houston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Despite its antiquity, the cylinder may still have a significant role to play on the international stage today. At a time of great tension between Israel and Iran and between Iran and the United States, the Cylinder can remind us of the time when relations between the Persians and the Jews were not as tense and hostile as they are today and when they saw each other as friends and allies. It also will remind many Americans of Iran’s ancient history and its great contribution to human civilization.

The Cyrus Cylinder Tour Of The United States
Washington, Houston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles
March-December 2013

A Human Rights Charter

Modest in scale and appearance, made of baked clay and just 22 centimeters long, the Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most important and iconic objects in world history. Some commentators have referred to it as "the first charter of human rights". Even if that description may be a little exaggerated, as the concept of human rights did not exist in the ancient world in the way that it does in the modern age, nevertheless, it is an important historical document that tells us a lot about the nature of the Achaemenid Empire, which was the first multi-national and multi-ethnic empire in the ancient world. Covering an area of 8.0 million square kilometers, it unified a vast area from the eastern reaches of present day-Afghanistan to Libya.

Sometimes, we need something concrete to fix our imagination on a difficult and abstract reality, especially one that is more than 2,500 years old. In these days when the West has such a poor and negative view of Iran and the Middle East as a whole, it is important to remind ourselves that the Middle East has been the cradle of civilization, and throw our minds back to the time when modern Iran was the center of civilization in the known world. In order to appreciate the importance of this document, it is necessary to know something about its history and the message that it conveyed, with reference to some other documents that throw more light upon it.

Cyrus the Great: A source of inspiration to kings and princes

That clay object, which was buried as a foundation deposit, can be traced to the Persian king Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. It bears an inscription, written in Babylonian cuneiform that claims Cyrus’s victory over the last Babylonian ruler, Nabonidus. In this text, Cyrus also declared religious freedom for his newly conquered people. Although it does not specifically mention the Jews by name, nevertheless, from Jewish and other sources we learn that Cyrus enabled the Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the second temple, which earned him the title of the “shepherd of God” and even the “Lord’s anointed” (Messiah) in the Book of Isaiah. Although the Cylinder was not discovered until 1879, Cyrus’s support for religious tolerance had inspired generations of prophets, philosophers, rulers, and statesmen-from ancient Greece and the Old Testament prophets to the Renaissance, and to the present age.

Even the founding fathers of the United States sought inspiration from Cyrus and from how he ruled as described in the Cyrus Cylinder and other ancient sources. Thomas Jefferson owned two personal copies of Xenophon’s book, Cyropaedia - the Education of Cyrus - written in the fourth century BC by an Athenian gentleman-soldier, which became a model for the genre known as “mirrors for princes”. One of those copies published in 1767 will be on view in the Washington exhibition. According to Julian Raby, the director of Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Jefferson’s copy of the book shows that he had read the book sentence by sentence and had made many notes on the margins. When his grandson started studying Greek, Jefferson urged him to start with Cyropaedia. When the founding founders wrote the constitution in the 1770s with their emphasis on religious tolerance, Cyropaedia served as one of their sources. Cyropaedia also exerted a great influence upon the most famous book on governance, Machiavelli’s The Prince.

The Cylinder as a Foundation Stone

Using a document as the foundation stone beneath historic buildings was known in the ancient Middle East. The Cyrus Cylinder reflects a long tradition in ancient Iran and Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of their conquests and reforms. The Cyrus Cylinder seems to have been inspired by the inscriptions of Assurbanipal (668-627 BC), the last strong king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, invoking the name of Marduk, the great god of Babylon. Like all ancient and modern conquerors, Cyrus acquired his empire through fighting, bloodshed and conquest. However, the cylinder provides the account of a king who did not delight in conquest, destruction, and murder but in construction, forgiveness and reconciliation. While many Babylonian and Assyrian kings were known for their exceedingly cruel actions and indeed seemed to take pride in their malice and brutality, Cyrus’s message is quite different.

Cyrus’s respect for other religions

One major trait of Cyrus, which is also confirmed by biblical records, was his enlightened and universal view of religion. Although Cyrus was a Zoroastrian and thus believed in the Zoroastrian supreme deity Ahuramazda with its central dictum of “good thoughts, good words and good deeds”, nevertheless, when he conquered Babylon, he honored the chief Babylonian god Marduk as the king of the whole heaven and earth. In fact, he claims to have been chosen by Marduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians. According to Cyrus, having seen the sufferings of the people of Babylon and those who had been forcefully exiled from their lands, “Exalted Marduk” relented and “changed his mind about the settlements whose sanctuaries were in ruins, and the population of the land of Sumer and Akkad who had become like corpses, and took pity on them. He 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.”

Therefore, to his Iranian subjects Cyrus was a king doing the work of Ahuramazda, to the Babylonians he was doing the work of Marduk, while to the Jews he was the agent of the great God Jehovah, as he was described by the Hebrew Bible as the Lord’s Shepherd and the Messiah.

A Prince of Peace

The second important point stressed in the Cyrus Cylinder is the peaceful nature of his conquest and the mercy that he showed to the Babylonians. According to Cyrus, Marduk made him set out for Babylon, accompanying him like a real friend.

Cyrus' widespread troops - their number, like that of the water of a river, could not be established - strolled along, their weapons packed away. Without any battle, he made him enter his own town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity. He delivered into Cyrus' hands Nabonidus, the king who did not worship him. All the inhabitants of Babylon as well as of the entire country of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors included, bowed to Cyrus and kissed his feet, jubilant that he had received the kingship, and with shining faces. Happily they greeted him as a master through whose help they had come again to life from death and had all been spared damage and disaster, and they worshipped his very name.

Even if those claims were mainly for the sake of propaganda, there is no record of any ruler up to that time priding himself on entering a conquered land peacefully and sparing the lives of all its inhabitants.

Religious Tolerance

Yet another distinction of the Cyrus Cylinder that qualifies it as a text advocating human rights, at least in the ancient world, is that Cyrus was the first advocate of religious tolerance. The Cylinder was not merely an instrument legitimizing royal rule, but it also stressed the rights of the people. The document shows that at the height of his power, Cyrus granted many rights to his subjects and honored and protected the lives, dignity and religious beliefs of all the nations under his rule:

Marduk, the great lord, who nurtures his people, saw with pleasure his fine deeds and true heart... He had him enter without fighting or battle right into Shuanna [Babylon]; he saved his city Babylon from hardship... The lord through whose help all were rescued from death and who saved them all from distress and hardship, they blessed him sweetly and praised his name.

Cyrus prides himself not on slaughter, but in ensuring the safety of the people and soothing their weariness:

I sought the safety of the city of Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for the population of Babylon [...] who as if without div [ine intention] had endured a yoke not decreed for them, I soothed their weariness; I freed them from their bonds (?). Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced at [my good] deeds, and he pronounced a sweet blessing over me... that we might live happily in his presence, in well-being...

Freeing Captives

Another important distinction of Cyrus as portrayed in the Cylinder is the order he issued for freeing the slaves and those who had been brought to the city against their will. He also issued orders for the repair and reconstruction of religious temples of various religions that had been destroyed. Cyrus tells us:

From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the borders of the land of Guti - the sanctuaries across the river Tigris - whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nobonidus - 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.

Cyrus According to the Hebrew Bible

From Hebrew and other sources we learn that this order for the repatriation of conquered people to their lands and the restoration of their temples also included the Jews who had been sent into exile by Nebuchadnezzar II. In fact, the Cylinder’s text has traditionally been seen by Biblical scholars as corroborative evidence for the stories in the Bible about the repatriation of the Jewish people following the Babylonian captivity. The Book of Ezra (1-4:5) provides an account of the rebuilding of the temple:

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying “Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, the LORD GOD of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah...”

According to Ezra 4:1-6 “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” had prevented the rebuilding of the temple during the reign of Cyrus, Xerxes (‘Ahasuerus), and Artaxerexes, and the work was finally accomplished during the reign of Darius with massive help that had been provided both by Cyrus and Darius.

The long history of relations and interaction between the Jews and the Persians starts with Cyrus’s conquests. In fact, Cyrus is mentioned 23 times by name and alluded to several times more in the Bible. It is not widely known that fourteen books of the Hebrew Bible have either directly dealt with an event which had happened in Iran or contain references to Persia. Daniel is depicted as one of the three senior administrators of the Persian Empire in the reign of Cyrus and Darius, and it was in the third year of Cyrus that Daniel had his vision. There are many references to Cyrus in Isaiah. The terms used by the author of Deutero-Isaiah are reminiscent of some passages in the Cyrus Cylinder. Although traditionally some of the passages in Isaiah were believed to predate the rule of Cyrus, modern scholars date Isaiah 40-55 towards the end of the Babylonian exile, coinciding with Cyrus’s conquest. Isaiah refers to Cyrus allowing the Jewish exiles to return home:

Who roused from the east him that victory hails at every step? Who presents him with nations, subdues kings to him? His sword makes dust of them and his bow scatters them like straw. He pursues them and advances unhindered, his feet scarcely touching the road. Who is the author of this deed if not he who calls the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, who am the first and shall be with the last. (Isaiah 41:2-4)

In this passage the alliance between Cyrus and God is made explicit, and the words used to describe him are different from the way other rulers are described. The use of the term anointed in relation to Cyrus gives him the status of a messiah:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he has taken by his right hand to subdue nations before him and strip the loins of kings, to force gateways before him that their gates be closed no more: I will go before you levelling the heights. I will shatter the bronze gateways, smash the iron bars. I will give you the hidden treasures, the secret hoards, that you may know that I am the Lord. (Isaiah 45:1-3)

Josephus On Cyrus

Besides the Bible, among classical Jewish sources Josephus (first century AD) also mentions that Cyrus freed the Jews. Josephus refers to the letter from Cyrus to the Jews as follows:

I have given leave to as many of the Jews that dwell in my country as please to return to their own country, and to rebuild their city, and to build the temple of God at Jerusalem on the same place where it was before. I have also sent my treasurer Mithridates, and Zorobabel, the governor of the Jews, that they may lay the foundations of the temple, and may build it sixty cubits high, and of the same latitude, making three edifices of polished stones, and one of the wood of the country, and the same order extends to the altar whereon they offer sacrifices to God. I require also that the expenses for these things may be given out of my revenues. Moreover, I have also sent the vessels which king Nebuchadnezzar pillaged out of the temple, and have given them to Mithridates the treasurer, and to Zorobabel the governor of the Jews, that they may have them carried to Jerusalem, and may restore them to the temple of God. Now their number is as follows: Fifty chargers of gold, and five hundred of silver; forty Thericlean cups of gold, and five hundred of silver; fifty basons of gold, and five hundred of silver; thirty vessels for pouring [the drink-offerings], and three hundred of silver; thirty vials of gold, and two thousand four hundred of silver; with a thousand other large vessels. I permit them to have the same honor which they were used to have from their forefathers, as also for their small cattle, and for wine and oil, two hundred and five thousand and five hundred drachme; and for wheat flour, twenty thousand and five hundred artabae; and I give order that these expenses shall be given them out of the tributes due from Samaria. The priests shall also offer these sacrifices according to the laws of Moses in Jerusalem; and when they offer them, they shall pray to God for the preservation of the king and of his family, that the kingdom of Persia may continue. But my will is, that those who disobey these injunctions, and make them void, shall be hung upon a cross, and their substance brought into the king's treasury."

A Message for Our Time

At a time when political relations between Iranians and Israelis are tense and hostile, the Cyrus Cylinder shows that the relations between the two peoples have been long and intimate. A significant number of Jews have lived in Iran since the time of Cyrus right up to the present time. Even now, Iran is home to the largest number of Jews in the Middle East outside Israel. It would be appropriate for both the Iranians and the Jews to look back and reflect upon their long history of friendship and coexistence. They should learn from the message of the Cylinder, which is as valid today as it was 2,500 years ago. It advocates religious tolerance, respect for other faiths and acceptance of diversity. As such, the principles that it embodies should be central to the debates about the relations between various faiths and nations in the Middle East and indeed throughout the world.

About the author: Farhang Jahanpour is a tutor in the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College, Oxford University. He is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan.


  1. The Cyrus Cylinder Tour Of The United States, 2/23/13,
  2. See Neil MacGregor, “A 2,600-year-old icon of freedom comes to the United States," CNN website, February 24, 2013.
  3. Interview with the BBC Persian Television
    Also see: “The Cyrus Cylinder travels to the US”, the British Museum"
  4. See Xenophon, Cyropaedia, translated by Walter Miller (Loeb Classical Library)
  5. See British Museum: The Cyrus Cylinder
  6. See the translation of the Cyrus Cylinder by Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper, Department of the Middle East, the British Museum. Quotes from the Cylinder refer to this translation.
  7. See Shaul Shaked, "Two Judeo-Iranian Contributions: 1. Iranian Function in the Book of Esther," Irano-Judaica: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture Throughout the Ages, ed. Shaul Shaked (1982), pp. 292-303; cited by Hayida Nahum, "Khatirat-i Yahudiyan-i Iran," Iran Nameh, XV/ 1 (Winter 1997), p. 52.


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