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Who broke the Cyrus Cylinder?


By A.J. Cave

Just one look at the Cyrus Cylinder (normally on display at the British Museum, on tour in the United States during 2013), and it is obvious that the celebrated cylinder was badly broken at one point during its existence and pieced together, with roughly one-third of it missing.

Cyrus Cylinder on display at the Asian Museum in San Francisco
(photo by Ali Moayedian - September 8, 2013)

A fairly traditional building foundation deposit, the barrel-shaped small cylinder was expertly made by the Babylonian scribes sometime after the royal city of Babylon, the sophisticated cosmopolitan center of the Babylonian world, fell to the conquering Persians in October of 539 BCE, making it a little over 2,500 years old.

The use of foundation deposits in ancient Near Eastern buildings was nothing new. The practice stretched back to the third millennium BCE and in the early second millennium the kings started to use them as a way to ensure the longevity of their names and their deeds. The foundation deposits became like memorandums of understanding between the kings (their scribes) who wrote them and the gods (their scribes) who read them. When the kings built new palaces or repaired old temples and walls, their scribes wrote their pious deeds on clay (or more precious materials) and made copies and put them in the cornerstones of buildings or niches in the walls.

The foundation deposits were like royal messages in clay bottles floated in a sea of sand. They were meant to be found by other kings. There was an ancient written and unwritten rule that these royal inscriptions were endowed with powerful curses upon anyone who removed them from their resting places and destroyed them.

The formidable King Samsi-Addu (Akkadian: Shamshi-Adad, 1808-1776 BCE), contemporary of the famous Babylonian King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), explicitly described the care and feeding of the foundation deposit inscriptions when he came across the one left in the foundation of the Temple of Ishtar by the Akkadian King Manishtushu (2275-2261 BCE), son of Sargon the Great (Akkadian: Sharru-kin, 2340-2285 BCE):

The monumental inscription and foundation inscriptions of Maništušu I swear I did not remove but restored to their places. I deposited my monumental inscriptions and foundation inscriptions beside his monumental inscriptions and foundation inscriptions. Therefore the goddess Ištar, my lady, has given me a term of rule which is constantly renewed. In the future when the temple becomes old, when Ekituškuga which I have built has become dilapidated, and the king whom the god Enlil appoints to restore it: May he not remove my monumental inscriptions and foundation inscriptions as I did not remove monumental inscriptions and foundation inscriptions of Maništušu but restore them to their places.

Albert Kirk Grayson (1987): Assyrian Rulers of the Third and Second Millennia B.C.

This process of restoration, according to Samsi-Addu, was to anoint the foundation deposit with oil, make a sacrifice and put the object back in its place. Oil probably kept the unbaked clay from drying out and turning into dust while buried.

The imperial Persian builders improved on this ancient practice for their own royal palaces. The foundation deposits found in 1930s from the Apadana Palace in Persepolis (Persian: Parsa), were made of gold and silver and inscribed in Akkadian, Elamite and (Old) Persian with the good words of the Achaemenid Great King Darius I (Persian: Darayavaush, 552-486 BCE) and put in finely made stone boxes along with some coins and placed in the four corners. Two of those boxes and their contents had survived in the southwestern and northeastern corners of Apadana.

The Cyrus Cylinder was found in February-March of 1879 somewhere in the ruins of ancient Babylon (now in modern Iraq) by the local laborers of the Assyrian-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam, who excavated on behalf of the British Museum with the permission of the Ottoman Empire.

Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910) had been the assistant to the legendary British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard (later Sir Henry Layard, 1817-1894) from 1845 to 1851 and had continued excavating until 1854 after Layard had returned to England.

While the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the most celebrated cuneiform objects in the world, was discovered under his watch, the Anglicized Hormuzd Rassam never became famous like his British contemporaries.

The broken clay cylinder did not raise too many eyebrows when it arrived at the British Museum, since broken tablets were (and are) the norm rather than the exception. We bend and break in the normal wear and tear of life, and we don’t expect the things we make to fare any better.

Cyrus Cylinder on display at the Asian Museum in San Francisco
(photo by Ali Moayedian - September 8, 2013)

But what if the Cyrus Cylinder had survived intact for thousands of years and was found in one piece and was broken intentionally afterwards? And if so, who did it, and why?

The intriguing whodunit might sound like pedantic hair-splitting to the public at a time when the popular focus is on the diplomatic meaning of the royal message, especially at a time when it seems we are heading into another war in the Middle East, but it makes a world of difference to the practitioners-the scholars who study such ancient objects to get at the (hi)story of people who did not get around to write one of those sensational tell all historical novels about themselves.

The breathtaking conquest of Babylon turned the relatively obscure Anshanite King Cyrus (Akkadian: Kurash, Persian: Kurush, Greek: Kyros, 559-530 BCE) into the King of (all) the Lands and made Persia into an empire. When that king freed the people held captive in Babylon by the former Babylonian kings, among them the Judean exiles and those Judeans happened to be the scribes of the Hebrew Bible who returned the royal favor, the fame of King Cyrus of Persia became cast in biblical stone, when he received the same title as the Messiah: “My anointed”, the divinely designated deliverer.

From a powerful warrior-king who was the first to bring all the warring kingdoms of known Asia under his command, all the royal inscriptions we have so far are this modest (broken) clay cylinder and a couple of stamped sundried bricks.

The story of the recovery of the Cyrus Cylinder is tightly woven with the history of early (19th century) western excavations in the Near East-later called the Fertile Crescent-that was under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (1299-1923 CE) at the time.

1842 was the year that had marked the start of excavations in the biblical lands of ancient Near East. And 1850s was the decade when the code of cuneiform script had finally been cracked (1857) by a handful of gifted European scholars using the trilingual inscription of the Achaemenid Great King Darius I at Behestun (now Bisutun in modern Iran)-most famous among them, Englishman Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (later Sir Henry Rawlinson, 1810-1895). And the old rivalry between the English and the French spilled over into a race for ancient Near Eastern antiquities and tablets.

The focus of attention during the years stretching between the mid-1850s and early 1870s had shifted to the study of the cuneiform tablets, chief among them the clay tablet fragments from the amazing Library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (Akkadian: Aššur-bani-apli, 669-631 BCE) that had fallen to into the hands of Layard and Rassam while excavating the Assyrian royal city of Nineveh.

Just as ancient Near East was returning to obscurity after a flurry of western activities, in 1872 Englishman George Smith (1840-1876), a brilliant self-taught Assyriologist working at the British Museum, stumbled upon a broken cuneiform tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal-now called the “Flood Tablet”- that became pivotal in biblical studies and revitalized the western interest in returning to the ancient biblical lands to find more cuneiform tablets that could shed light on the biblical stories.

Amazingly enough, Smith found another fragment of the Flood Tablet in Layard’s old excavation pit in Nineveh, along with over 3,000 tablets and fragments from the royal library of Ashurbanipal between 1873 and 1876. Sadly, on his way back from Nineveh, Smith got sick and died in a small village near Aleppo in Syria.

Roughly around the same time Smith had been excavating in Nineveh in the north, to the dismay of the British Museum thousands of illegally excavated tablets had started to flood the Baghdad antiquities market from the south-among them, the astronomical diaries. 

So the British Museum turned to Hormuzd Rassam and he was called out of retirement in 1877 and sent to the Near East with one mission: finding as many cuneiform tablets as possible.

Mosul-born Rassam was fluent in Arabic and Aramaic (commonly called Chaldee) making him popular with the local laborers, but things had changed since the last time he had excavated in the area in early 1850s-the Germans had advanced the methods of excavating ancient structures at Samothrace, the Ottomans had enacted a new antiquities law in 1874, labor costs were higher, and the crude methods used in excavating the stone monuments of Nineveh were not suited to tracing the decayed mud-brick buildings of ancient Babylon buried in shapeless heaps of earth.

As the story goes, during his second act, Rassam was frantically moving between five digging sites of interest in and around Babylon in search of a spectacular find to match the fame of his British predecessors, leaving the daily humdrum supervision of the sites to his local foremen. The work went on even during the months Rassam returned to England each year. So he was not present when the cylinder was found by his nameless diggers-mostly Arab villagers-some of whom (or their kith and kin) had previously worked for Layard and Rassam decades ago.

Without the ability to decipher and read the Akkadian cuneiform signs, Rassam did not know his men had not found just a cuneiform cylinder but “The Cyrus Cylinder”. This was decades before haphazard digging for buried treasures grew into scientific searching for lost peoples and civilizations-modern archaeology.

In the absence of any field records of the finds, not much Rassam could have said with any certainty. The two accounts that he later provided: one in a letter dated 20 November 1879 to Samuel Birch, Keeper (head) of the Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, and the other in his archaeological memoires Asshur and the Land of Nimrod (New York, 1897) somewhat diverged, so when and where the cylinder was found (find-spot) and in what shape depends on which source you are reading-ranging from Esagila, the temple of Marduk, the chief great god of Babylon in the northern part of the Amran mound, to the great wall of Babylon in the southern part of the mound, called Jumjuma (meaning skull in Arabic) by the locals.

The Cyrus Cylinder (see high resolution)
Cyrus Cylinder US Tour 2013

On 28 August, 2013, Dr. Jon Taylor, Assistant Keeper of Cuneiform Collections at the British Museum gave a talk: “Hormuzd Rassam and the Discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder” to a packed audience at Cal (UC Berkeley). The talk was presented by the Assyrian Heritage Fund and co-sponsored by the Center for the Middle Eastern Studies and the Townsend Center for Humanities. Among the attendees was the elderly great, great, great grandson of one of the brothers of Rassam who had traveled just for the occasion.

To prepare for the talk, Dr. Taylor had resorted to archival research in the vast acquisition registers of the British Museum. Thumbing through old records at the museum, he found out (rather unexpectedly) that the cylinder (identified later as the “Cyrus Cylinder” by the Assyriologists the British Museum) was listed as “unbroken” in boring bureaucratic documents, leading him to speculate that the cylinder was most likely broken (perhaps intentionally) before it was shipped to London.


Intense western interest in eastern biblical lands and peoples in the 19th century did not just lead to spectacular discoveries of ancient civilizations, it sparked a lively global trade in ancient artifacts procured in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” manner. Since 1850s illicit diggings for antiquities that institutions and individuals are willing to pay good money for have progressed in the Middle East without any sign of decline. Local laborers usually got paid literally pennies for each inscribed tablet they dug up, so it was not unusual for them or actually anyone in the antiquities supply-chain to break clay tablets they found into pieces to increase their meager pay and sell the “surplus” to Baghdad dealers.

Dr. Taylor prepared a list of the usual suspects who had access and motive to break the unbroken cylinder, and like a clever crime novel detective eliminated all but two, one of them Daud (Fat) Toma, one of overseers Rassam had hired-not deemed trustworthy even by Rassam himself.

We would never know without a shadow of a doubt, but we can safely say that the real culprit was the insatiable black market for antiquities.

So the broken Cyrus Cylinder gives us a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes realities of the brutal business of early Near Eastern archaeology at the time of its recovery.

The fragments of the Cyrus Cylinder were joined by the conservators at the British Museum, forming a larger fragment known as Fragment A. Another fragment (known as Fragment B) remained on the antiquities market in the Middle East for a couple of decades until it was acquired by Dr. James Nies and given to the Yale University around 1920. The Yale Fragment was identified as a piece of the Cyrus Cylinder in 1970, and the British Museum Fragment A and the Yale Fragment B were joined in 1971.

Whether the missing piece(s) turned into rubble when the cylinder was broken, or the fragments were sold to other museums or private collectors remains a mystery. But one of the unintended consequences has been speculation about the “missing lines” and their content-taken to the extremes of “Persianizing” the Babylonian object with the addition of fanciful translations for non-existing lines!

Scanning the Cyrus Cylinder and creating a virtual 3-Dimensional model of it could become a great tool for Assyriologists who could easily place the surviving royal inscription on the full flattened image of the cylinder and discuss the process of educated guessing and filling in the gaps-all the letters and words in square brackets in various translations-combining the knowledge gained from the vast corpus of Akkadian texts with modern technology.

Dr. Taylor also narrowed the find-spot of the Cyrus Cylinder to the south-west junction of the great (inner) wall of Babylon, called Imgur Enlil, and the quay wall on the bank of Euphrates River, using the account of an American traveler who was told in 1880 by the locals that the cylinder was found in a niche in a wall-consistent with the inscription on the cylinder, as translated by Dr. Irving Finkel from the British Museum (2013):

Line 38. I strove to strengthen the defenses of the wall Imgur-Enlil, the great wall of Babylon,

Line 39. and [I completed] the quay of baked brick on the bank of the moat which an earlier king had bu[ilt but not com]pleted its work.  

Line 40. [I ...... which did not surround the city] outside, which no earlier king had built, his workforce, the levee [from his land, in/int]o Shuanna.  

The date of the discovery of the cylinder was further narrowed by Dr. Taylor to the week of March 17-23-the week of spring vernal equinox, when both the Babylonian New Year Festival (Akitu) and the Persian New Year Festival were celebrated.

That would have pleased both the Babylonian great god Marduk and the Persian Great King Cyrus.


About the author: A.J. Cave is the author of Cyrus 0.9: Highlander, a preview of her upcoming novel about Cyrus the Great.


Cyrus Cylinder on display at the Asian Museum in San Francisco
(photo by Ali Moayedian - September 8, 2013)


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