Back in the ancient world, whole clusters of ceremonial objects would be buried at a specific points in temple foundations, with a theorized reason being that these ritualistic items were believed to keep the buildings from ruin. While this didn’t quite work in the longterm, as temples are as structurally fragile as everything else over the centuries, they did turn into inadvertent time capsules. One particular foundation deposit in Babylon contained an artifact that has become as significant symbolically as it is as a relic of the ancient world. And it’s now on its first American tour.
The Cyrus Cylinder is cited by many as the first human rights charter. Its baked clay shape, beat up as it is with pieces missing and cracks, still has Cyrus the Great’s legendary progressive rule legible in its text, provided you can read cuneiform. It dates from the 6th century and describes the conquering of Babylon in 539 BCE by the King of Persia, now modern Iran. It includes his rebuilding of a temple, tolerance of the practicing of chosen religions, and his allowance for the deported people to return home. This was a very different tactic for ruling, and one with a humanity not before seen by a conqueror in history.
It was discovered in 1879 in what is present day Iraq on a British Museum dig and has been on view in that London museum since 1880. Earlier this month it went on display at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sacklery Gallery in Washington, DC with 16 other objects in an exhibition called The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, focusing on innovations under Persian rule from 550 BCE to 331 BCE. It’s traveling to five cities in all, including New York, Houston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Alireza Rastegar, chairman of the Board of Trustees of Iran Heritage Foundation America, which is supporting the Cylinder’s tour, is quoted in a release from the British Museum: “The Cyrus Cylinder and its message of respect for diversity and universal human rights carries a timely message about tolerance for all of us today. We are very grateful to the Iranian American community who have supported us in this endeavour and are looking forward to a positive reception as the Cylinder tours the US.”
Even if this is its first appearance in the United States, its likeness has definitely gotten around. As it’s widely seen as a symbol of tolerance, there’s a replica on display in the United Nations and in San Diego there’s a plaque with a model of the Cylinder set up by the House of Iran in Balboa Park that proclaims it as the “first declaration of human rights.” It’s shown up in replica form in museum shops, and you can even get it on a fancy pen. Pre-1979, the Shah of Iran used it as an emblem, and the British Museum loaned it in 1971 for his 2,500 year Iranian monarchy celebration. During that visit, the Iranian press advocated that its ownership should be with Iran, an issue that came up again as recently as 2010 when it was lent to Iran for display at the National Museum of Iran, although the British Museum has insited they excavated it legally.
Some are in disagreement with the rose-colored view of Cyrus the Great as a benevolent leader, even going so far as to say the Cyrus Cylinder is propaganda. Still, it can’t be denied the Cyrus Cylinder is an intriguing object and one worth returning to as it rolls through the United States, both for how it has survived millennia to transmit its ancient proclamation to our century, and how it continues to evolve as a symbol, one that should provoke us to question how far we’ve progressed in human rights since the time of ancient Babylon.
The Cyrus Cylinder is on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC through April 28. It then travels to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Find its full itinerary here.