Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning Mar 7, 2013 14:36:32 GMT -5
Post by shira on Mar 7, 2013 14:36:32 GMT -5
A King's Manifesto
By RICHARD HOLLEDGE
The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning
When Thomas Jefferson was in need of guidance he turned, as many statesmen did, to that handbook of political subtleties, Machiavelli's "The Prince." But arguably more important to the third U.S. president was a biography by the Greek historian Xenophon called "Cyropedia." In fact, he seems to have admired the book so much he owned two copies. With many an imaginative flourish, it told the story of King Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, whose realm stretched from the Mediterranean to eastern Iran and from the Black Sea to the borders of Arabia in the south.
Xenophon, who lived between 430 and 355 B.C., described how Cyrus owed his triumphs to "the sheer terror of his personality," but what made him attractive to Jefferson was not his military prowess but his enlightened approach to government.
The Trustees of the British Museum
When Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C., he proclaimed his principles on what is known as the Cyrus Cylinder.
When Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C., he proclaimed his principles on what has come to be known as the Cyrus Cylinder. Described by John Curtis, keeper of special Middle East projects at London's British Museum, as "one of the most iconic objects in the museum," it is a small, unremarkable oblong of clay almost 9 inches long and 4 inches in circumference. It is battered and broken—and half of it is missing—but on the cylinder, densely carved, is the new king's manifesto. It offers freedom to Babylon's slaves and their right to worship their own gods.
On Saturday, the Cyrus Cylinder is embarking on a nine-month tour of the U.S., starting with the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, where it will inevitably provoke comparisons with the Bill of Rights. As British Museum Director Neil MacGregor said in a recent lecture: "It bears comparison with the American Constitution, in spite of the centuries that divide them, as an historic statement of how a disparate polity may be humanely governed."
The opening words from Cyrus to his new empire are very much what would have been expected of a conquering hero. In cuneiform script, which used wedge-shaped symbols for syllables, he announces:
"I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world . . ."
What makes it unique are the conciliatory words that follow, which include:
"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. 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 . . ."
This was radical stuff some 25 centuries ago. But talking in the Ancient Iran room that houses the cylinder, Mr. Curtis is quick to say that it is an oversimplification to call the cylinder a Bill of Rights. "The Cylinder has a kind of afterlife. It may be significant to some people for what they think it says rather than for what it actually does say," he notes. "Nonetheless, no conqueror had ever spoken like this before, so to that extent it is the first step toward a declaration of human rights."
Among the many tribes permitted to return to their settlements were the Jews, who were allowed to take their statues and ceremonial vessels back to Jerusalem, where they were allowed to rebuild their temple. It is a defining moment in their history. In the Bible's 2 Chronicles 36:23, which was probably composed between 350 and 300 B.C., we are told: "Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem. . ." That was written some 200 years after the proclamation by Cyrus, but it was not until a British Museum team in 1879 discovered the cylinder under the walls of Babylon that the Jewish account was corroborated.
Many have basked in the luster of Cyrus since. In the Iran of the 1960s, use of the term "Charter of Human Rights" became increasingly popular, culminating in 1971 when the shah celebrated 2,500 years of Persian history at the ancient ruins of Persepolis, where he represented himself as a direct descendant of Cyrus. At about the same time, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, who was well disposed to the shah, called Cyrus a "Zionist hero." And in 2010, at a ceremony to celebrate a loan of the cylinder by the British Museum to Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reminded the audience of the relevance that Cyrus and his cylinder had to modern Iran, suggesting that Iran will "set free the people that tyrants have enslaved."
What will U.S. audiences draw from the tour?
Mr. Curtis says: "It will be interesting for expatriate Iranians, who hold it in special reverence, and also for Jewish groups. Above all, it is helpful that Americans should be informed about the very rich cultural legacy of Iran and its contribution to the development of world civilization. People tend to think that Iran and other countries in the Middle East don't have any ancient history—that it is all intertwined with religious fanaticism. It's good to set the record straight."
Mr. Holledge is a freelance writer based in the U.K.
A version of this article appeared March 7, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A King's Manifesto.