Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

A 2,600-year-old icon of freedom comes to the United States

By Neil MacGregor, Special to CNN
updated 8:08 AM EST, Sun February 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A clay cylinder found under the walls of Babylon is a key link to our past
  • Neil MacGregor says the Cyrus Cylinder describes rare act of tolerance
  • It tells the story of Persian King Cyrus, who allowed conquered people to return home
  • MacGregor: Cyrus Cylinder will tour five major U.S. museums starting in March

Editor's note: Neil MacGregor is the director of the British Museum and author of "A History of the World in 100 Objects" based on his BBC radio series. He spoke at TEDGlobal 2011. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- The Cyrus Cylinder is a small unprepossessing barrel-shaped clay cylinder inscribed in enigmatic-looking cuneiform, and yet is one of the most iconic objects in the unparalleled world collection housed at the British Museum.

It is an object with many meanings and provides a link to a past that we all share and to a key moment in history that has shaped the world around us.

As such it is an object of international significance and is about to start a tour of five major U.S. museums, debuting at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington in March 2013. The tour is supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation.

The Cylinder was buried under the walls of Babylon around 539 B.C. after the Persian king Cyrus had captured the city. It describes how Cyrus was able to defeat the Babylonian king Nabonidus with the aid of the Babylonian god Marduk, who had run out of patience with Nabonidus and his shortcomings.

Once he had entered the city, Cyrus did not burn it to the ground (as usually happened with conquered cities at this period) but he freed the population from forced labor obligations, sent back to various shrines statues of gods, and allowed the people who had been brought to Babylon by the Babylonian kings to return to their homes. By this act, he was effectively allowing people to pursue unmolested their own religious practices.

TED.com: The history of our world in 18 minutes

After it had been buried, the cylinder lay undisturbed for more than 2,400 years until it was dug up in 1879 by a British Museum excavation led by Hormuzd Rassam. When the Babylonian cuneiform was translated, it was immediately realized that the cylinder had a very special significance.

Here was corroboration of one of the best-known stories in the Hebrew Bible, the liberation by Cyrus of the Jews deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar and their return to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple. Although the Jews are not mentioned by name in the cylinder, they clearly must have been among the people allowed to return home at this time, with their temple goods.

The Cyrus Cylinder is put on display at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran on September 12, 2010.
The Cyrus Cylinder is put on display at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran on September 12, 2010.

The cylinder also confirmed existing impressions of Cyrus. In the Hebrew Bible he is variously described as the Lord's Shepherd and the Messiah, no doubt largely because of his favorable treatment of the Jews.

Not only did he allow them to return to Jerusalem, but he also restituted the temple treasures seized by Nebuchadnezzar and provided royal funds to pay for the rebuilding of the temple.

TED.com: Revealing the lost codex of Archimedes

In consequence, Cyrus has been favorably viewed by many Jewish writers, not least in the context of the foundation of the state of Israel. But it is not only in the Bible that Cyrus was revered. The Greek author Xenophon made him the subject of a political romance that seeks to establish the principles of good government, and his book "Cyropaedia" (the Education of Cyrus) is even said to have been consulted by Alexander the Great.

In the 18th century "Cyropaedia" became required reading for all aspiring politicians, along with works such as "The Prince" by Machiavelli, and it certainly influenced the founding fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson is said to have owned two copies, one of which will be on view in the Washington exhibition.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Amidst so many of democracy's icons and treasures, even before the discovery of the cylinder, therefore, Cyrus was a role model for many aspiring to govern. As Julian Raby, Tte Dame Jillian Sackler director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, comments "Cyrus was the very image of a virtuous ruler, so it is apt that the first time it will be seen in the U.S. is in Washington, D.C."

Just as Cyrus has long been a role model, the cylinder itself has now acquired iconic status for people around the world. It has even been described as the first declaration of human rights, and while this was never the intention of the document -- the modern concept of human rights scarcely existed in the ancient world -- it has come to embody the hopes and aspirations of many.

TED.com: Ancient wonders captured in 3D

It has continued to feature in political debate, being the symbol of the celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy in 1971, and also celebrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, as evidenced by its popularity during the recent exhibition in Tehran.

The cylinder may still have a role to play on the international stage today. It advocates -- or can be argued to advocate -- religious tolerance and acceptance of diversity, in terms that derive exclusively from Middle Eastern traditions. As such the principles it embodies should be central to debates about the future of the Middle East and other regions.

Note: After the display at the Sackler gallery, the Cyrus Cylinder will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and will conclude at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles in October.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Neil MacGregor.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT