News / Middle East

Ancient Symbol of Human Rights Visits US

Ancient Artifact Considered Oldest Declaration of Human Rightsi
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March 11, 2013 11:09 PM
A clay cylinder from the sixth century BCE is making its debut at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington D.C. Inscribed with messages from King Cyrus the Great of ancient Persia - present-day Iran -- the object is regarded as the world’s first declaration of human rights and was an inspiration for democratic reformers going back centuries. VOA reporter Julie Taboh attended the exhibit's opening.
An ancient clay cylinder credited with containing the world’s first declaration of human and religious rights, is touring the United States.

Dating from the sixth century BCE, and smaller than an American football, the artifact is inscribed with proclamations from King Cyrus the Great of ancient Persia, present-day Iran, who ruled almost 2,600 years ago.

The words, which declare religious freedom for his newly conquered people, have inspired generations of philosophers and rulers.

Ancient icon

The entire surface of the barrel-shaped cylinder is inscribed in ancient Babylonian cuneiform, one of the earliest written languages.

King Cyrus is one of Persia's best-known historical figures. He founded the Achaemenid Empire (550 - 330 BCE), the world's largest empire, which encompassed the entire present-day Middle East.

Cyrus' cylinder is on loan from the British Museum and was unveiled for the first time in America, at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, in an exhibit entitled, "The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning."

“Why this object is so important is because it’s probably the first time in human history that we have evidence of a ruler thinking about how you manage a society with people of different traditions, different languages, different ethnicities, and above all, different religions,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

Babylon

The cylinder was buried in Babylon, present-day Iraq, after Cyrus captured the city in 539 BCE.

It was discovered in 1879 during an excavation by the British Museum.  
The Cyrus cylinder on display at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC. ©The Trustees of the British MuseumThe Cyrus cylinder on display at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC. ©The Trustees of the British Museum
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The Cyrus cylinder on display at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC. ©The Trustees of the British Museum
The Cyrus cylinder on display at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

The inscriptions on it describe Cyrus’ capture of the city and his intention to allow freedom of worship to communities displaced by the defeated Babylonian ruler Nabonidus.

The cylinder’s discovery confirmed several biblical references to its existence and provided important insights into Cyrus' moral leadership, according to John Curtis of the British Museum, who curated the exhibit.

“First of all, Cyrus says he captured Babylon peacefully," he says. "He didn’t burn the city, raze it to the ground, as was the general custom at that time and he says he allowed the inhabitants of Babylon to go about their business in peace.”

Cyrus also freed the Jews who had been kept in captivity there, allowing them to return to Jerusalem.  

In light of that history, MacGregor finds the tension between Iran and Israel today to be strange.

“For Jews through the millennia, Cyrus has always been a hero, and the Persian Empire has always been the great moment in history for the Jews and for the recovery of Jerusalem," he says. "So it’s surprising that relations are so difficult."

He adds that it's equally puzzling to witness the tense relations between Iran and the United States, "because when the founding fathers of the United States were framing the Constitution they opted for the model of Cyrus, who had a view that different faiths should co-exist but government should not endorse any of them.”

Lasting legacy

“Before the cylinder was even discovered, Cyrus was a very famous person," says John Curtis. "He was very well known through the Bible, which everybody read, obviously, in the 19th century, but he’s also discussed by three different classical authors.”
King Cyrus of Persia believed different faiths should co-exist but that government should not endorse any of them.King Cyrus of Persia believed different faiths should co-exist but that government should not endorse any of them.
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King Cyrus of Persia believed different faiths should co-exist but that government should not endorse any of them.
King Cyrus of Persia believed different faiths should co-exist but that government should not endorse any of them.

One of those authors was the ancient Greek author Xenophon, whose classic Cyropaedia refers to Cyrus as the "ideal ruler."

Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States and its third president, owned two copies of Cyropaedia, which many historians believe influenced his thoughts when he drafted the American Declaration of Independence.

Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries, says Jefferson wrote to his grandson in 1820, urging him to read the book, “because this is about someone who sets a moral example of how to rule.”

Jefferson's copy of the book is included in the exhibit along with other related items that highlight some of the artistic, cultural and historic achievements of the Achaemenid Empire.

Curtis hopes the exhibition will enlighten visitors as to "the sophisticated civilization there was in ancient Persia, Iran, to give some idea of the strong influence it had on the development of civilization not just in the ancient near east but in the whole world.”

The cylinder was exhibited in Iran two years ago, where an estimated one million people went to see it.  

“Any Iranian knows that it was the Persians, the Iranians, that made and shaped the whole region of the Middle East," MacGregor says, "and gave it a model of government that was admired everywhere.”

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by: Chrisbe
March 14, 2013 10:26 AM
The Cyrus Cylinder has 5 unique features among many others that have happened for the first time in History :

1. Bringing Peace to the region , after several millennia of wars , violence , bloodshed and conflicts .
2. Emancipation ; Abolition of Slavery and Forced Labor .
3. Repatriation of the Captives and Displaced People .
4. Freedom of Worship , Religion , Cultural Values and Civil Rights .
5. Return of all captured gods and religious vessels and repair of the the ruined temples .

Because of these aspects , the Decree is called the “First Declaration of Human Rights” .
In Response

by: Chrisbe
March 16, 2013 4:49 AM
1. Assyrian rule is embedded with violence, they are dubbed by historians as the 'lords of the massacres', 'tsunamis of violence', etc. Just see their reliefs, carvings, read their tablets after each conquest inc. Elam, Egypt, Babylon. On the opp. you never find any sign of customary violence in the Pre-Islamic Iranian arts or architecture. It was revolutionary.

2. Since Cyrus' decree, Emancipation was an Iranain policy, not only in the Achaemenid, but also Parthian and Sassanian Empires, i.e. All over the Empire. Only after the Islamic invasion, the Arabs, Turks and Mongols practiced slavery in Iran.

4. It's 26 cent. ago and we need to put things in context of the era, this act of granting freedom of conscience and practice is not seen until the Magna Carta even the US Bill of Rights. Pax Assyriaca is an internal peace treaty inside one kingdom, which was way smaller than the latter multi-kingdom Achaemenid Empire.

5. Cyrus returned the all the gods that were previously seized. There is no record any where that Cyrus kept onto any religious object or deity.

Note: read 'Cyrus Panegyric', and 'Nabonidus Chronicle', objects of the same era deciphering further on Cyrus' acts and policies after the Babylonian conquest, they are the sister archaeological evidences to the 'Cyrus Cylinder', also it is enlightening to have visit on the ancient Historians (e.g. Xenophon, Herodotus, Plutarchus, etc.) and the Biblical accounts on Cyrus as well.
In Response

by: E. Harding from: U.S.A.
March 14, 2013 4:22 PM
1. Yes, Persian rule was undoubtedly better than Babylonian rule. It was, however, worse than (or about the same as) Assyrian rule, which still existed less than a century before the beginning of Persian rule.
2. In one city.
3. Sure.
4. This "freedom" was very much like the "States' Rights" of early 20th century America. Religion was supported by taxes; however, due to the limited size of Persian provinces, starting a new religious group (e.g., the Samaritans) was easier than it was before the Pax Assyriaca.
5. "All"? Cite the line, please.

by: escot from: Charlottesville
March 12, 2013 7:18 PM
There's some really extraordinary claims in this essay. For starters, about Jefferson, the claim is made that, "many historians believe (the cyropaedia) influenced his thoughts when he drafted the American Declaration of Independence.:"

Really? Name one. Then what exactly is the evidence? Or is this wild speculation?
In Response

by: ztech from: Florida
March 20, 2013 8:42 PM
It's not so extraordinary as you presume. Jefferson had two copies of Cyropedia in his library. And many military schools in the West, before him, required the reading of Cyropedia. Do some research.

by: E. Harding from: U.S.A.
March 12, 2013 4:13 PM
"Ancient Symbol of Human Rights"? The right of a nation to keep statues of their gods, the right of inhabitants of the city of Babylon not to be subject to corvee labor, and the right of a tax-funded priesthood to have state-sanctioned sacrifices to Marduk are "human rights"? In what universe? Freedom from fear is mentioned in the Cyrus Cylinder, but is not stated as a universal human right, but as a privilege granted by the king to the people of Sumer and Akkad. Better; "Ancient Symbol of Personality Cult".
In Response

by: E. Harding from: U.S.A.
April 01, 2013 10:00 PM
@ztech
What is the evidence Cyrus used paid workers to build anything monumental? No, the "liberation" of the Jews was not a coincidence; it was a deliberate attempt at enriching the empire by reversing the damage done to its periphery by the Babylonian policy of exile. How can one prove anyone was not "free" to practice their religion? Our sources regarding Cyrus cannot be called "independent"-they are all ultimately dependent on royal Persian accounts. The Achaemenid kings wouldn't say anything bad about the first of their kind, would they?
In Response

by: ztech from: Florida
March 20, 2013 9:18 PM
Where is the evidence of slavery under Cyrus' rule? The evidence, that ruled people were not free to practice their religions? And how do you refute the fact that independent sources, far away and long after, attested to Cyrus' benevolence as a ruler? Where are the historical sources that suggest he was evil and tyrannical? And you are suggesting the liberation of the Jews, was just a coincidence. Take a look at your own bad argument - Nothing you are saying is corroborated by what is apparent. And the irony of it all, is that the modern (psuedo) argument of a mythical image of King Cyrus', is a baseless assumption and quite a piece of propoganda, that results in nothing but ethnocentric self-delusions.
In Response

by: E. Harding from: U.S.A.
March 16, 2013 3:05 PM
Livius remains one of the best ancient history websites on the Internet. Your extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
In Response

by: Chrisbe
March 16, 2013 5:02 AM
Actually Lendering is paid by the Islamic regime to propagate false and biased allegations against the Pre-Islamic Iranian history (he is a follower and admirer of mullah Khalkhali), his arguments have absolutely no base in the academic environment, he is rather an online author and is the one behind the false entries in Wikipedia and other places. For further info, I strongly recommend you to read this article and the related ones here:

http://www.kavehfarrokh.com/eurocentricism/koorosh-ahmadi-vandalism-of-cyrus-cylinder-article-in-wikipedia-by-eurocentirsts/
In Response

by: E. Harding from: U.S.A.
March 14, 2013 4:02 PM
My words are taken from me (I didn't even bother reading the Wikipedia article when I was writing my comment). They are based on the translation of the Cyrus Cylinder on Lendering's good website.
In Response

by: Chrisbe
March 14, 2013 10:33 AM
Your words are taken from Wikipedia , but unfortunately , it's not an academic source and almost all Wikipedia editions on Cyrus Cylinder are getting reverted or vandalized by a person called Jona Lendering , who is deliberately mis-editing the articles out of his own contempt , apparently he's had some arguments with other editors previously , and subsequently he now distorts most entries about the Cylinder including those in the Human Rights articles . Sadly , Wikipedia has not yet made a robust regulatory act to deal with such editors or to restrict their dictatorial control . For more info pls refer to this link ;

Vandalism of Cyrus Cylinder article in Wikipedia

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