News / Middle East

Ancient Symbol of Human Rights Visits US

Ancient Artifact Considered Oldest Declaration of Human Rightsi
X
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
x
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.
x
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.”

You May Like

Beloved Lion Killing Sparks Virtual, Real Life Outrage

Twitter, as usual, was epicenter for anger directed at Palmer, with some questioning his manhood, calling for him to be released into the wild More

Video Booming London Property Market a Haven for Dirty Money

Billions of dollars from proceeds of crime, especially from Russia, being laundered through London property market, according to anti-corruption activists More

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

One former Scout leader thinks organization will move past political, social debate, get back to its primary focus of turning boys into good citizens More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs