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
February 24, 2013 -- Updated 1308 GMT (2108 HKT)
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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT