Exhibitions/ The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire

At The Met Fifth Avenue
June 20 / 2013–August 4 / 2013
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous surviving icons from the ancient world. Excavated at Babylon in 1879, the Cylinder was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform on the orders of the Persian king Cyrus the Great after he captured Babylon in 539 B.C. It marks the establishment of Persian rule and records how Cyrus restored shrines and allowed deported peoples to return home. Although not mentioned, it is thought to be at this time that the Jews returned to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple, as recorded in the Bible. The Cylinder and sixteen related works, all on loan from the British Museum, reflect the innovations initiated by Persian rule in the ancient Near East (550–331 B.C.) and chart a new path for this empire, the largest the world had known.

A unique aspect of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum will be its display within the galleries of Ancient Near Eastern Art, where objects from the permanent collection—including the famous lions from Babylon—will provide a stunning backdrop. Also on display will be works of art from the Metropolitan's Department of Drawings and Prints and Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts that celebrate Cyrus and his legacy as a liberal and enlightened ruler.


The Cyrus Cylinder. Baked clay. Achaemenid, 539–538 B.C. Excavated in Babylon, Iraq, in 1879. British Museum 90920. © Trustees of the British Museum


The exhibition was organized by the British Museum in partnership with the Iran Heritage Foundation and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The exhibition's presentation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is made possible with the support of the Ansary Foundation, Akbar A. Lari, Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York, Nowruz Commission and Omid and Kimya Kamshad. Additional support provided by the NoRuz at the Met Fund.

The Cyrus Cylinder. Baked clay. Excavated at Babylon, Iraq, 1879. Achaemenid, 539–538 BC. British Museum, London (90920). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The barrel-shaped Cyrus Cylinder, buried as a foundation deposit, is inscribed in the Babylonian language in Babylonian cuneiform. The Cylinder was broken, at the time of its discovery or soon after, and comprises several pieces fixed together; just over one third is missing. A small fragment belonging to Yale University, identified in 1971, is represented by a cast that has been affixed to the Cylinder. The cylindrical shape was typical of royal inscriptions buried in the foundations of buildings and city walls in Mesopotamia in the first millennium B.C., and was a standard form used for proclamations. According to Hormuzd Rassam (1826–1910), who supervised excavations on behalf of the British Museum, the Cylinder was found to the south of the Amran ibn Ali mound. The Cylinder text mentions two features in this area: the inner city wall (known as Imgur-Enlil), which Cyrus strengthened, and the baked brick quay wall, which he completed. It is likely that the Cylinder was buried near these features.

Fragments of Tablet with Babylonian Cuneiform Inscription. Clay. Excavated at Babylon, Dilbat, or Borsippa, Iraq, 1880–81. Achaemenid, 539–538 B.C. (?). British Museum, London (47134, 47176). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Two fragments recently identified in the British Museum belong to a single large cuneiform tablet whose text duplicates that of the Cylinder, demonstrating that it was not unique. One fragment not only includes lines 34–37 of the Cylinder text but adds some important information that was missing. The other fragment contains new material from both the beginning and the end of the Cylinder inscription including the name of Qishti-Marduk (son of Marduk), or possibly Iqish-Marduk—the scribe who wrote out or copied the tablet.

Brick with Inscription of Cyrus. Baked clay. Excavated at Ur, Iraq, 1922–23. Achaemenid, 539–530 B.C. British Museum, London (118362). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The square clay brick is stamped with a Babylonian inscription: "Cyrus, king of the world, king of Anshan, son of Cambyses, king of Anshan. The great gods delivered all the lands into my hand, and I made this land to dwell in peace." It was one of thousands of impressed bricks used in the construction of official buildings.


Votive Plaque Showing a Priest. Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid period, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (123949). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Achaemenid kings paid homage to the Iranian god Ahuramazda, the supreme Zoroastrian deity. Zoroastrianism takes its name from the prophet Zarathushtra (the Greek Zoroaster), who is closely associated with eastern Iran and Central Asia. Many scholars now believe Zoroaster flourished about 1400–1200 B.C., centuries earlier than traditionally thought.
Ahuramazda is assisted by the Amesha Spentas—the Bounteous Immortals—and other beneficent divinities. These include Mithra, whose cult later spread across the Roman Empire, and Anahita, who was assimilated by classical authors with Aphrodite. Achaemenid kings respected foreign gods when they traveled outside Iran. Whether or not the kings were strictly Zoroastrian, this religion nevertheless took root in Iran under the Achaemenids. Today there are about a quarter of a million Zoroastrians worldwide.

The gold plaque shown here is from the Oxus Treasure, which yielded twenty-five similar plaques showing male figures wearing Median trouser suits and hoods and holding barsoms (bundles of sticks). These figures are usually identified as Zoroastrian priests or pious figures and the plaques are thought to have been votive for presenting to a temple.


Omphalos Bowl Decorated with Lions. Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (123919). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Elaborate vessels in various forms and styles were widespread during the Achaemenid period. Many classical authors refer to the great wealth of the Persian royal treasuries. Shallow gold and silver bowls derived from earlier Assyrian prototypes, often with an embossed center (omphalos), were common, particularly in elite circles. The type of decoration on the bottom of some bowls shows that they were intended to be seen from below when full of liquid and held aloft on the tips of the fingers.

Omphalos Bowl with Winged Lions. Silver. Persian Empire. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London (135571). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Luxury drinking vessels and other tableware were symbols of power and prestige at the Achaemenid court. According to Herodotus, "golden bowls and cups and other drinking vessels" were found in the Persian camp after the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. He also notes that many drinking cups of gold and silver washed ashore after the Persian fleet was wrecked off Magnesia.

Armlet. Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (124017). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

A rich tradition of sumptuous jewelry can be recognized across the Persian Empire. Inlaid polychrome decoration using colored glass, faience, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and carnelian was a hallmark of Achaemenid jewelry. Inlays were fitted into cavities, or cloisons, held in place by cinnabar, which occurs naturally in Iran, or by bitumen. This cloisonné technique, which originated centuries earlier, was brought to a new level of artistry by Achaemenid goldsmiths. Large animal-headed armlets or bracelets are depicted on reliefs at Persepolis. Their popularity as diplomatic gifts accords with Xenophon's report in the Anabasis, that Cyrus the Younger gave Syennesis "gifts which are regarded at court as tokens of honor—a horse with a gold-mounted bridle, a gold necklace and armlets, a gold dagger and a Persian robe."


Part of Column Base with Old Persian (right) and Babylonian (left) Inscriptions. Gray limestone. Found at Hamadan, Iran, before 1885. Achaemenid, Artaxerxes II (404–359 B.C.). British Museum, London (90855). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

During the reign of Darius I Old Persian cuneiform script was devised for writing Old Persian, an indirect ancestor of modern Persian. While cuneiform (or wedge-shaped) script had been used from about 3000 B.C. to write various languages spoken throughout the ancient Near East, new signs with different values were invented for the Old Persian language, which had not previously been written down. The forty-four signs of the script comprised a mixture of syllables, vowels, and ideograms with a word divider. Inscriptions were often multilingual, written in Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian, and sometimes Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Ostracon with Aramaic Inscription on Both Sides. Baked clay. Probably from Elephantine, Egypt. Achaemenid, ca. 475 B.C. British Museum, London (45035). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Aramaic—a northwest Semitic language related to Phoenician and Hebrew—was written in an alphabetic script comprising twenty-two characters. Easier to read and write, this script began to be used for administration and communication in the Assyrian and Babylonian empires alongside cuneiform. Aramaic was often written on parchment or leather. During the Achaemenid period it became the lingua franca of the empire, echoes of which are in the Bible: "in the days of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of his associates wrote a letter to Artaxerxes (about the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem). The letter was written in Aramaic script and in the Aramaic language" (Ezra 4:7).


Coin: Daric with "royal archer." Gold. Find spot unknown, acquired 1919. Achaemenid, 500–480 B.C. British Museum, London (1919,0516.15). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Coin: Siglos with "Royal Archer." Silver. Find spot unknown, acquired 1852. Achaemenid, 520–500 B.C. British Museum, London (1852,1027.2). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Coin: Stater with "Royal Archer" and Greek Inscription. Silver. Find spot unknown, acquired before 1892. Achaemenid, 410–370 B.C. British Museum, London (BMC Ionia 323,1). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The Achaemenid kings were introduced to coinage after Cyrus captured Sardis in 547/546 B.C., where the Lydians had already been using coins for about a century. Croesids, named after Croesus, the last king of Lydia, continued to be minted and circulated until the time of Darius, when new coins, such as the daric, and new weight standards were introduced. Local satraps (provincial governors) in different parts of the empire also minted their own coins, often mixing Iranian and Greek features.


Stamp and cylinder seals were made of stone or other materials and engraved in intaglio; using this technique, images were cut into the seal material so that, when pressed into clay, the carved design stood out in relief.

Stamp Seal and Modern Impression Showing Hunter in Median Garb. Chalcedony. Persian Empire. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London (120326). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Seals played an important role in the ancient Near East. When impressed on clay documents, they served as permanent visual reminders of the sealer's participation in the performance of a personal, legal, or administrative act.

Stamp Seal and Modern Impression Showing the "Persian Royal Hero" Defeating a Winged Bull. Chalcedony. Persian Empire. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London (89893). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

In the Achaemenid period, both stamp and cylinder seals were used. One popular subject was a figure wearing a Persian-style robe and a crown, usually referred to as the "Persian royal hero," often shown doing battle with a mythological creature such as a winged bull. This motif was also popular in monumental art at Persepolis, where it appears on stone reliefs in doorways.

Cylinder Seal and Modern Impression Showing the "Persian Royal Hero" and a Second Figure Conquering a Lion and Bull. Chalcedony. Persian Empire. Neo-Elamite or Achaemenid, 6th–5th century B.C. British Museum, London, Claudius James Rich collection (89337). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The Darius Cylinder Seal and Modern Impression Showing the King in a Chariot Hunting Lions. Chalcedony. Obtained in Egypt, acquired 1835. Achaemenid, 6th–5th century B.C. British Museum, London (89132). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.


From 1958 onwards, when the idea of celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great was first raised in Iran, the Cyrus Cylinder began to attract increasing attention. It came to be called "the first declaration of human rights," and eventually became the official symbol of the celebration when it happened in 1971. The Cylinder was loaned to Iran for a brief exhibition in the Shahyad Monument, and it appeared on Iranian coins, stamps, and medals. In October 1971 the Iranian royal family presented a replica of the Cylinder to the United Nations Headquarters in New York, where it is still on display translated into all six official U.N. languages.

Although the Cylinder was never intended to be a document guaranteeing human rights (indeed, the concept of human rights did not even exist at that time), the Cylinder has come to acquire a special significance for Iranians, and it is now celebrated as a national symbol. This reverence for the Cylinder continues to the present day, as shown by its appearance on stamps issued by the Islamic Republic and the popularity of the recent exhibition in Tehran (September 2010–April 2011) when the Cylinder was seen by up to half a million people.

The memory of the role of Cyrus in Jewish history was preserved through the Bible: he is referred to in Isaiah as the shepherd of God, and as the Lord's anointed. Cyrus was also remembered as a deliverer, allowing the return of the Judaeans to Jerusalem. According to the Books of Chronicles and Ezra, when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, he burned the Temple, carried off its treasures, and deported many of the inhabitants to Babylon. Cyrus ended the Babylonian Captivity in his first year as Persian king of Babylon.

Cyrus was also admired by the Greek historian Herodotus, and was the subject of Xenophon's Cyropaedia, in which he is presented as an ideal ruler. The Cyropaedia was studied by scholars and politicians, including some of the American Founding Fathers, as a treatise on good government. Thomas Jefferson owned at least two copies. The quotations below demonstrate the range of sources that highlight Cyrus:

"… I would advise you to undertake a regular course of History and Poetry in both languages. In Greek, go first thro' the Cyropaedia, and then read Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon's Hellenus and Anabasis…"
—Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, in a letter written to his grandson Francis Wayles Eppes (October 6, 1820)

"The history of our empire began with the famous declaration of Cyrus, which, for its advocacy of humane principles, justice and liberty, must be considered one of the most remarkable documents in the history of mankind."
—Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, The White Revolution (1967)

"This proclamation reflects Cyrus's desire to establish peace in his vast empire, which he wisely understood could best be accomplished by allowing its varied peoples to keep their own customs and beliefs."
—U Thant, Secretary-general of the United Nations, Presentation of a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder from Iran to the U.N. (October 14, 1971)

"The Charter of Cyrus the Great is one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights."
—Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nobel Lecture, Oslo, December 10, 2003

"Thus says Yahweh, our Redeemer . . . who says to Cyrus: 'You shall be my shepherd to carry out all my purpose, so that Jerusalem may be rebuilt and the foundations of the temple may be laid.'"
—Isaiah 44:28

"Cyrus, blessed in good fortune, came to the throne and established peace for all his people."
—Aeschylus, Greek playwright, The Persians (ca. 472 B.C.)

"But to come to those who, by their own ability and not through fortune, have risen to be princes, I say that Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and such like are the most excellent examples."
—Niccolò Machiavelli, Italian historian, politician, humanist, The Prince (ca. 1513)

". . . Cyrus, and the Persians, fashioned a government, such as might best be: So much more profitable and gracious is doctrine by ensample, than by rule."
—Edmund Spenser, English poet, The Faerie Queene (1596)

"Cyrus displayed a spirit of charity towards his adversaries and a unique tolerance towards all religions."
— David Ben-Gurion, Prime minister of Israel, Acta Iranica 1 (1971)


Neil MacGregor, Director of The British Museum, introduces this video about the enduring interest in the Cyrus Cylinder. Video provided by The British Museum

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For more information about the Cyrus Cylinder, you may also consult the following sources: