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The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire

June 20–August 4, 2013

The Cyrus Cylinder: The Creation of an Icon

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)