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The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire

June 20–August 4, 2013

The Cyrus Cylinder and Documents of Rulership

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.