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The Cyrus Cylinder (Persian: منشور کوروش) is an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several fragments, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. It dates from the 6th century BC and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in 1879. It is currently in the possession of the British Museum, which sponsored the expedition that discovered the cylinder. It was created and used as a foundation deposit following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, when the Neo-Babylonian Empire was invaded by Cyrus and incorporated into his Persian Empire.
The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus, sets out his genealogy, and portrays him as a king from a line of kings. The Babylonian king Nabonidus, who was defeated and deposed by Cyrus, is denounced as an impious oppressor of the people of Babylonia and his low-born origins are implicitly contrasted to Cyrus’s kingly heritage. The victorious Cyrus is portrayed as having been chosen by the chief Babylonian god Marduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians. The text states that Cyrus was welcomed by the people of Babylon as their new ruler and entered the city in peace. It appeals to Marduk to protect and help Cyrus and his son Cambyses. It extols Cyrus as a benefactor of the citizens of Babylonia who improved their lives, repatriated displaced people and restored temples and cult sanctuaries across Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the region. Furthermore, it concludes with a description of how Cyrus repaired the city wall of Babylon and found a similar inscription placed there by an earlier king.
The Cylinder’s text has traditionally been seen by Biblical scholars as corroborative evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity (an act that the Book of Ezra attributes to Cyrus), as the text refers to the restoration of cult sanctuaries and repatriation of deported peoples. This interpretation has been disputed, as the text identifies only Mesopotamian sanctuaries, and makes no mention of Jews, Jerusalem, or Judea. The Cylinder has also been claimed to be an early “human rights charter”, though the British Museum and a number of scholars of the ancient Near Eastern history reject this view as anachronistic and a misunderstanding of the Cylinder’s generic nature. It was adopted as a symbol by the Shah of Iran’s pre-1979 government, which put it on display in Tehran in 1971 to commemorate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy.
The Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered the Cyrus Cylinder in March 1879 during a lengthy program of excavations in Mesopotamia carried out for the British Museum. It had been placed as a foundation deposit in the foundations of the Ésagila, the city’s main temple. Rassam’s expedition followed on from an earlier dig carried out in 1850 by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who excavated three mounds in the same area but found little of importance. In 1877, Layard became Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia at the time. He helped Rassam, who had been his assistant in the 1850 dig, to obtain a firman (decree) from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to continue the earlier excavations. The firman was only valid for a year, but a second firman, with much more liberal terms, was issued in 1878. It was granted for two years (through to 15 October 1880) with the promise of an extension to 1882 if required. The Sultan’s decree authorized Rassam to “pack and dispatch to England any antiquities [he] found … provided, however, there were no duplicates.” A representative of the Sultan was instructed to be present at the dig to examine the objects as they were uncovered.
With permission secured, Rassam initiated a large-scale excavation at Babylon and other sites on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum. He undertook the excavations in four distinct phases. In between each phase, he returned to England to bring back his finds and raise more funds for further work. The Cyrus With permission secured, Rassam initiated a large-scale excavation at Babylon and other sites on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum. He undertook the excavations in four distinct phases. In between each phase, he returned to England to bring back his finds and raise more funds for further work. The Cyrus Cylinder was found on the second of his four expeditions to Mesopotamia, which began with his departure from London on 8 October 1878. He arrived in his hometown of Mosul on 16 November and travelled down the Tigris to Baghdad, which he reached on 30 January 1879. During February and March, he supervised excavations on a number of Babylonian sites, including Babylon itself.
Map of the site of Babylon in 1829. Hormuzd Rassam’s diggers found the Cyrus Cylinder in the mound of Tell Amran-ibn-Ali (marked with an “E” at the center of the map) under which lay the ruined Esagila temple.
He soon uncovered a number of important buildings including the Ésagila temple. This was a major shrine to the chief Babylonian god Marduk, although its identity was not fully confirmed until the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey’s excavation of 1900. The excavators found a large number of business documents written on clay tablets and, buried in the temple’s foundations, the Cyrus Cylinder. Rassam gave conflicting accounts of where his discoveries were made. He wrote in his memoirs, Asshur and the land of Nimrod, that the Cylinder had been found in a mound at the southern end of Babylon near the village of Jumjuma or Jimjima. However, in a letter sent on 20 November 1879 to Samuel Birch, the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, he wrote, “The Cylinder of Cyrus was found at Omran [Tell Amran-ibn-Ali] with about six hundred pieces of inscribed terracottas before I left Baghdad.” He left Baghdad on 2 April, returning to Mosul and departing from there on 2 May for a journey to London which lasted until 19 June.
The discovery was announced to the public by Sir Henry Rawlinson, the President of the Royal Asiatic Society, at a meeting of the Society on 17 November 1879. He described it as “one of the most interesting historical records in the cuneiform character that has yet been brought to light,” though he erroneously described it as coming from the ancient city of Borsippa rather than Babylon. Rawlinson’s “Notes on a newly discovered Clay Cylinder of Cyrus the Great” were published in the society’s journal the following year, including the first partial translation of the text.
The Cyrus Cylinder is a barrel-shaped cylinder of baked clay measuring 22.5 centimeters (8.9 in) by 10 centimeters (3.9 in) at its maximum diameter. It was created in several stages around a cone-shaped core of clay, within which there are large gray stone inclusions. It was built up with extra layers of clay to give it a cylindrical shape before a fine surface slip of clay was added to the outer layer, on which the text is inscribed. It was excavated in several fragments, having apparently broken apart in antiquity. Today it exists in two main fragments, known as “A” and “B”, which were reunited in 1972.
The main body of the Cylinder, discovered by Rassam in 1879, is fragment “A”. It underwent restoration in 1961, when it was re-fired and plaster filling was added. The smaller fragment, “B”, is a section measuring 8.6 centimeters (3.4 in) by 5.6 centimeters (2.2 in). The latter fragment was acquired by J.B. Nies of Yale University from an antiquities dealer. Nies published the text in 1920. The fragment was apparently broken off the main body of the Cylinder during the original excavations in 1879 and was either removed from the excavations or was retrieved from one of Rassam’s waste dumps. It was not confirmed as part of the Cylinder until Paul-Richard Berger of the University of Münster definitively identified it in 1970. Yale University lent the fragment to the British Museum temporarily (but, in practice, indefinitely) in exchange for “a suitable cuneiform tablet” from the British Museum collection.
Although the Cylinder clearly post-dates Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, the date of its creation is unclear. It is commonly said to date to the early part of Cyrus’s reign over Babylon, sometime after 539 BC. The British Museum puts the Cylinder’s date of origin at between 539–530 BC.
The surviving inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder consists of 45 lines of text written in Akkadian cuneiform script. The first 35 lines are on fragment “A” and the remainder are on fragment “B.” A number of lines at the start and end of the text are too badly damaged for more than a few words to be legible.
The text is written in an extremely formulaic style that can be divided into six distinct parts:
Fifteen horizontal lines of text written in Akkadian cuneiform script.
Extract from the Cyrus Cylinder (lines 15–21), giving the genealogy of Cyrus and an account of his capture of Babylon in 539 BC.
Sample detail image showing cuneiform script
- Lines 1–19: an introduction reviling Nabonidus, the previous king of Babylon, and associating Cyrus with the god Marduk;
- Lines 20–22: detailing Cyrus’s royal titles and genealogy, and his peaceful entry to Babylon;
- Lines 22–34: a commendation of Cyrus’s policy of restoring Babylon;
- Lines 34–35: a prayer to Marduk on behalf of Cyrus and his son Cambyses;
- Lines 36–37: a declaration that Cyrus has enabled the people to live in peace and has increased the offerings made to the gods;
Lines 38–45: details of the building activities ordered by Cyrus in Babylon. The beginning of the text is partly broken; the surviving content reprimands the character of the deposed Babylonian king Nabonidus. It lists his alleged crimes, charging him with the desecration of the temples of the gods and the imposition of forced labor upon the populace. According to the proclamation, as a result of these offenses, the god Marduk abandoned Babylon and sought a more righteous king. Marduk called forth Cyrus to enter Babylon and become its new ruler.
In [Nabonidus’s] mind, reverential fear of Marduk, king of the gods, came to an end. He did yet more evil to his city every day; … his [people …………….…], he brought ruin on them all by a yoke without relief … [Marduk] inspected and checked all the countries, seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything.
Midway through the text, the writer switches to a first-person narrative in the voice of Cyrus, addressing the reader directly. A list of his titles is given (in a Mesopotamian rather than Persian style): “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters [of the earth], son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, descendent of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel [Marduk] and Nebo love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves.” He describes the pious deeds he performed after his conquest: he restored peace to Babylon and the other cities sacred to Marduk, freeing their inhabitants from their “yoke,” and he “brought relief to their dilapidated housing (thus) putting an end to their (main) complaints.” He repaired the ruined temples in the cities he conquered, restored their cults, and returned their sacred images as well as their former inhabitants which Narbonidus had taken to Babylon. Near the end of the inscription Cyrus highlights his restoration of Babylon’s city wall, saying: “I saw within it an inscription of Ashurbanipal, a king who preceded me.” The remainder is missing but presumably describes Cyrus’s rededication of the gateway mentioned.
A partial transcription by F.H. Weissbach in 1911 was supplanted by a much more complete transcription after the identification of the “B” fragment; this is now available in German and in English. Several editions of the full text of the Cyrus Cylinder are available online, incorporating both “A” and “B” fragments.
A false translation of the text – affirming, among other things, the abolition of slavery and the right to self-determination, a minimum wage and asylum – has been promoted on the Internet and elsewhere. As well as making claims that are not found on the real cylinder, it refers to the Zoroastrian divinity Ahura Mazda rather than the Mesopotamian god Marduk. The false translation has been widely circulated; alluding to its claim that Cyrus supposedly has stated that “Every country shall decide for itself whether or not it wants my leadership.” Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi in her acceptance speech described Cyrus as “the very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that … he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it”. Similarly, in a 2006 speech, United States President George W. Bush referred to Cyrus, declaring that his people had “the right to worship God in freedom” – a statement made nowhere in the text of the Cylinder.
The Bible records that some Jews (who were exiled by the Babylonians), returned to their homeland from Babylon, where they had been settled by Nebuchadnezzar, to rebuild the temple following an edict from Cyrus. The Book of Ezra (1–4:5) provides a narrative account of the rebuilding project. Scholars have linked one particular passage from the Cylinder to the Old Testament account:
From [?] to Aššur and [from] Susa, Agade, Ešnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e., in Babylon], to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.
This passage has often been interpreted as a reference to the benign policy instituted by Cyrus of allowing exiled peoples, such as the Jews, to return to their original homelands The Cylinder’s inscription has been linked with the reproduction in the Book of Ezra of two texts that are claimed to be edicts issued by Cyrus concerning the repatriation of the Jews and the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The two edicts (one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic) are substantially different in content and tone, leading some historians to argue that one or both may be a post hoc fabrication. The question of their authenticity remains unresolved, though it is widely believed that they do reflect some sort of Persian royal policy, albeit perhaps not one that was couched in the terms given in the text of the Biblical edicts.
The dispute over the authenticity of the biblical edicts has prompted interest in this passage from the Cyrus Cylinder, specifically concerning the question of whether it indicates that Cyrus had a general policy of repatriating subject peoples and restoring their sanctuaries. The text of the Cylinder is very specific, listing places in Mesopotamia and the neighboring regions. It does not describe any general release or return of exiled communities, but focuses on the return of Babylonian deities to their own home cities. It emphasizes the re-establishment of local religious norms, reversing the alleged neglect of Nabonidus – a theme that Amélie Kuhrt describes as “a literary device used to underline the piety of Cyrus as opposed to the blasphemy of Nabonidus.” She suggests that Cyrus had simply adopted a policy used by earlier Assyrian rulers of giving privileges to cities in key strategic or politically sensitive regions and that there was no general policy as such. Lester Grabbe, a historian of early Judaism, has written that “the religious policy of the Persians was not that different from the basic practice of the Assyrians and Babylonians before them” in tolerating – but not promoting – local cults, other than their own gods.
Cyrus may have seen Jerusalem, situated in a strategic location between Mesopotamia and Egypt, as worth patronising for political reasons. His Achaemenid successors generally supported indigenous cults in subject territories as an expression of their legitimacy as rulers, thereby currying favour with the cults’ devotees. Conversely, the Persian kings could, and did, destroy the shrines of peoples who had rebelled against them, as happened at Miletos in 494 BC following the Ionian Revolt. Historian Ernst Badian has noted regarding the Ionian revolt “[that] Harpagus “devastated” all of lower Asia (1.177) is obviously an exaggeration, for the Ionians soon returned to their trading activities.” The Persians evidently did give permission for its reconstruction, which would have been required given the circumstances of its destruction. However, the Cylinder’s text does not describe any general policy of a return of exiles or mention any sanctuary outside Babylonia; the Biblical historian Bob Becking concludes that “it has nothing to do with Judeans, Jews or Jerusalem.” Peter Ross Bedford argues that the Cylinder “is thus not a manifesto for a general policy regarding indigenous cults and their worshippers throughout the empire.” Kuhrt comments that “the purely Babylonian context of the Cylinder provides no proof” of the historicity of Cyrus’s return of the Jewish exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, though Becking links this with the lack of any references to the Jews in surviving Achaemenid texts – an indication that the Persians seem not to have regarded them as being of any great importance.
The German scholar Josef Wiesehöfer summarizes the widely held traditional view by noting that “Many scholars have read into […] sentences [from the text of Cylinder] a confirmation of the Old Testament passages about the steps taken by Cyrus towards the erection of the Jerusalem temple and the repatriation of the Judaeans” and this interpretation was, according to Wiesehöfer, for some scholars a strict belief “that the instructions to this effect were actually provided in these very formulations of the Cyrus Cylinder.”
Attribution: This article incorporates text from the public domain: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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