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Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus Cylinder - British Museum - Joy of Museums

Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, from the 6th century BC, on which is written a declaration in cuneiform script in the name of Persia’s King Cyrus the Great. It describes the king’s capture of Babylon in 539 BC and how he restored temples in major cities and returned deported people to their homes. The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus for his peaceful and just rule, and due to these precepts, this historical object has been claimed to be an early version of  ‘charter of human right.’

The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus by setting out his genealogy and portrays him as a King from a line of Kings. Cyrus is described as having been chosen by the 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 praises Cyrus as a benefactor of the citizens of Babylonia who improved their lives, repatriated displaced people, and restored temples and cult sanctuaries across the region.

The Cylinder was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in 1879. It was created and used for the ritual burial ceremony in which cylinders or foundation nails with texts, were buried under the foundations of a prominent building at the start of a building project. The building program followed the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC when Cyrus invaded the Neo-Babylonian Empire and incorporated it into his Persian Empire. Biblical scholars have seen the Cylinder’s text as evidence of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity, a deed that the Book of Ezra attributes to Cyrus.

Cyrus Cylinder

  • Title:                  Cyrus Cylinder
  • Created:            539–538 BC
  • Period:              Achaemenid Empire
  • Discovered:       Babylon, Mesopotamia in 1879
  • Materials:          Baked clay
  • Dimensions:      22.5 cm (8.9 in) x 10 cm (3.9 in)
  • Museum:          The British Museum

Cyrus the Great Quotes

“Whenever you can, act as a liberator. Freedom, dignity, wealth – these three together constitute the greatest happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.”

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“May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily of Bêl and Nâbu that my days be long and may they intercede for my welfare. … The people of Babylon blessed my kingship, and I settled all the lands in peaceful abodes.”

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“A man’s enjoyment of all good things is in exact proportion to the pains he has undergone to gain them.”

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“In my experience, men who respond to good fortune with modesty and kindness are harder to find than those who face adversity with courage.”

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“Success always calls for greater generosity – though most people, lost in the darkness of their own egos, treat it as an occasion for greater greed. Collecting boot is not an end itself but only a means for building an empire. Riches would be of little use to us now – except as a means of winning new friends.”

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“I am Cyrus, King of the World, Great King, Mighty King, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Quarters, the son of Cambyses, Great King, King of Anšan, grandson of Cyrus, Great King, King of Anšan, descendant of Teispes, Great King, King of Anšan, of an eternal line of kingship, whose rule Bêl and Nabu love, whose kingship they desire for their hearts’ pleasure.”

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“Brevity is the soul of command. Too much talking suggests desperation on the part of the leader. Speak shortly, decisively, and to the point–and couch your desires in such natural logic that no one can raise objections. Then move on.”

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“I have given leave to as many of the Jews that dwell in my country as please to return to their own country, and to rebuild their city, and to build the temple of God at Jerusalem on the same place where it was before.”

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“We love ourselves notwithstanding our faults, and we ought to love our friends in like manner.”

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“Diversity in counsel, unity in command.”

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“O man, whoever you are and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not, therefore, begrudge me this bit of earth that covers my bones.”

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“Do what you want, but be prepared in that case to be ruled rather than to rule others… Soft countries breed soft men. For it is not possible for the same land to bear both wonderful fruits and men who are good at war.”

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“Do not suppose, my dearest sons, that when I have left you, I shall be nowhere and no one. Even when I was with you, you did not see my soul but knew that it was in this body of mine from what I did. Believe then that it is still the same, even though you see it not.”

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“All men have their frailties, and whoever looks for a friend without imperfections will never find what he seeks.”

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“You cannot be buried in obscurity: you are exposed upon a grand theater to the view of the world. If your actions are upright and benevolent, be assured they will augment your power and happiness.”

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A Tour of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

Middle East Collection

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection

Asian Collection

Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection

Information on The British Museum

Reflections

  • Foundation deposits are the archaeological remains of the ritual burial of materials under the foundations of buildings. Were these an early form of time-capsule?
  • This Cylinder reflects a tradition in which rulers or kings began their reigns by making public declarations of their righteousness and promising reforms. Cyrus’s statement stresses his legitimacy as the king and reaffirms his respect for the religious and political traditions of Babylon. Is this ancient propaganda?
  • This Cylinder is part of a Mesopotamian tradition of depositing a variety of symbolic items, including animal sacrifices, stone tablets, terracotta cones, cylinders, and figures. Newly crowned kings of Babylon would when beginning their reigns, often in the form of declarations that were deposited in the foundations of public buildings. Some contained messages, while others did no. They had several purposes: to celebrate a building’s significance, to commemorate an individual, and to sanctify a structure through the invocation of divine protection. Have you ever held a special ceremony before a building project?

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“Diversity in counsel, unity in command.”
– Cyrus the Great

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Photo Credit: 1)JOM

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