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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 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.

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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?

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

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“And Judah was carried away into exile to Babylon for their unfaithfulness.”
– Bible – 1 Chronicles

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Photo Credit: 1)JOM

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