The Cyrus Cylinder travels to the US
Cylinder is 22.86cm in length, is barrel-shaped and is made of baked clay.
It is inscribed all the way round with a proclamation in cuneiform script.
Originally it was inscribed and buried in the foundations of a wall after
Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, captured Babylon in 539 BC. The
cylinder is written in Babylonian cuneiform by a Babylonian scribe. It
records that aided by the god Marduk Cyrus captured Babylon without a
struggle, restored shrines dedicated to different gods, and repatriated
deported peoples who had been brought to Babylon.
The text does not mention specific religious groups
but it is thought that the Jews were amongst the peoples deported by
Nebuchadnezzar (the previous ruler of Babylon) who were now allowed to
return home. The Bible reports that the deported Jews returned from Babylon
at this time and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Indeed Cyrus is revered in
the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect enshrined
in the cylinder proclamation. These were enlightened acts, rare in
In 2010 the British Museum discovered two fragments of tablet in its
extensive collection of cuneiform tablets which had also been found in 19th
century British Museum excavations in or near Babylon. These fragments were
identified by experts at the Museum as being inscribed with parts of the
same text as the Cylinder but do not belong to it. They show that the text
of the Cylinder was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed
across the Persian Empire.
‘First declaration of human rights’ to tour five cities in the United
The British Museum today announces that one of its most iconic objects, the
Cyrus Cylinder, will tour to five major museum venues in the United States
in 2013. This will be the first time this object has been seen in the US and
the tour is supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation.
The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from
the ancient world. The Cylinder was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform
(cuneiform is the earliest form of writing) on the orders of the Persian
King Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC) after he captured Babylon in 539 BC. It is
often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to
encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow
deported people to return to their homelands. It was found in Babylon in
modern Iraq in 1879 during a British Museum excavation and has been on
display ever since.
The Cyrus Cylinder is truly an object of world heritage, produced for a
Persian king in Iraq and seen and studied for over 130 years in the British
Museum. It is valued by people all around the world as a symbol of tolerance
and respect for different peoples and different faiths, so much so that a
copy of the cylinder is on display in the United Nations building in New
York. The Museum has previously lent the Cylinder to the National Museum of
Iran in 2010 - 2011 where it was seen by over one million people. This tour
will provide the first opportunity for a wide US audience to engage with
this unique object of world importance.
The Cylinder will travel with an exhibition of 16 objects under the title
‘The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia’. The exhibition shows the
innovations initiated by Persian rule in the Ancient Near East (550 BC-331
BC). The Persian Empire was then the largest the world had known. It had a
huge impact on the ancient world, introducing changes in terms of ethical
behaviour as witnessed in the proclamation on the Cyrus Cylinder. A gold
plaque from the Oxus Treasure with the representation of a priest shows the
spread of the Zoroastrian religion at this time. Persian kings also
introduced a new writing system, Old Persian cuneiform, as seen on part of a
column base from Hamadan, and on the famous seal of Darius (522-486 BC).
They also developed new forms of luxury goods including beautifully
decorated gold and silver bowls and sumptuous gold bracelets featuring
fantastic animal shapes, some of them from the Oxus Treasure.
The tour will debut at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in
Washington DC in March 2013 before travelling to the Museum of Fine Arts in
Houston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Asian Art Museum, San
Francisco and will conclude at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa
Los Angeles in October (full dates below). The exhibition is curated by John
Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum and
curatorial colleagues at each of the venues.
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said, "You could almost say
that the Cyrus Cylinder is A History of the Middle East in one object and it
is a link to a past which we all share and to a key moment in history that
has shaped the world around us. Objects are uniquely able to speak across
time and space and this object must be shared as widely as possible. I am
delighted that it will travel to the US and am hugely grateful to both our
US partners and the Iran Heritage Foundation for making this possible.”
John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum
said “The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning
for the Ancient Near East. The Persian period, commencing in 550 BC, was not
just a change of dynasty but a time of change in the ancient world. Some of
these changes and innovations are highlighted in the exhibition."
Alireza Rastegar, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Iran Heritage
Foundation America, said "Iran Heritage Foundation is proud to be partners
with the British Museum and leading US venues in bringing this magnificent
exhibition to the United States. The Cyrus Cylinder and its message of
respect for diversity and universal human rights carries a timely message
about tolerance for all of us today. We are very grateful to the Iranian
American community who have supported us in this endeavour and are looking
forward to a positive reception as the Cylinder tours the US."
Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler
Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art said "For thousands of years,
philosophers viewed Cyrus the Great as the paragon of the 'Virtuous Ruler,'
and the Bible refers to him as 'the anointed' of the Lord, crediting him
with permitting Jews to rebuild their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This
magnanimous image inspired even the Founding Fathers of the United States.
One of the goals of this exhibition is to encourage us to reflect that
relations between Persians and Jews have not always been marked by the
discord that disfigures the political map of the Near East today."
Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston said "The Cyrus
Cylinder tells a great story of human history. We are thrilled to be able to
bring this touchstone of ancient civilization to Houston, and to present the
Cyrus Cylinder and related objects in the context of our collections."
Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
said: "The new world view enshrined by the Cyrus Cylinder and the objects in
this exhibition remains as relevant today as it did several millennia ago.
The tolerance embraced by the Cylinder’s text has been applauded throughout
history and we at The Metropolitan Museum of Art are proud to share this
message with our diverse international audience."
Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, said, "The San Francisco Bay Area
is home to both the signing of the United Nations Charter and the birth of
the Free Speech Movement, major pillars supporting human rights and civil
liberties. The Asian Art Museum is proud to partner with the British Museum
and our US museum partners to bring the Cyrus Cylinder to San Francisco.
This important object not only provides a foundation for understanding the
ancient world, but also a touchstone for continued efforts to strive for
common human freedoms."
Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said, "The Cyrus
Cylinder is one of the most important artefacts to have survived from the
ancient world and we are delighted that it will be on view next fall to
visitors at the Getty Villa, where it will be shown in the context of other
artefacts and inscriptions from the period of the Achaemenian empire. More
than any other document from the ancient world, this declaration by King
Cyrus of the return of conquered nations to their settlements, has a
continuing relevance to the peoples of the Middle East and indeed throughout
the world. As home to the largest community of Iranian Americans in the
United States, I have no doubt that Los Angeles will thrilled by this
Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Washington
9 March – 28 April 2013
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
3 May – 14 June 2013
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
20 June – 4 August 2013
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco,
9 August – 22 September 2013
J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles,
2 October – 2 December 2013
Iran Heritage Foundation is the leading supporter of Iranian studies in the
UK. It promotes academic research through fellowships, grants, scholarships
and publications. In association with museums and leading institutions, the
IHF organises exhibitions and convenes conferences on the history and
contemporary culture of Iran. IHF America, launched in 2012 as a US based
non-profit organisation, administers a number of grants to North American
institutions and is the core funder of the tour of the Cyrus Cylinder.