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Persia’s Cyrus the Great May Not Have Been So Hot After All

Cyrus the Great. or just run-of-the-mill dictator? Ancient Cyrus Cylinder provides some clues.

Cyrus the Great. or just run-of-the-mill dictator? Ancient Cyrus Cylinder provides some clues.

A rare artifact from the reign of Cyrus the Great in 539 BC will go on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this week, reopening a debate whether it represents the “first declaration of human rights,” or merely convenient political propaganda.

The so-called Cyrus Cylinder, a 2,600-year-old inscribed clay barrel-shaped object, has evoked strong debate about its significance ever since it was unearthed in 1879 in the ruins of Babylon in what is now Iraq.

It’s been on display in the British Museum for the last 134 years and has only traveled outside the UK on three other occasions. This is the first time it has been displayed in the United States.

Created by the Persian leader to mark the conquest of the ancient city, the Cylinder and 16 related works in the exhibit reflect the innovations initiated by Persia rulers between 550 BC and 331 BC, according to the museum.

Whatever its meaning, the cylinder is clearly a political document.

Surprisingly, it still has political relevance today, because of the role the it played in the government of Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last “King of Persia.”

Critics say the Shah was less interested in ancient history and more focused on trying to legitimize his own reign as King. The United States and Britain imposed the Shah as absolute ruler of Iran following the overthrow of leftist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in a U.S. backed coup.

The Shah tied his rule directly back to Cyrus’s reign and ardently believed Cyrus was the first ruler in history to give his subjects “freedom of opinion and other basic rights.” That meshed with his own desire to modernize and secularize Iran, which has a mostly Muslim population.

In 1971, he adopted the Cyrus Cylinder as a symbol of a “grand commemoration” of 2,500 years of uninterrupted rule by Persian kings. The United Nations still promotes the cylinder as “an ancient declaration of human rights,” according to Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly.

The 2,600-year-old Cyrus Cylinder, which records the benevolence of Cyrus the Great.

The 2,600-year-old Cyrus Cylinder, which records the benevolence of Cyrus the Great.

It’s interesting to note that the cylinder is emerging in a major exhibit in New York City at a time when Iran is going through more political upheaval. Iran’s Hassan Rohani, considered a “moderate,” won election over the weekend to succeed hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The cylinder, inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform, describes Cyrus as a liberator, not a conqueror, and details his plans to return lands, temples and gods to people displaced by the previous king, Nabonidus, who was described as evil and corrupt.

Despite the political drama, historians say the cylinder was less a universal declaration of human rights and more a political document designed to pacify the conquered Babylonians. Such declarations were found to have been made by earlier kings who conquered Babylon and other ancient cities in the region.

That point of view holds that while conciliatory, the cylinder’s declaration was driven by the needs of the Persian Empire and was not an expression of personal tolerance.

The exhibit “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire,” will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning June 20.

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