Cyrus Cylinder: How a Persian monarch inspired Jefferson

A timeless piece, from the BBC

In this image provided by The Smithsonian Institution, the Cyrus Cylinder is seen on display at the Smithsonian's Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington

The Cyrus Cylinder was on tour in the US, and here the BBC Persian’s Khashayar Joneidi explores how the reputedly liberal monarch who gave his name to the ancient Persian artefact inspired US founding father Thomas Jefferson.

The 2,600-year-old clay cylinder, almost the size of an American football, was made on the order of the Persian King Cyrus after he captured Babylon in 539 BC.

Referred to by some scholars as the “first bill on human rights”, the cuneiform inscriptions on the cylinder appear to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands.

On loan from the British Museum, the Cyrus Cylinder is touring American museums at the time when “relations between the US and Iran are not in their healthiest position”, says Julian Raby.

He is director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, where the prized piece of pottery has just gone on display.

“It’s vital that US audiences understand Iran’s extraordinary contribution to humanity,” he says.

The empire, founded by Cyrus and Darius, stretched from the Balkans to Central Asia at its peak.

It was the first state model based on diversity and tolerance of different cultures and religions, according to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

But the greatest discovery for many people, Mr MacGregor said, is “the importance of Cyrus to those who wrote the constitution of United States”.

“The story of Persia, Iran, is part of the story of modern United States,” he said.

Liberation of Jews

The Cyrus Cylinder was the centre piece of an exhibition called The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, featuring 16 objects from the British Museum.

The barrel-shaped clay cylinder was buried in the foundations of Babylon after Cyrus captured the city. It was unearthed in 1879 in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, by British archaeologist and diplomat, Hormuzd Rassam.

The cuneiform inscriptions describe how Cyrus invaded Babylon at the invitation of the Babylonian god Marduk.

It also mentions how Cyrus freed nations enslaved by the Babylonians, and returned their various gods to their shrines.

Although the cylinder does not refer to the Jewish people by name, it has been mentioned in the Book of Chronicles and Book of Ezra that Jews were among those liberated by Cyrus and returned to their land to build the second temple.

Mr MacGregor says these acts, which have been interpreted as allowing freedom of worship and repatriating deported people, have earned Cyrus a reputation as a “liberal and enlightened monarch”.

In addition to the objects borrowed from the British Museum, a copy of Cyropaedia, Xenophon’s book on Cyrus, is on display at the exhibition in Washington DC.

The book, a bilingual Greek and Latin version published in Europe in 1767, is one of the two copies of Cyropaedia belonging to Thomas Jefferson that is currently held at the Library of Congress.

A contemporary of Socrates, Xenophon wrote on how Cyrus ruled a diverse society based on tolerance.

A visitor takes a picture of the limestone tomb of ancient Persia's King Cyrus the Great, in Pasargadae, 950km south of Tehran, Iran
Image captionThe limestone tomb of Cyrus, 950km (590 miles) south of Tehran, Iran

The book became popular during the Enlightenment among political thinkers in Europe and America, including those who drafted the US Constitution in 1787.

“In the 18th Century, that model of religious tolerance based on a state with diverse cultures, but no single dominant religion, became a model for the founding fathers,” said Mr Raby.

The Cyrus Cylinder was unearthed roughly about 100 years after the United States Declaration of Independence was published.

People like Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence and became the third president of the United States, had to rely on Xenophon’s Cyropaedia as a reference for the life and leadership of the Persian king.

Scripture was the other source for information on Cyrus, as it chronicled the invasion of Babylon and the freedom of Jews.

Mr Raby said “what’s extraordinary about Cyrus, is that he appears as a paragon of princely statesmanship in the two pillars of Western cultures, that is the Greco-Roman tradition and the Bible”.

He added that the copy of Cyropaedia displayed at the Freer and Sackler Galleries is testament to Jefferson’s thorough examination of the book.

He pointed out a line in the book that has been crossed out by Jefferson, perhaps because he considered it problematic as it did not appear in earlier versions.

Cyrus’ futuristic state

Jefferson not only studied the book in detail, but also advised his family to read it, according to Massumeh Farhad, Freer and Sackler’s chief curator.

Ms Farhad said Jefferson in a letter had asked his grandson to study Cyropaedia.

“He wrote. ‘when you start learning Greek, the first book you should read is Cyropaedia,'” Ms Farhad said.

Although a source of inspiration for European and American philosophers, the state model created by Cyrus, based on diverse cultures, but no single dominant religion, was only picked up on in the 18th Century United States.

“No European state managed to build tolerance into the structure of the state,” Mr MacGregor said.

“They either have a state religion like Britain or they are against all religions like France, after the revolution.”

The Cyrus Cylinder will travel from Washington to museums in Houston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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