November 29, 2012

The Cyrus Cylinder, 2600 years of Middle Eastern History and Thomas Jefferson

Cyrus Cylinder , 6th century B.C. Clay, The British Museum
     Anyone familiar with my work knows how I enjoy Archaeological objects. especially those which include text. So I became curious when  I read a notice of a major exhibition from the British Museum planned to travel to five major US museums in 2013. The Cyrus Cylinder is a clay cylinder about 10 by 4 inches. But its importance in history far overshadows its small size.

    It is inscribed with 45 lines of cuneiform script. These words are a message from the new ruler and King of Babylonia, Cyrus the Great. He begins by trash talking the previous guy and then goes on to tell us how great he is. Do things ever change? But the significance of the text is that it seems to encourage freedom of worship and allowed deported people to return to their countries.

     Cyrus lead a successful multicultural and multi-faith society for about 30 years  His empire stretched form Asia Minor in the west to the Northwestern areas of India in the east. Which has me wondering, just how does one conquer all that land and keep a glowing reputation for 2600 years? 

     The practice of religious tolerance by Cyrus, and by projection,  this clay chunk, although it may not say it outright,  have made the Cyrus Cylinder famous. It is often referred to as the first bill of human rights.  The United Nations has a replica of the clay text. Thomas Jefferson read Cyrus and it is said that it influenced his input to the writing of the Constitution, and Cyrus is mentioned 23 times in the Old Testament. That is what holds the fascination for me, as Neil MacGregor says in his TED talk, our objects have lives beyond ours.
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