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Cyrus Cylinder. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most interesting objects from the ancient times, is the famed Cylinder of Cyrus the Great, king of Persia (600 BC – 530 BC). The cylinder was discovered in Babylon (modern Iraq) in 1879 during a British Museum excavation (and unfortunately damaged). It now resides in the British Museum in London, but it will be on tour in five major cities across the United States from March through December 2013.

Cyrus Cylinder is a source of pride for Iranians as it’s a reminder of the glorious past of the ancient Persian empire under the rule of Cyrus. More importantly, Cyrus Cylinder is significant as it is widely recognized as the first declaration of human rights in the world and is considered a symbol of religious tolerance and multi-culturalism. A replica of the cylinder resides in the United Nations (UN) building in NYC.

In July 2011, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, gave a fascinating talk about Cyrus and his Cylinder at TED and explained why this 2,600 year old damaged clay cylinder with Babylonian scripture etched on it, is such a significant and still relevant object especially for the Middle East today. As he tells the story, in 539 BC Cyrus conquers Babylon and makes the declaration on the cylinder, setting the Jews who were in exile in Babylon, free to return to their homeland and practice their religion. MacGregor’s 20 minute talk is a must watch:

His closing statement is worth quoting:

“In the world of the Middle East at the moment, the debates are, as you know, shrill. But I think it’s possible that the most powerful and the wisest voice of all of them may well be the voice of this mute thing, the Cyrus cylinder.”

As Mr MacGregor notes, in 2010 the Cyrus Cylinder traveled to Tehran and was in exhibit there for a couple of months, during which one to two million people visited it.

A great documentary about Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon and the creation of the cylinder is British Museum’s The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: a new beginning for the Middle East. It’s 15 minutes long and well worth watching it.

The Exhibit and Tour Dates

According to BBC, “the exhibition called Cyrus Cylinder in Ancient Persia, will feature 16 objects and will showcase innovations under Persian rule in the Ancient Near East between 550 BC and 331 BC.” The scheduled tour for the exhibit in US is as follows.

  • Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC; 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

The tour is sponsored by IHF America (Iranian Heritage Foundation) in partnership with the British Museum, Arthur Sackler Gallery, and Smithsonian Institution. The exhibit in LA is sponsored by Farhang Foundation. Make sure you go see it.


In addition to Wikipedia entries on Cyrus and his cylinder that I have referenced above, below is some more reading on this topic.

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