- Museum number
- Object: The Cyrus Cylinder
The Cyrus cylinder: clay cylinder; a Babylonian account of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BC, of his restoration to various temples of statues removed by Nabonidus, the previous king of Babylon, and of his own work at Babylon. The cylindrical form is typical of royal inscriptions of the Late Babylonian period, and the text shows that the cylinder was written to be buried in the foundations of the city wall of Babylon. It was deposited there after the capture of the city by Cyrus in 539 BC, and presumably written on his orders.
The text is incomplete. It is written in Babylonian script and language and records that Nabonidus, the last King of Babylon (555-539 BC), had perverted the cults of the Babylonian gods, including Marduk, the city-god of Babylon, and had imposed labour-service on its free population, who complained to the gods. The gods responded by deserting Babylon, but Marduk looked around for a champion to restore the old ways. He chose Cyrus, King of Anshan (Persia), and declared him king of the world. First Cyrus expanded his kingship over the tribes of Iran (described as Gutians and Ummanmanda), ruling them justly. Then Marduk ordered Cyrus to march on Babylon, which he entered without a fight. Nabonidus was delivered into his hands and the people of Babylon joyfully accepted the kingship of Cyrus.
From this point on, the document is written as if Cyrus himself is speaking: 'I, Cyrus, king of the world ...'.He presents himself as a worshipper of Marduk who strove for peace in Babylon and abolished the labour-service of its population. The people of neighbouring countries brought tribute to Babylon, and Cyrus claims to have restored their temples and religious cults, and to have returned their previously deported gods and people.
The text ends with a note of additional food offerings in the temples of Babylon and an account of the rebuilding of Imgur-Enlil, the city wall of Babylon, during the course of which an earlier building inscription of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668-627 BC), was found.
- Production date
- 539BC (after)
Length: 21.90 - 22.80 centimetres
Diameter: 7.80 - 8.20 centimetres (end A)
Diameter: 7.90 centimetres (end B)
Diameter: 10 centimetres (maximum)
- Inscription subject
- Curator's comments
Condition of the Cyrus Cylinder
The object was found in several fragments in the 19th century and even after restoration is incomplete. The core is made of clay containing unusually large grey stone inclusions and was formed by initially making a cone shape, building up the cylinder form with additional clay and finally adding a much finer surface slip of clay over the surfaces prior to writing the inscription. It was then fired. This sequence of stages suggests that it was mass-produced but the coarse matrix of the core contributed to its later instability and explains why it broke into several pieces in antiquity. It was refired in 1961 as part of its museum conservation and a limited amount of plaster filling added in the 1970s before and after the addition of another fragment from the Yale Babylonian Collection and the moulding of the object for the purposes of making a type cast. An additional fragment, NBC 2504 on loan from the Yale Babylonian Collection, restores part of the text of lines 36-45 (giving details of the building operations at Babylon and describing Cyrus' discovery of an earlier foundation inscription of Ashurbanipal) is joined to the back of the Cylinder. The identification of this fragment in Yale was reported by Barnett to the Trustees on 7 January 1972, and its loan agreed by the Trustees, 22 January 1972. In 2007 the plaster was removed in order to enhance the appearance of the object and better show how it had been made.
Interpretation of the Cyrus Cylinder
The whole document is written from a purely Babylonian point of view in traditional Babylonian terms, and it has been suggested that its author took the Ashurbanipal inscription as his literary model. There is no acknowledgement that Cyrus himself worshipped the Iranian god Ahuramazda. He is the tool of Marduk, just as in the biblical book of Ezra he is presented as the servant of the god of Israel who is instructed to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and allow the Jews deported by Nebuchadnezzar II to return home.
Because of its references to just and peaceful rule, and to the restoration of deported peoples and their gods the cylinder has in recent years been referred to in some quarters as a kind of 'charter of human rights'. Such a concept would have been quite alien to Cyrus's contemporaries, and indeed the cylinder says nothing of human rights; but the return of the Jews and of other deported peoples was a significant reversal of the policies of earlier Assyrian and Babylonian kings.
The publication of this object as an example of Achaemenid rather than Babylonian propaganda dates from the 1970s onwards. See for example Wiesehofer (1996, pl. XIb), who captions his illustration as "The so-called 'Cyrus Cylinder' from Babylon, written on clay in cuneiform script, was an Achaemenid propaganda document intended to legitimize and glorify Cyrus' rule in Babylonia". There is an extensive and growing literature on the significance of this object in this connection, including R.J. van der Spek, "Did Cyrus the Great introduce a new policy towards subdued nations?" in: 'Persica' 10 (1982), pp. 278-83.
Displaying the Cyrus cylinder
This object has been more or less continually displayed in the British Museum since its discovery in 1879. The style of display has changed according to which gallery or case it was displayed. In 1971 it was loaned for the first time to Iran. This followed an official request by the Iranian Government through the ambassador in London for the temporary loan of this object to Tehran to mark the opening celebrations of the 2,500 anniversary of kingship in Iran. This was reported to the Trustees by R.D. Barnett, then Keeper of the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities (in which department it was held) to the Trustees on 9 July 1971 (Trustees File, PG 3054). This object was taken to Iran from 7-22 October 1971 by R.D. Barnett at the expense of the Iranian government (recorded in the WAA Transfers book, entry dated 7.x.71). The object was "selected ... in spite of its damaged state and somewhat slight aesthetic appeal, as the national symbol of the entire celebrations and illustrated ... as prominently as possible on every instrument of publicity, including a postage stamp" and placed on temporary display "as the central piece of a select exhibition in a newly built monument, near Mehrabad airport, called the Shahyad Monument, which contains in its basement a small but well laid out museum of selected exhibits" (Trustees File, PG3291, report by Barnett read to the Board of Trustees 30 October 1971, including reference to the considerable press attention in Iran, and the safe return of the object). A photograph purporting to be of this object at Persepolis placed on top of a column base is published in b/w by R.M. Ghias Abadi ("Cylinder of Cyrus", Tehran 2001, third edition, pp. 20-21); this presumably reflects the fact that a massive ceremony to celebrate the 2500 anniversary was enacted at this site on 15 October 1971 but the object in this photograph was actually a copy rather than the original. This copy (a plaster cast) was taken to Persepolis on this occasion by the Reverend Norman Sharp and presented by him to Mr Ali Sami of the Persepolis Museum. The loan of the original was sanctioned by the Trustees, 24 July 1971; report by Barnett read at the Trustees meeting, 30 October 1971, after which it was concluded that "Despite a press campaign for its transfer to Iranian ownership, Dr. Barnett was able to bring the cylinder back to London without difficulty on 22 October. He believed that the Iranian Government might wish to make an application for a fresh loan of the object at the conclusion of the Trustees' exhibition, "Royal Persia", perhaps for the remainder of the Cyrus Year, ending in March 1972. While reaffirming their view that it had been right to lend the Cylinder for the opening ceremonies of the anniversary celebrations, the Board decided that it would be undesirable to make a further loan of the Cylinder to Iran".
Press items specifically dealing with this object and its loan history include:
Martin Bailey: "How Britain tried to use a Persian antiquity for political gain", 'The Art Newspaper', no. 150, September 2004, p.18 [making use particularly of declassified Foreign Office files at the Public Record Office].
Louise Jury: "2,500-year-old charter of rights to revisit Iran", 'The Independent', Saturday 11 September 2004, p.9.
Matthew Norman: "We've lost the authority to lecture Iran", 'The Independent', Friday 30 March 2007, p. 51, following the Iranian seizure of British military personnel in the Persian Gulf, and beginning with a mis-quotation about this object and its popular title as "the First Charter of Human Rights", thus: "I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire ... While I am the King of Iran, Babylon and the nations of the four directions, I will never let anyone oppress any others, and if it occurs I will ... penalise the oppressor. I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of the others by force ..."
Moulds and casts of the Cyrus Cylinder
The object was first moulded in 1962 following a request for a cast from the Minister of the Imperial Court of the Shah of Iran in 1961 in preparation for the 2500 jubilee originally planned for this period. A second cast was made from the same mould in August/September 1971 following a separate request from the Reverend Norman Sharp who took this cast with him when he attended the 2,500 year celebrations in October 1971: he presented it to his friend Mr Ali Sami, then director of the Persepolis museum. A further request was received via Mr Shapurian, the press attache of the Iranian embassy in London, in 1971 who was informed that it "would take about two weeks to make" (letter dated 2 November 1971). Secondary casts re-moulded from one of these which had been sent to Tehran were distributed by the Shah of Iran, including one which is displayed in the fort museum of Umm al-Qaiwain (UAE). They have also been sold commercially by the British Museum, National Museum in Tehran and assorted companies since that period. Those sold by the BM were marketed as part of their "Biblical Archaeology" series (1992 Casts catalogue). On 14 October, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the sister of the Shah, presented a cast to the United Nations Secretary General, Sithu U Thant. The display was made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the text translated into the six official languages of the UN.
A modified cast was made after the join of the Yale fragment when the object was sent for moulding by Mr A.G. Prescott between 7 May and 13 August 1975.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2021 29 May-12 Sep, London, V&A, Epic Iran
2013-2014 Dec-Mar, CSMVS, Mumbai, 'Cyrus Cylinder'
2013 27 Sept-early Dec, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 'Cyrus Cylinder'
2013 9 Aug-20 Sept, San Francisco, Asian Arts Museum, 'Cyrus Cylinder'
2013 21 June-2 Aug, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 'Cyrus Cylinder'
2013 3 May-14 June, Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, 'Cyrus Cylinder'
2013 15 Mar-26 Apr, Washington, Freer Sackler Gallery, 'Cyrus Cylinder'
2010-2011 12 Sept-12 Jan, Tehran, National Museum of Iran, 'The Cyrus Cylinder'.
2008-2009 13 Nov-15 Mar, BM, G35, 'Babylon: Myth and Reality'
2007 - 15 Jun, BM, G52/Iran/4
2006-2007 9 Aug-2 Apr, BM, G2/The Changing Museum, wall-case 76
2006 7 Mar-11 Jun, Barcelona, Fundacion La Caixa, 'L'imperi Oblidat'
2005-2006 Sept-Jan, BM, 'Forgotten Empire'
1995-2005 17 Nov-Aug, BM, G52/IRAN/6/7
1994 16 Jun-23 Dec, BM, G49/IRAN/6/9
1975-1990 6 Jul-end, BM, Iranian Room [IR] case 9/6
1971-1972 29 Oct-30 Jan, BM, 'Royal Persia: a commemoration of Cyrus the Great and his successors on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire'
1971 12-19 Oct, Tehran, Shahyad Monument, opening ceremonies of the 2,500 anniversary celebration of the Kingship in Iran
1930s BM, Persian Room, wall-case [WC] 15, top shelf
1900-1922 (at least) BM, Babylonian Room, table-case G, no.67
- Incomplete; refired 28 August 1961.
- Acquisition date
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: BM.12049 (previously)
Miscellaneous number: L1166
- Joined objects
Joined Tablet Group: G14030 (2 objects)