Ancient Cyrus Cylinder Stirs Modern Passions and Debate

What should we do with knowledge that undermines a force for good? I attended the Cyrus Cylinder symposium at DC’s Freer Sackler Gallery, the artifact’s first stop on its U.S. tour. It was a sunny Saturday morning, yet the hall was packed, and no one was snoozing. Rightly so, as the presenters are among the world’s “A team” scholars of ancient Persia.

But from the start, things did not go as many had hoped. For the scholarship presented complicates our widely accepted and most popular images of Cyrus the Great as a uniquely benevolent ruler who instituted policies of peace and tolerance such as the world had never seen before.

Dear President Obama, abt the Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder has great potential for Iran-U.S. relations. So I was thinking: wouldn’t it be great if President Obama were to hike on down to the Freer Sackler Gallery, just a few blocks from the White House to take a look? Here’s my letter inviting him to do so. If you like it, feel free to copy and paste into the handy online note-dropping feature at the White House website.

Dear President Obama,

Apolitical Nature

A princess betrothed to Nebuchadnezzar travels from her palace in Hamadan to Babylon. True story, and it’s angling to be the beginning of my historical novel. Amytis’ journey, 2500 years ago, from what is modern, northern Iran to what is modern, central Iraq passed through a changing landscape with a dizzying variety of flora and fauna. Learning about the region of her childhood — Hamadan/Ecbatana — I am struck by its beauty, sophisticated and diverse ecosystems, by its fragile wild nature. Like the political landscape, the natural has changed somewhat over the centuries. But it is still remarkably diverse and strikingly beautiful.

Iran’s Enduring Natural Beauty

Legend has it that Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for his young wife, Amytis, who was homesick for the mountain home of her childhood. That home? — ancient Ecbatana, modern Iran’s Hamadan, one mile above sea level in the shadow of snow-c0vered Mt. Alvand. Looking at pictures of the place, so unlike what most of us imagine Iran to be, is it any wonder that she’d miss such a place?!

Even before Amytis and Nebuchadnezzar (6th cent, BC), people from Israel’s northern tribes were uprooted from Israel (by conquering Assyrians) and settled in Ecbatana/Hamadan. The modern city contains a structure known as the tomb of (the biblical) Esther and her uncle Mordecai.

In the Game of Cultural Background: Iran vs. Israel

Referring to the Cyrus Cylinder, Ahmadinejad is reported as saying that it represents the kind of foundation on which people can build a highly developed civilization. So far, so good, as it goes. But he reputedly went on to note the relative lack of such a foundation for the “Zionist regime” — meaning Israel?, Judaism? Let’s see… the Bible?! Not that I believe that we should look to the Bible for a modern nation of Israel, but gosh, in the game of cultural background, I’m afraid he’s going to need a new strategy.

Cyrus Cylinder’s Visit Extended

Sept. 10-12, and now Norouz. Is it just coincidence that the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old document sometimes described as the first declaration of human rights and attributed to the founder of the Persian Empire, traveled from its museum home in the West (UK) to the Middle East (Iran) on September 10 (2010) for an exhibit that began on September 12? The deafening silence to my American ears is of course Sept. 11.  Iranian President Ahmadinejad proudly introduced the Cylinder, ascribed to Cyrus II (the Great), at the beginning of its visit to the National Museum of Iran, touting it as a testament to the importance of fighting oppression and championing the rights of individuals for freedom and dignity. The cylinder was due to return to the British Museum today (Jan. 10), but BM officials have extended its visit through the Iranian New Year holidays (Norouz) until mid-April to allow schoolchildren and others to view this object, a piece of historythat is “crucial” for its resonance in the histories of East and West. Simply engaging in this exchange, as Iranians and Brits have done, honors the power of the past to shape our present and future. Relations between nations, a crack in the suspicions that divide us. Happy New Year in the West, and best wishes for the same to our neighbors in the East.

Cyrus Cylinder back in Iran

A small clay object with scratches decipherable by only a few people in the world can nevertheless still move nations. Sometimes called “the first charter of human rights,” this text inscribed on a cylinder of clay comes from Cyrus II, founder of the Persian Empire and called “messiah” by the biblical prophet Isaiah. It dates back to the sixth century BCE. Cyrus’ extraordinary power and leadership (characteristis that are not always found together) earned him the moniker “the Great.” And now, his most famous declaration has made its way back to Iran for a four month visit. The journey has not been without controversy, since the turmoil of Iran’s recent elections made the British Museum reluctant to release it. The parties resolved matters, and John Curtis, of the British Museum’s curator of the Middle East collection personally escorted the cylinder to Tehran where it will be proudly displayed, a statement recognizing the integrity and freedom of all kinds of people within a greater national community. Ahmadinejad welcomed it as illustration of the importance Iran has given to fighting oppression and recognizing the dignity and rights of all people. My thanks to Dr. Jamsheed Choksy for bringing this news to my attention!