One Document to Rule Them All: The Cyrus Cylinder Still Relevant 2600 Years Later


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A baked clay cylinder from two and half millennia ago could very well be one of the most influential objects of the last few millennia. Written in Babylonian cuneiform script, the “Cyrus Cylinder” originally recounts how Cyrus, the king of the Persians, invaded, destroyed, and liberated Babylon. This the region we now call the Middle East with Persia now being what we call Iran, and Babylon being what we call Iraq.

Neil MacGregor in the TED Talk below explains how this Cylinder is so much more than just a document of history. It was the first real press release of humankind! It’s a declaration by Cyrus that he would release the Jews, and all the other oppressed people in Babylon, allowing them to return to their homelands, and allowing them to have their faith and worship their own gods. For 200 years, Cyrus led a stable empire that was the first multi-racial, multi-faith, and multi-cultural society to have ever existed. The Near East (what we now call the Middle East) became a thriving international hub, a melting pot of cultures: it was the first spark of globalism.

Of course, then Alexander the Great came in, shattered everything and couldn’t hold up a government, sending the region into chaos.

But the Cylinder is important in so many ways: it became a second source for the historical record found in Hebrew texts that previously had no corroboration. Of course, the actual religious context was challenged – but the historical fact recorded in the texts were now somewhat verified.

And even in the 19th and 20th Centuries, with the British Empire dominating the Middle East, followed by the Shah and the influence of the US and the UK at the time, and then followed by the more recent Iraq-Iran wars, the Cyrus Cylinder has constantly been used by rulers to associate with Iran’s greatness: it’s become an everlasting representation of what Iran was, what Iran is, and what Iran could be.

It’s also a symbol of freedom: of breaking oppression and having the liberty of your own faith and culture.

“It is a document that can mean so many things, in Iran and in the region.”

Isn’t it incredible that an object written at a time when language was only just starting to be recorded, let alone disseminated, could have such a profound and lasting political influence and still stir up intense debate, even in a time where information is literally accessible through our pockets. Let’s see an iPad create a fuss for two and half thousand years!

[Via TED]







10 Responses to One Document to Rule Them All: The Cyrus Cylinder Still Relevant 2600 Years Later

  1. "For 200 years, Cyrus led a stable empire that was the first multi-racial, multi-faith, and multi-cultural society to have ever existed."

    200 years. That was a good trick…

    • Chris, I think you are assuming that the man lived for 200 years. Of course not, but the government , culture, society, that he created, lived on after him.

  2. A symbol of freedom? What did the Persians do if you didn't want to be part of their empire (wait, how did they come to be an empire exactly, through peaceful unification of their neighbors and beyond?)? They stomped you down just like every other imperialistic power has done throughout history. Just because an "emperor" took over your city-state, country, region, etc. and has deigned to grant you religious and cultural freedom, it does not mean that you are truly free to decide your own destiny.

    The scroll is not a symbol of freedom, it is a demonstration of an empire calculating enough to see that if they allow their subjects to practice their religion and customs they won't make trouble and demand their right to self-rule (or freedom from taxation without representation – had to throw in a smattering of US history there).

    • It seems that the Persians may have had a mixed belief here: (a) it was expedient to allow peoples to pursue their own faiths and not cause trouble, and (b) perhaps one or more of these local gods might actually have some influence, and it's a good idea not to upset them. The Romans seem to have had a similar idea.

      I have a problem with "written at a time when language was only just starting to be recorded." Writing was invented in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 BC. That means that the time since this document was produced is roughly half the time that writing has been in existence. Don't lump all of ancient history into the same time period.

      • Apologies for the oversight there – you're totally correct! I shouldn't have said that – the emphasis was supposed to be on the fact that it was being disseminated, and that it was in the one of the first languages that were ever recorded. One of my majors at University was archaeology so I know the frustration of people getting these kinds of things wrong, so I do whole-heartedly apologise.

    • Bash it if you will, but in a larger context one could say that any government, no matter how big, or how small, or even how good intentioned, came to power by a spark of thought with one individual. This person then would gather like minded individuals, overthrowing whatever government is in place at that time, or, if none exists, organizing it into one. At some point, in all governments there will be those that disagree, those that rebel against what exists. If one is to be "truly free to decide their own destiny" as you say, then one would have to exist alone, and independant from any government at all, as any government would invariably impose laws upon the people within its domain. That is the nature of society. That level of freedom, to exist bound by no law, bound by no man, may sound ideal, but lets not forget that while being governed imposes an inherent lack of total freedom, without it we would lose so much. There would be no organization. There would be no societal improvement. Think about the US governement itself. Without it, there would be no space program. No GPS. No funded medical research. No police. No maintained roads. No help. What would one do, when without question, there would be those that come together, to govern you in a manner you do not agree with? You would submit, or you would die. No system of government is perfect, but there are those that are far better than others. People may bash the US. They may bash our government as imperialistic, materialistic, or many other things. But the reality of it is that we living here live far better and have far more freedoms than those in other places. This scroll IS a symbol of freedom. It is a testimony that while they may be governed, they are also allowed to exist, to believe what they want, without fear of reprisal, imprisonment, or death. Can the same be said for the area today? For Iran? for China? Places such as these if you disagree with the powers that be, you will quickly find yourself imprisoned or worse. Freedom comes with a price, that price is sacrificing some personal freedoms for the freedoms of many. What you get in return far outweighs what you give up.

    • The argument comes in comparison I suppose: life under the Babylonians meant a life oppressed as slaves and worse, while the Persians liberated them and allowed them to return to their homeland. It's easy for us to say now that that's not real freedom (since there is still a dictatorship in play) but at a time when democracy wasn't even on the map, the very concept of "deigning to grant religious and cultural freedom" is a very forward-thinking step TOWARDS what we might call "true" freedom. You cannot deny that the object has been used as a SYMBOL of freedom – to represent the liberation of those people, to represent the steps taken towards a cooperative rather than coercive governing system. Whether they were TRULY free is a matter of semantics – and one that could be argued about any so called 'free' state today.

    • I will respond to this only with the words of Neil MacGregor: "The rights of peoples to live together in the same state, worshipping differently and freely."