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!