Tracing History through the Cyrus Cylinder

On August 9th, Asia Society Northern California and the Asian Art Museum welcomed the Cyrus Cylinder to San Francisco as part of a major new exhibition on Ancient Persia. The highlight of the day was a panel discussion featuring leading experts on Persian and Iranian history, language, art, and contemporary affairs before a packed audience. Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum and ASNC board member, moderated the discussion.

The Cyrus Cylinder dates to 539 BCE and marked Cyrus the Great’s conquest over Babylon. Widely considered to be one of the first charters of human rights, the Cylinder details Cyrus’ peaceful march into Babylon, restoration of the city’s walls, and support for religious and cultural diversity.

John Curtis, Keeper of the Middle East Collections at the British Museum, called Cyrus the Great’s rule a significant break from tradition. He set free the Jews captured by the Babylonians, absolved his subjects from forced labor, and founded the Persian Empire, which at its peak stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to India. Some of Cyrus’s most ardent admirers included the ancient Greek writer and philosopher Xenophon, 16th-century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Jefferson.

Reza Zarghamee, author of the forthcoming Discovering Cyrus: The Persian Conqueror Astride the Ancient World, said that the cylinder’s message of non-violence was unique in its time. Cyrus ruled through a mix of carrots and sticks – instilling loyalty through tolerance and respect for different cultures and religions as well as by force.

In recent decades, the Cyrus Cylinder has seen its share of controversy. Both the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad manipulated its message to serve their own ends. For both, the Cylinder was a powerful tool by which to cultivate nationalism and cement popular support. As Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, put it, “There’s a big need for folks who are not legitimate to find a symbol to gain legitimacy.”

Looking forward, all agreed that the Cyrus Cylinder’s vision of multiculturalism and diversity remains relevant to Iran and the world. As San Francisco State’s Mitra Ara observed, “The artifact itself should be studied and preserved to help us better understand who we are today.”

Click here for 10 facts about the Cyrus Cylinder.