Through April 28, 2013
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
May 3–June 14, 2013
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
June 20 – August 4, 2013
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, New York
August 9 – September 22, 2013
Asian Art Museum
San Francisco, California
October 2 – December 2, 2013
The Getty Villa
Pacific Palisades, California
Since its discovery more than 130 years ago, the Cyrus Cylinder has been a striking example of an archaeological artifact that independently confirms a Biblical account.
The Book of Ezra begins by telling of an edict of King Cyrus of Persia that permitted the Jewish exiles in Babylonia (which Cyrus had just conquered) “ ‘to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel,’ ” which the Babylonian troops had destroyed, and to return to their homes (Ezra 1:1–4; see also 2 Chronicles 36:22–23; Ezra 5:13–17, 6:3,14). Likewise in the cuneiform inscription of the clay Cyrus Cylinder (c. 539 B.C.E.), which finishes the first leg of a museum tour at the end of April, the Persian king boasts of how he conquered the lands of Babylon and saw to the people’s well-being, including a statement about “the holy cities beyond the Tigris whose sanctuaries had been in ruins over a long period, the gods whose abode is in the midst of them, I returned to their places and housed them in lasting abodes. I gathered together all their inhabitants and restored (to them) their dwellings.”*
Visitors to five U.S. museums will have the rare opportunity to see this fascinating artifact firsthand in The Cyrus Cylinder in Ancient Persia, on tour this year. The cylinder is usually on display at the British Museum in London. It was recently loaned to Iran in 2010–2011 for an exhibit in Tehran during which more than a million people viewed it.
The 9-inch-long cylinder was discovered in 1879 during a British Museum excavation at Babylon (in modern Iraq). An edict of King Cyrus, founder of the Persian empire, the cylinder was initially thought to be a unique foundation deposit buried during the construction of a building. In January 2010, however, Assyriologist Wilfred Lambert and Irving Finkel identified two fragments of another copy of the cylinder inscription in the British Museum archives.
Lambert, who passed away in November 2011, was professor of Assyriology at the University of Birmingham for 30 years. Once a week during those years (and continuing after his retirement) Lambert would work at the British Museum deciphering and reading cuneiform texts in its department of the Middle East. In 2009, he examined fragments of a tablet from Dailem (near Babylon) that the museum had obtained in 1881. He and Finkel (a museum curator) were able to prove that the tablet bore the same inscription as the Cyrus Cylinder. This showed that the edict had, in fact, been distributed throughout Cyrus’s kingdom as evidence of the king’s benefaction and good works.
This edict has gotten Cyrus a very good name over the years. Many Jews considered him a messiah and savior of the Jewish people for restoring their land and permitting the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others in recent years have called the cylinder’s inscription the world’s first declaration of human rights and an example of religious tolerance. A replica of the cylinder is displayed prominently at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. And yet Cyrus’s magnanimity may simply have been a strategy to assure peace and prosperity in his kingdom; as described on the cylinder and in the Bible, the king actually demanded heavy, sometimes debilitating tribute from his vassals.
The exhibit, which travels from Washington, DC, to Houston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, includes 16 other objects that demonstrate the wealth, importance and innovations of the Persian empire.
* See “The First Declaration of Human Rights: The Cyrus Cylinder,” sidebar to David Ussishkin, “Big City, Few People,” BAR, July/August 2005.