The Cyrus Cylinder and the ancient proclamation of human rights

The Cyrus Cylinder and the ancient proclamation of human rights

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More than 2 millennia before the French Revolution introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens , an ancient Near Eastern monarch issued a charter that is considered to be the oldest known declarations of human rights. This charter is known today as the Cyrus Cylinder.

The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered in the ruins of Babylon, in modern Iraq, in March 1879. The ancient relic, which was a foundation deposit at the city’s main temple, the Ésagila, was made of baked clay, and measured 22.5 cm (8.85 in) in length. On the cylinder is an account detailing the conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. by Persian king Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, who had created the largest empire of the era.  It also describes the capture of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon. The account was inscribed in cuneiform text, and has been dated to between 539 and 530 B.C.

A painting of Cyrus the Great as he enters Babylon

A painting of Cyrus the Great as he enters Babylon (Mani-Persepolis.nu).

The inscription on the cylinder speaks of Cyrus’ promotion of religious, racial, and linguistic freedom and his permission to those deported by the Babylonians to return to their homelands.  It extols Cyrus as a benefactor of the citizens of Babylonia who improved their lives, and restored temples and cult sanctuaries across Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the region. Some segments of the text read:

“I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them while I am alive. From now on…, I never let anyone oppress any others, and if it occurs, I will take his or her right back and penalize the oppressor.”

“I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of the others by force or without compensation. While I am alive, I prevent unpaid, forced labor. Today, I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate other’s rights.”

 [Translation obtained from Gresham College, England ]

Cyrus Cylinder detail

Cyrus Cylinder detail ( Creative Commons )

Some critics have argued that the belief that the Cyrus Cylinder is the world’s first charter of human rights is an anachronism, and ignores the context of the document. They claim that Cyrus seemed to be more concerned about the views of the gods, and merely took steps to appease them, rather than acting for the goodness of the people. For instance, it is written on the cylinder:

“the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy.”

In exchange, these gods were supposed to return the favor to Cyrus:

“May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant (?) days, and the population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship. I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.”

Furthermore, they argue, the fact that the Cylinder was discovered as a foundation deposit of the Ésagila suggests that Cyrus’ intended audience were the various gods of the realm, rather than mortal beings.

Regardless of which perspective is taken, the Cyrus Cylinder is undoubtedly an incredible piece of writing that brings to life the events that transpired over 2,500 years ago and opens a window into the thoughts and desires of a powerful king that once ruled over an empire.

Featured image: The Cyrus Cylinder . ( Creative Commons )

References

Lendering, J., 2006. Cyrus Cylinder. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/ct-cz/cyrus_I/cyrus_cylinder.html

Lendering, J., 2006. Cyrus Cylinder (2). [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/ct-cz/cyrus_I/cyrus_cylinder2.html

Lendering, J., 2007. The Nabonidus Cylinder from Sippar. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/na-nd/nabonidus/cylinder.html

The British Museum, 2014. Cyrus Cylinder. [Online]
Available at:
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cyrus_cylinder.aspx

The British Museum, 2014. Translation of the Text on the Cyrus Cylinder. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/c/cyrus_cylinder_-_translation.aspx

The Paul J. Getty Museum, 2014. The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning. [Online]
Available at: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/cyrus_cylinder/

Wikipedia, 2014. Cyrus Cylinder. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_Cylinder

By Ḏḥwty

Comments

The ancient middle easterners from the Sumerians on had beautiful scroll and stamp technology.  this link has photos of some with the scroll stamp and examples of them rolled out onto flat clay.

I tried to give a link to photos of some, but a spam filter stopped it.  Google sumerian scroll stamps images and you can see really beautiful ones.

Tom Carberry

I think even the Bible mentions different levels of gods. Certainly other religions divide deities into different levels. Some being minor, earth bound, gods while others, more powerful, are said to dwell in other realms.

The giants which are said to be the offspring of human women and (fallen) angels would certainly be viewed as demigods in the eyes of humans.

Then there's the possibility of aliens who, if they did come down to interact with early humans, would have certainly been viewed as gods.

Ancient gods had physical representations that were subject to redicule, destruction or capture. The exiled Jewish answeer was the invention of  the formless omnipresent god worshipped today. 

The city of Percepolis had a similarly worded treasure;  a 3 kg gold plate that's now in the Museum of Tehran.  It survived the destruction of the city by Alexander and is thought to have been placed there by Darius as a foundation ideology to build their civilisation.

It appears that Cyrus had captured some gods by the time he entered Babylon, meaning that at least some of the gods were Earth bound. Also there seems to be a separate level of gods which are not Earth bound. I find this very curious and wonder if the cylinder gives any further information about the habitations of the gods?

I did some further searching on the subject and wonder if there are more than one of this type of cylinder. I did find pictures of what appears to be similar cylinders which were more intact than the one shown here. Such as the one found at the British Museum.

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