The story behind the Cyrus Cylinder

The world’s first declaration of human rights now on display in the US for the first time

When the Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. he issued an unprecedented decree recognizing religious freedom and the rights of enslaved and exiled peoples.

His words were inscribed on a clay cylinder, widely considered to be by many scholars, the first declaration of human rights. It was unearthed in 1879 and the Cyrus Cylinder is now on display in the US for the first time.

Dr. Sussan Paydar grew up just 70 kilometres from where the famous Cyrus Cylinder was excavated. 

She told me, “We used to go to Persepolis with my father on weekends and spend time picnicking next to these historical sites.  Of course, we always took it for granted.” 

But as an Iranian American, what she does not take for granted, are the human rights and freedoms inscribed on the ancient Cylinder.  The proclamations from King Cyrus the Great, who conquered modern-day Iran, grant freedom to displaced minorities, including Jews, abolish slavery and espouse religious tolerance. 

The Cyrus Cylinder is on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.  Dr. Alex Nagel is the exhibit’s curator.  As we observed the Cylinder, he told me the writings of Cyrus, and the importance of his words in the ancient world, should not be underestimated. 

“This is significant because previous rulers were imposing their own state religion and in the case of Cyrus, he accepted the local deities.  It was a tolerance that was expressed here by Cyrus towards other religions.  So, basically for many cultures and peoples in this sphere in the Middle East, he was allowing them to follow their own faiths,” Nagel said.  

The artifact has been housed in Britain for more than a century.  Two years ago it also travelled to Tehran.  At the unveiling, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested the ideas of the ancient King were not unlike those of Islamic prophets.

It was an attempt to connect the world’s only cleric ruled government, with its more tolerant past.

It is a concept Karim Sadjadpour, a leading researcher on Iran for Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for Peace, calls “a great contradiction.” 

“Iran is a nation that through the Cyrus Cylinder, birthed what many people would call the world’s first Bill of Human Rights.

Yet, today Iran executes more people per capita than any other country.  So there is a great contradiction here between what Iran once stood for, its rich heritage, its support for free thinking, freedom of religion and what it is today.” 

It is a nation Sadjadpour also points out, in conflict with nearby Israel, yet Jews have traditionally revered Cyrus for freeing them from captivity. 

The Cylinder’s importance in the history of the Middle East is profound.  However, few realize the story of ancient Persia is also woven into US history.

As part of his classical education, one of America’s founding fathers, President Thomas Jefferson, studied Cyrus the Great.  One of his textbooks is now on display in the Smithsonian next to the Cyrus Cylinder.

The principles of tolerance that Cyrus proclaimed are thought to have inspired Jefferson as he helped draft the US Constitution.

“Cyrus the Great’s writing is inspirational,” Paydar told me.  As she viewed the exhibit her eyes filled with tears. “I cried.  I got goose bumps.  It means a lot. I am very happy that it came to the US.”

It is an ancient artifact that is still significant today and that she hopes will inspire humanity for centuries more.