A clay cylinder believed to be nearly 2,600 years old, which has been described as the world’s first human rights declaration, is being shown in the United States for the very first time.
The Smithsonian Slacker Gallery will have the artifact known as the “Cyrus Cylinder” on display through April 28. It is on loan from the British Museum. Following this display, there will be a yearlong U.S. tour with exhibitions planned in Houston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The ancient cylinder carries an account, written in cuneiform of how Persia’s King Cyrus took over Babylon in 539 BC and would allow freedom of worship and abolish forced labour. It also confirms a story from the New Testament of how Cyrus released people held captive to go back to their homes including the Jews return to Jerusalem to build the Temple.
The cylinder which was buried under a foundation wall of the city of Babylon has long been held as a model of good governance for a vast society and it made Cyrus famous from accounts in the Bible and writings by Greek authors. The cylinder was first discovered in 1879 on a British expedition in what is now modern day Iraq.
British Museum director Neil MacGregor said, “It’s the first evidence we have of people reflecting on how you run a society of diversity, without just forcing uniformity. The big question is: How can you manage a state that doesn’t have one faith?”
The museum has paired the football-sized cylinder with other artifacts to show how the Persian empire from that era grew to encompass many religions, languages and cultures. Its borders stretched from China to Egypt and the Balkans.
The cylinder was last on display in 2010 and 2011 in Iran. It attracted at least half a million visitors. Before this current tour it has been shown only in Tehran, Barcelona and London.
It is being shown in the U.S. with one of President Thomas Jefferson’s copies of “Cyropaedia,” a book by Greek historian Xenophon about the philosophies of Cyrus.