The Cyrus Cylinder: Human Rights Charter?

The Cyrus Cylinder, ca. 539 BC, British Museum

Cyrus the Great's campaigns in the mid-6th century BC established an empire of unprecedented size and complexity. Over three decades, Cyrus won victories across Iran, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia, unifying vast new territories under Persian rule. One of the few contemporary chronicles of these events is the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay barrel-shaped decree written in cuneiform by Babylonian scribes upon Cyrus' conquest of the city in 539 BC. Among other things, it proclaims that the cult statues which had been brought to Babylon from other temples be returned to their home cities and those shrines reconsecrated.

Modern scholarship has long linked this gesture of religious tolerance to the Biblical reports which praise Cyrus for allowing the Jews to return from exile in Babylon and restore their own ruined temple in Jerusalem. Under the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran (1925-1979), the celebration of Cyrus as an ideal king led to the interpretation of the cylinder as the first declaration of universal human rights. The success of this campaign is evident in the installation of a replica of the cylinder in 1971 in the United Nations headquarters in New York.

For historians, however, the interpretation of the cylinder as a manifesto for human rights is anachronistic. Most archaeologists dismiss the idea that the Cyrus' actions were unique; in fact, the cylinder's language is stereotypical for Mesopotamian royal documents. As the following sections show, Cyrus' decree was framed as part of a broader concern to ensure the loyalty and good wishes of the subject populations and their gods. A full translation can be found here.

What It Says

The cylinder's cuneiform text begins by recounting the story of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king, who ostensibly turned his back on the city's gods and imposed corvee (unpaid & compulsory) labor on its people, while Babylon's venerable temples and walls fell into disrepair. Nabonidus' neglect was his downfall, because Babylon's displeased gods called on Cyrus to save the city. With the gods' divine favor Cyrus was able to unite Persia, mustered a formidable army "like the water of the river," and liberate Babylon from its oppressor. At this point, the text switches to Cyrus' first person viewpoint. After announcing his long list of royal titles, Cyrus proclaims the elimination of the corvee and the reconstruction of Babylon. Crucially, he also issues policies regarding religion:

From Babylon to Ashur and from Susa, Akkad [and a number of kingdoms east of the Tigris]. . . as far as the region of Gutium [in Iran], [from] the sacred centers [west] of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods who had resided there to their places . . . I gathered all their inhabitants and returned them to their dwellings.

By restoring the gods to their shrines, Cyrus demonstrated that he was acting in accordance with the will of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, and that he bore no animosity towards followers of any particular god. The cylinder was buried beneath a temple Cyrus built for the Babylonian gods - likely as a symbolic offering.


The Nabonidus Cylinder, ca. 556-539 BC, British Museum

Reading Deeper

It is the excerpt italicized above that has given the most inspiration to the idea of Cyrus as a human rights icon. In an era where temples were often destroyed and images of the gods stolen, Cyrus' decree can certainly be characterized as generous. His clement policies and demeanor also drew respect from Xenophon, a Greek mercenary who spent part of his career fighting for Persia and who wrote an admiring biography of Cyrus. 

However, it is also important to note that the Cyrus Cylinder is not a unique document. In fact, it is one of the more recent examples of a Mesopotamian royal tradition. Babylonian kings and others before them would deposit inscribed cylinders at major construction sites as a means of justifying their deeds to the gods. There appeared to be a formula to these documents: a king would first describe the destitute state of Babylon and its abandonment by the gods, before introducing the sitting king, praising his authority and piety, and outlining the many benevolent acts of restitutition across the city. Ironically, one of the best-surviving examples of this genre was created by Nabonidus, the king whom Cyrus displaced. The so-called Nabonidus Cylinder, pictured on the right, follows the formula well: blasphemous kings have neglected the temples of the gods; seeking a champion, the gods now empower Nabonidus to assemble an army and defend their dignity; a heroic Nabonidus saves the day and rebuilds the temples. In context, Cyrus took an existing Mesopotamian trope and applied it to his own realm.

The Cyrus Cylinder: Human Rights Charter?