Treasures of London – The Cyrus Cylinder…

The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum. PICTURE: Courtesy of the British Museum (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This clay cylinder, found beneath the sands of what is now Iraq, records an account of the conquest of Babylon by the Persian Achaemenid leader Cyrus the Great in 539 BC when he took power from Nabonidus and in doing so brought an end to the Babylonian empire.

The cylinder, which is written in Babylonian cuneiform script, was discovered in March, 1879, during excavations carried out for the British Museum. It had been placed in the foundations of Babylon’s main temple, dedicated to the god Marduk. It was formally acquired by the British Museum the following year.

The barrel-shaped cylinder measures 22.5 centimetres long with a maximum diameter of 10 centimetres. It was excavated in several parts which have since been reunited (although some sections are still missing).

The inscription, which consists of 45 lines of script, states that Babylonians welcomed Cyrus as their ruler “amid celebration and rejoicing” and extols him as a great benefactor who improved their lives, restored religious sites and repatriated displaced people.

The cylinder, which is today what we would describe as propaganda, has been seen by some as confirming the Biblical account of the repatriation of captured Jews back to their homeland while the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, called it “the world’s first charter of human rights”.

It has been loaned twice to Iran – in 1971 when it was displayed to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire and more recently in 2010 when it was exhibited at the National Museum of Iran. It has also been exhibited in Spain, India and the US.

WHERE: Room 52, British Museum, Great Russell Street (nearest Tube stations are Russell Square, Holborn, Tottenham Court Road and Goodge Street); WHEN: Daily, 10am to 7pm (8:30pm Fridays); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.britishmuseum.org.

Another view of the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum. PICTURE: Courtesy of the British Museum (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)