The Significance of the Cyrus Cylinder

Clay cuneiform tablet fragment, 539-538 BC, Achaemenid

Clay cuneiform tablet fragment, 539-538 BC, Achaemenid

The Cyrus Cylinder has a cross-cultural significance. People from different backgrounds, nationalities, and religions recognize it as relevant and important. A replica of the Cyrus Cylinder is kept at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, on the second floor hallway. The main reason for this is how the Cyrus Cylinder is symbolic of tolerance and freedom.

The Cyrus Cylinder tells an amazing story: Cyrus conquers Babylon, and what does this king of kings, this greatest king chosen by god, this most powerful man in “the four corners of the world” do? He sets all the peoples free, lets them go back to their homes and homelands.

Most amazingly, he lets them recover their statues and gods – all the things that were confiscated as symbols of victory – and go back to their lives and religions, worshiping their gods in their own way and in their own temples. This is what sets the Cyrus Cylinder apart from a number of other ancient objects. The message is one of tolerance, peace, and multi-culturalism. It portrays a very modern way of ruling with pluralism and tolerance at its core. No wonder many have called the Cyrus Cylinder “the first bill of human rights.”

It is fascinating that 2600 years later, the Cyrus Cylinder still unites people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions in cherishing the wisdom of tolerance.

Iranians are proud of the Cyrus Cylinder because it was a Persian King who decided to break the tradition and allowed deported peoples to return home.

To Jewish people the story told by the Cyrus Cylinder is a magnificent one, as it corroborates the events in the Old Testament about King Cyrus allowing captive Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. In fact, in the book of Ezra, King Cyrus permits the Jewish exiled people to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

Even the founding fathers of the United States sought inspiration from Cyrus, what he did in Babylon as described by the Cyrus Cylinder, and how he ran a country. Thomas Jefferson owned two personal copies of Xenophon’s book Cyropaedia – the Education of Cyrus – which was “a mandatory read for statesmen.”