Ancient World, Behind the Scenes, Exhibitions and Installations

Why the Cyrus Cylinder Matters Today

Through this remarkable document, one of the world’s great rulers speaks across 2,500 years

The Cyrus Cylinder is a document of baked clay, nine inches wide by four tall. It memorializes an event that, at first glance, seems vanishingly remote in both space and time: the conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. by the Persian king Cyrus the Great. Yet this small object has outsized historical importance.

As the Cylinder arrives for a nearly nine-week stay at the Getty Villa—the final stop on a successful tour of the United States organized by the British Museum in partnership with the Iran Heritage Foundation and generously supported in Los Angeles by Farhang Foundation—we turned to four experts to ask: what does the Cylinder mean, and what can we learn from it today?


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An Enlightened Ruler

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of many kingly proclamations on stone or clay known from ancient Mesopotamia. What makes it unique is not its form, but rather the policy it records: Cyrus’s decision to allow deported peoples to return to their settlements and to restore their desecrated sanctuaries.

This support of religious and cultural diversity was highly unusual in the ancient Near East, and Cyrus has served as the model of an enlightened ruler. “Cyrus ruled a vast multi-ethnic domain—effectively, all of the Middle East we know today,” says Dr. Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and a specialist in the ancient Near East. “He realized that it was sensible statescraft to allow different peoples to worship their own gods and to have their own culture.”

Jews on the Map of History

Cyrus’s actions had particularly momentous consequences for one group of exiles in Babylon: the Jews.

Though the Cylinder does not mention the Jews by name, it echoes Cyrus’ biblical edict that exhorted the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Had Cyrus not freed the peoples of Babylon, says Bible historian Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, “the exiled Jews would probably have disappeared from the map of history, the way so many other peoples from the biblical period disappeared.”

The Cyrus Cylinder as installed at the Getty Villa

The Cyrus Cylinder, Achaemenid, after 539 B.C. Terracotta, 22.9 x 10 cm. The British Museum

An Ancient Persian Voice

The Cyrus Cylinder is remarkable for yet another reason—for the simple fact that it bears the words of this ancient king. Though historians had long known of Cyrus from the Bible and from ancient Greek writers, the Cylinder’s discovery in 1879 revealed “what we can say is the actual voice of Cyrus,” commented Dr. Jennifer Rose, a scholar of the Zoroastrian religion. “That makes it an extremely important piece of historical information.”

The Cylinder—and the conquest of Babylon that it describes—mark a key moment in the establishment of the ancient Persian Empire. “The Cylinder and the artifacts associated with it represent an empire that lasted for two centuries in the ancient world, and yet is rarely studied,” said historian Dr. Touraj Daryaee. The Persian Empire was not only the largest the world had yet known, but was rich with innovations in art, economics, writing, transportation, and religion, threads that are also explored in the exhibition. “People know about the Bible, they know about Alexander the Great [who conquered the Persian Empire], but there are a lot of things in between that make this an important world civilization.” The Cyrus Cylinder is an ambassador for that civilization, and its inheritors.

Gold armlet with griffins as installed at the Getty Villa / Achaemenid

In addition to the Cyrus Cylinder, the exhibition includes an array of objects representing the art and culture of the ancient Persian Empire. Here, a gold armlet with griffins (Achaemenid, 500–330 B.C.). The British Museum

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning is on view at the Getty Villa through December 2, when it returns to the British Museum. The exhibition is free and requires an advance, timed ticket, available here.

Video by Steve Saldivar and Sarah Waldorf

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One Comment

  1. Lenora Lowe
    Posted October 18, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I find the info About Cyrus’ cylinder seal amazing. Having studied ‘Ancient Civilizations’ and the ‘History of Culture’ while matriculating at UCLA many years ago, I wonder why Cyrus was never mentioned as one of the forerunners of the ‘freedom of religion’ concept in government. Alexander did share this belief as evidenced in his relationship with the Jews as well. Among my ancestors who left Israel for Greece in 300 B.C. there is the story told to me by my father who was born in Ioannina, Capital of the Epirus that when Alexander traveled through Greece, he stayed in Jewish homes. The reason given was that since the Jews were a minority, they would never seek to overthrow him.

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      All Hail Tiberius, Least Media-Savvy of the Roman Emperors

      Tiberius was proclaimed Roman emperor on September 17 in AD 14, exactly 2,000 years ago.

      He was also a bit wacko. “He was the least media-savvy emperor you could imagine,” says curator David Saunders, who has been in charge of this bronze portrait of Tiberius which leaves us on September 22. He point to this description found in the writings of Cassius Dio:

      Tiberius was a patrician of good education, but he had a most peculiar nature. He never let what he desired appear in his conversation, and what he said he wanted he usually did not desire at all. On the contrary, his words indicated the exact opposite of his real purpose; he denied all interest in what he longed for, and urged the claims of what he hated. He would exhibit anger over matters that were far from arousing his wrath, and make a show of affability where he was most vexed…In short, he thought it bad policy for the sovereign to reveal his thoughts; this was often the cause, he said, of great failures, whereas by the opposite course, far more and greater successes were attained.

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      Happy accession, My Lord!

      Portrait Head of Tiberius (“The Lansdowne Tiberius”), early 1st century A.D., Roman. The J. Paul Getty Museum

      Statue of Tiberius (detail), Roman, A.D. 37, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro. Currently on view at the Getty Villa following conservation and study.

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