The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia

The Cyrus Cylinder, after 539 B.C.E., fired clay, 21.9 cm long (video from the British Museum)

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. It was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform on the orders of Persian King Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.E.) after he captured Babylon in 539 B.C.E. It was found in Babylon in modern Iraq in 1879 during a British Museum excavation.

Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. He then describes measures of relief he brought to the inhabitants of the city, and tells how he returned a number of images of gods, which Nabonidus had collected in Babylon, to their proper temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Iran. At the same time he arranged for the restoration of these temples, and organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. Although the Jews are not mentioned in this document, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II, was part of this policy.

The cylinder is often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium B.C.E., kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.

Cite this page as: The British Museum, "The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia," in Smarthistory, September 18, 2017, accessed June 20, 2024,