An object of world heritage, the Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder inscribed with a declaration in Babylonian cuneiform script in the name of the Persian king, Cyrus the Great. It was created following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. The cylinder has, over the centuries, come to symbolize one of mankind’s first documents on human rights. The United Nations promotes the Cylinder as “an ancient document of human rights” and a replica of it is kept at its headquarters.
The cylinder's text has traditionally been seen by Biblical scholars as corroborative evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity. The policies of Cyrus on the treatment of minority religions are well documented in Babylonian texts as well as in Jewish sources and historical accounts. Cyrus' treatment of the Jewish people is also reported in the Bible, and he is the only non-Jewish person to be designated as a Messiah, a divinely appointed leader, in the Torah.
The cylinder, discovered in 1879 and housed in the British Museum, is composed of 35 lines inscribed in cuneiform script. A second fragment of the cylinder containing nine additional lines was found later, bringing the total number to 45, some of which are incomplete. The text of the cylinder includes the following:
- Lines 1 – 3: Missing many sections
When ... Marduk, king of the whole of heaven and earth, the ....... who, in his ..., lays waste his ........................broad in intelligence, ...... who inspects the world quarters (regions) ……. his [first]born (=Belshazzar), a low person was put in charge of his country,
- Lines 4 – 8: Provides an account by the Babylonian god, Marduk, of the crimes committed by the last Chaldean King, Nabonidus
but …….he set a … counterfeit over them. He made a counterfeit of Esagil, and .....….. for Ur and the rest of the cult-cities. Rites inappropriate to them, impure food-offerings …......................... disrespectful … were daily gabbled, and, as an insult, he brought the daily offerings to a halt; he interfered with the rites and instituted …... within the sanctuaries. In his mind, reverential fear of Marduk, king of the gods, came to an end. He did yet more evil to his city every day; … his people .........., he brought ruin on them all by a yoke without relief.
- Lines 9 – 19: Describes the search and finding of Cyrus the Great to serve as the ruler of the world and his role in the fall of Babylon
Enlil-of-the-gods became extremely angry at their complaints, and … their territory. The gods who lived within them left their shrines, angry that he had made (them) enter into Shuanna (Babylon). Exalted Marduk, Enlil-of-the-Go]ds, relented. He changed his mind about all the settlements whose sanctuaries were in ruins, and the population of the land of Sumer and Akkad who had become like corpses, and took pity on them. He inspected and checked all the countries, seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything. He made the land of Guti and all the Median troops prostrate themselves at his feet, while he shepherded in justice and righteousness the black-headed people whom he had put under his care. Marduk, the great lord, who nurtures his people, saw with pleasure his fine deeds and true heart, and ordered that he should go to Babylon He had him take the road to Tintir (Babylon), and, like a friend and companion, he walked at his side. His vast troops whose number, like the water in a river, could not be counted, were marching fully-armed at his side. He had him enter without fighting or battle right into Shuanna; he saved his city Babylon from hardship. He handed over to him Nabonidus, the king who did not fear him. All the people of Tintir, of all Sumer and Akkad, nobles and governors, bowed down before him and kissed his feet, rejoicing over his kingship and their faces shone. The lord through whose help all were rescued from death and who saved them all from distress and hardship, they blessed him sweetly and praised his name.
- Lines 20 – 22: Switches to a first person narrative by Cyrus the Great of his various titles and geneologic background
I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world, son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel (Marduk)and Nabu love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves. When I went as harbinger of peace into Babylon
- Lines 22 – 26: Cyrus guarantees peace in the country
I founded my sovereign residence within the palace amid celebration and rejoicing. Marduk, the great lord, bestowed on me as my destiny the great magnanimity of one who loves Babylon, and I every day sought him out in awe. My vast troops were marching peaceably in Babylon, and the whole of [Sumer] and Akkad had nothing to fear. I sought the safety of the city of Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for the population of Babylon …, who as if without divine intention had endured a yoke not decreed for them, I soothed their weariness; I freed them from their bonds(?).
- Lines 26 – 30: Cyrus declares Maduk’s blessing to Cyrus and his son, Cambyses, to maintain peace.
Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced at [my good] deeds, and he pronounced a sweet blessing over me, Cyrus, the king who fears him, and over Cambyses, the son [my] issue, [and over] my all my troops, that we might live happily in his presence, in well-being. At his exalted command, all kings who sit on thrones, from every quarter, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, those who inhabit remote districts (and) the kings of the land of Amurru who live in tents, all of them, brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna, and kissed my feet.
- Lines 30 – 36: Cyrus describes his efforts in restoring the cults that had been neglected during the previous reign and his permission to the exiled people to return to their homelands
From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Guti - the sanctuaries across the river Tigris - whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant (?) days, and the population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship. I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.
- Lines 36 – 43: Cyrus describes how he restored Babylon’s military and defenses
Every day I increased by … geese, two ducks and ten pigeons the [former offerings] of geese, ducks and pigeons. I strove to strengthen the defences of the wall Imgur-Enlil, the great wall of Babylon, and [I completed] the quay of baked brick on the bank of the moat which an earlier king had built but not completed its work. I …… which did not surround the city] outside, which no earlier king had built, his workforce, the levee from his land, in/into Shuanna. … ..................................with bitum]en and baked brick I built anew, and completed its work. ..................................................... great doors of cedarwood with bronze cladding, and I installed all their doors, threshold slabs and door fittings with copper parts.
- Lines 43 – 45: Cyrus reports that he has seen an inscription of Assurbanipal.
I saw within it an inscription of Ashurbanipal, a king who preceded me; .........................his … Marduk, the great lord, creator (?) of ................. my … I presented as a gift........... your pleasure forever.
To view Neil McGregor, the Director of the British Museum’s lecture on the Cyrus Cylinder, click here.
To learn more about the Cyrus Cylinder, click here.
To read information about the Cyrus Cylinder provided by the British Museum, click here.
For a line by line translation of the text on Cyrus Cylinder, click here.