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The Cyrus Cylinder
Associated Press/Photo by Vahid Salemi
The Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus’ story

Religion | A rare glimpse at an artifact that gave religious freedom to ancient conquered peoples, including the Israelites

NEW YORK—For the first time ever, the oldest declaration of religious freedom on record is visiting the United States. The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay cylinder covered in cuneiform script from 539 B.C., is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until Aug. 4, on loan from the British Museum. 

Cyrus was the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. In his cylinder he announces what was an odd policy at the time: All the peoples the Babylonians had captured and deported were free to return to their homelands, rebuild, and worship their own gods. This included the Israelites, who were exiles in Babylon. Cyrus returned the confiscated treasures of the temple in Jerusalem to the Jews and helped them return to rebuild. Before Cyrus, Babylonian policy was to displace the conquered peoples from their homelands, and fill the conquered lands with the conquered from other lands. 

The Bible in Ezra 1 says that the Lord “moved the heart of Cyrus to make a proclamation” allowing the people to return home. But more than a century before Cyrus came to power the Bible mentions him, saying in Isaiah 44 that he would free the exiles: “I am the Lord … who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.’ … I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me.” The cylinder uses language similar to Isaiah—Cyrus calls himself a shepherd, though he says he serves the Babylonian god Marduk. The exhibit has a mostly complete translation of the cylinder. 

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Isaiah died more than a century before Cyrus came to power in Babylon. Some scholars argue that someone else wrote Isaiah’s prophecy after the fact. “Because [Isaiah] makes a prediction and actually mentions the person by name, most critical scholars don’t accept that as coming from Isaiah the prophet,” said Peter Gentry, an Old Testament scholar at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Gentry disagrees.

“The whole argument in Isaiah is Yahweh is distinguished from the idols by his ability to know and determine the future,” Gentry said. “The example of it is the prediction in sending Cyrus. I don’t know why this is such a huge problem.”

Gentry said scholars, to get around divine prophecies of real events, often parcel out parts, like the passage about Cyrus, and say they were written after events occurred. 

The Bible was the original historical record of Cyrus—the British only discovered the cylinder in 1879, in Iraq. Cyrus had the practice of burying these cylinders in the foundations of public buildings or city walls, according to the Met’s exhibition.

Cyrus’ empire continued for 200 years after he conquered Babylon, until Alexander the Great began to break it up.

In a TED Talk a couple years ago, Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, imagined how the Middle East might be different today if Cyrus’ model of religious freedom had continued.

“It was the first multicultural, multi-faith state on a huge scale,” MacGregor said. “He left a dream of a Middle East where people of different faiths could live together.”

On July 4, long lines of people wound through the New York Public Library for the chance to see a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson and other American Founding Fathers looked to Cyrus as an inspiration for religious freedom. But at the Met there weren’t lines to see the cylinder, the Declaration’s precursor. About a dozen people were in the exhibit when I was there. It’s barely the size of a football, so it’s easy to miss.

“It doesn’t, I agree, look like very much,” said MacGregor. 

The cylinder travels next to California before it returns to London.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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