Duhaime's LawGallery - The Law In Pictures


Cyrus' Cylinder, Babylon, 538 BC

  • Object type: Other
  • Formal Title: Cyrus the Great Cylinder
  • Creator: unknown
  • Date Created: 538 BC
  • Origin: Nineveh, Babylon
  • Current Location: British Museum, London

This clay cylinder was found in 1879 by Turkish archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam at the excavation site of the ancient city of Niveveh, Babylon.

The cylinder is now the property of the British Museum in London.

The text on the clay cylinder is Akkadian (Babylonian) cuneiform. According to the holder of the item, the British Museum, the Cylinder is:

"... an account by Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 BC) of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.

"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.

"This cylinder has sometimes been described as the first charter of human rights, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms."

In her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Price on December 10, 2003, Iranian human rights lawyer, Ms Shirin Ebadi used these words:

"I am an Iranian. A descendant of Cyrus the Great.

"The very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2500 years ago that "he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it."

"And he promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all.

"The Charter of Cyrus The Great is one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights."

Although as the Museum description suggests, that is an overly-ambitious representation of the 538 B.C. document. Still, Cyrus' 538 B.C. Cylinder has come to represent precisely that to Jews and Muslims alike, and on that basis, is an invaluable artifact of legal history.

For a translation of the text, see Lloyd Duhaime, 538 BC: The Cyrus Cylinder.


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