Reconstructing a Persian Past: Contemporary Uses and Misuses of the Cyrus Cylinder in Iranian Nationalist Discourse

Ajam Media Collective: Recently, the Cyrus Cylinder, an imperial decree that dates from the sixth century B.C., left its home in the British Museum to be displayed on a museum tour across the United States until the end of the year. Its trip across the pond has been the focus of a plethora of news articles and press releases praising the ancient edict as the embodiment of “true” Persian culture and reminding the Iranian diaspora that this object purportedly bears witness to a democratic and tolerant past.

Reconstructing a Persian Past: Contemporary Uses and Misuses of the Cyrus Cylinder in Iranian Nationalist Discourse

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Recently, the Cyrus Cylinder, an imperial decree that dates from the sixth century B.C., left its home in the British Museum to be displayed on a museum tour across the United States until the end of the year. Its trip across the pond has been the focus of a plethora of news articles and press releases praising the ancient edict as the embodiment of “true” Persian culture and reminding the Iranian diaspora that this object purportedly bears witness to a democratic and tolerant past.


The front of the Cyrus Cylinder. Much of the actual text is lost to us today.

The excitement surrounding the Cyrus Cylinder is part of a broader phenomenon of rejoicing in a pre-Islamic past while simultaneously ignoring how its history has been systematically reinterpreted to fit contemporary political goals. This version of history is an ideological narrative that obscures nuance while inflating the relevance of an ancient history in the modern era. The legacy of the representation and misrepresentation of the Cyrus Cylinder is as old as the artifact itself. These interpretations are deeply intertwined with twentieth century Iranian history and the Pahlavi regime.

Since its rediscovery in 1879, the Cyrus Cylinder has been the focus of study for many generations of scholars, each hoping to elucidate the sociopolitical environment of Cyrus’ rule. The object, however, has been imbued with various and changing meanings informed by political and social circumstances not necessarily extrapolated from its contents since its rediscovery. The social biography of the Cyrus Cylinder is a compelling one, for its purpose has historically changed to match the needs of leaders in each time period, beginning with the era of Cyrus the Great until today.

After the Persian imperial conquest of Babylon, the Cyrus Cylinder was written by the government in the voice of Cyrus II of the Achaemenids that addressed the people of Babylon in their language, Akkadian. It assured them that the Babylonian gods, especially Marduk, held Cyrus in good favor and allowed him to conquer Babylon swiftly, and that he would increase offerings of ducks and geese to the Babylonian gods to stay on their good side. It also claimed Cyrus made the sanctuaries of the gods permanent, and “gathered together all of their people and returned them to their settlements.”

According to Josef Wiesohofer, a leading scholar on Ancient Persia, the text of the Cyrus Cylinder can be divided into six distinct sections. It begins with a condemnation of Nabonidus, the previous Babylonian king, asserts Cyrus’ lineage, and then details Cyrus’ arrival in Babylon. It continues to outline prayers and sacrifices to Marduk, reaffirm that people are living in peace, and highlight Cyrus’ plans for erecting buildings.

Far from being progressive or unique, Cyrus allowed for the sacrifices and rebuilt areas to placate newly conquered peoples more swiftly. His edict used traditional Babylonian political processes and mimicked Nabonidus’ Cylinder in multiple ways, suggesting that Cyrus was imitating a commonly acknowledged political formula of his era. Both cylinders described the rulers as “king of kings, king of the four corners,” indicating a continuity in acceptable ruling titles in the region. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the role of religion is central to both cylinders. Much of both edicts are dedicated to describing the lengths at which the rulers, Nabonidus and Cyrus, took to restore temples and glorify the Babylonian gods.

Although Cyrus is believed to have been Zoroastrian, his cylinder makes no mention of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda, and only focuses on Marduk and other lesser Babylonian gods. The repetition of Marduk throughout the edict’s text was by no means random or a mistake; Cyrus chose Marduk to win the favor of the Babylonian people. The previous king of Babylon, Nabonidus, had privileged the moon-god Sin above all other gods, including Marduk, the primary god of the Babylonians. Cyrus had been mindful of the Babylonians’ discontent with Nabonidus and wanted to preempt any calls against his conquest by quelling their religious concerns.

Had Cyrus attempted to restructure social institutions in every conquered region, he would have failed in spreading his imperial sword as far as he did.

The Achaemenid dynasty followed Cyrus’ protocol and continued to use religion as a political tool to spread the Persian Empire as far as possible. For example, Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus II, worshipped Egyptian gods after his conquest of Egypt. It was not until Darius I that the Achaemenids definitively promoted themselves as Zoroastrians. By creating a divine connection between himself and Ahura Mazda, Darius I succeeded in consolidating political power in an otherwise tumultuous period. It is evident, then, that both Cyrus and Darius used religion as a means to further their own political careers and empires.

Fast forward more than two thousand years to the nineteenth century. Until 1879, the Cyrus Cylinder remained buried where it had originally been offered to the Babylonian gods. The Cyrus Cylinder was excavated in 1879 in Babylon, present-day Iraq, by the Assyrian-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam. European historians linked the cylinder to the Book of Ezra and the freeing of Jews from Babylon, believing the Cyrus Cylinder as evidence for the biblical story.

It was not for another century, however, that the Cyrus Cylinder would draw the attention of the Iranian public. Iran’s last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, worked extensively to bring the Cyrus Cylinder to the fore of public attention to create an image that appealed to his people, as well as others worldwide. The popular understanding and glorification of the Cyrus Cylinder, commonly referred to now as a symbol of religious freedom, is rooted directly in modern Iranian politics of the twentieth century.

Mohammad Reza Shah took the Cyrus Cylinder and liberally interpreted the sacrifices as a promise of religious freedom. Drawing upon Cyrus’ Biblical legacy, Mohammad Reza Shah presented the Cyrus Cylinder as a defender of all religions, removing it of its specific imperial context and creating a symbol of religious freedom where there was none. He then declared the Cyrus Cylinder as the “First Declaration of Human Rights” in 1968, hoping to bring positive attention to Iran’s history to deflect the international community’s increasing criticism of his authoritarian rule. A few years later, Mohammad Reza Shah organized the incredibly ostentatious anniversary celebration of 2,500 year monarchical rule in Iran. In the same year, to further commemorate Cyrus II’s rule, the Shah gifted a replica of the clay artifact to the United Nations in 1971.

During his rule, the Shah was accused of widespread human rights violations for torturing and executing political opponents to his regime. So brutal was his reign that Amnesty International eventually identified Iran as the world’s top human rights offenders in 1976. In particular, the infamous cruelty of Iran’s secret police SAVAK had tarnished Mohammad Reza Shah’s progressive image. In order to draw attention away from these egregious abuses, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi launched a campaign to connect his rule with that of Cyrus the Great. Ironically, the idea that the Cyrus Cylinder was the first human rights document emerged from the lips of a dictator. His campaign to recreate Iran’s public image was often linked to a racialist agenda of Persian supremacy at the expense of a more cohesive national identity.

Despite the Shah’s attempts to make his autocratic rule more popular amongst Iranians, his extravagant spending on the 2,500 year anniversary celebration of monarchical rule backfired and provoked even more discontent amongst people. Mohammad Reza Shah is responsible, however, for inventing a new life for the Cyrus Cylinder—one which has been used by Persian nationalists of all stripes to reclaim the ancient empire.

Pahlavi’s attempt to restore dignity to his throne has spawned a tradition of romanticizing ancient Persia in order to deflect attention from contemporary struggles. Since the 1970s, many Iranians have been guilty of exaggerating the contents of the Cyrus Cylinder, claiming that Cyrus freed all slaves, allowed himself to be democratically elected by Babylonians, and promised freedom of religion. These claims, among others, are either entirely fabricated or dramatic deviations from the text. In fact,  Babylonia was expected to send a tribute of 500 slave boys to the Achaemenid king every year. And yet, these are the most commonly cited “values” of the Cyrus Cylinder. Scholars, including Josef Wiesehöfer, C.B.F. Walker, and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones have done scholarly research on the Cylinder and the social milieu discounting these claims. These exaggerations helped legitimize Pahlavi’s regime by reinventing the past to distract from the present.

reinventing the past to distract from the present.

Thanks to Mohammad Reza Shah’s campaign, some contemporary Iranians refer to the Cyrus Cylinder as if it were the answer to current problems faced in Iran and in the diaspora. The Cylinder has become a source of pride for many, but unfortunately this esteem recycles a dictatorship’s fantastic projections onto an artifact of empire, repeating the process of inventing a noble back story instead of addressing the misuse of history for contemporary political projects.

The Cyrus Cylinder continues to be re-appropriated in a similar fashion by government elites today, denoting continuity in two governments’ approaches towards Iranian antiquity. During the Cyrus Cylinder tour to Iran in 2010, the Cyrus Cylinder was unveiled underneath the Iranian flag, and a Cyrus impersonator was honored by Ahmadinejad with the gifting of a chaffiyeh, worn by soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war and identified with the Basiji paramilitary today. The combination of current national symbols of the flag and chaffiyeh with Cyrus the Great and his cylinder indicates a desire to create a holistic national identity, drawing upon both an ancient imperial legacy and a modern culture imbued with Islam.

Ahmadinejad’s welcome, which tied the present day to the past, resembles Pahlavi’s recreation of the symbol in the 1960s and 70s, as both tried to link their own rule and modernity to that of Cyrus II. His attempt to co-opt the secular nationalist symbol and subsume it under a religious nationalist identity, however, backfired in many ways. His actions estranged other factions in the government, revealing the controversial nature of the Cyrus Cylinder in the eyes of some government officials today and leaving his reverence of the artifact to be ridiculed.

This year, the Cyrus Cylinder is on loan from the British Museum, touring the US from March 9th through December 2nd, making stops in D.C., New York, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Disturbingly, the Cyrus Cylinder has been welcomed to the US by the same American congressmen who have pushed for devastating economic sanctions in Iran (see here and here). By touting the Cyrus Cylinder as the foundation for future human rights charters, some have seen the celebration of the historical artifact as a way to counter the current media blitz on Iran’s nuclear program. Historians and archaeologists of Iran, however, recognize these claims as the projection and downright insertion of modern values into an ancient text.

The meanings of objects change based upon the perspectives of the reader. A 2,500-year-old object should be analyzed in its own context, not through twentieth century universalist legal definitions. By accepting the lofty claims made about the Cyrus Cylinder, we are not only promoting false deviations from the text, but we are privileging an imperialist narrative that deserves scrutiny. Through demystification and demythification of these objects, one can better analyze the development of nationalist symbols in the modern period and their ability to obscure realities of the present and the past.

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