The Cyrus Cylinder

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published on 18 January 2012

The Cyrus Cylinder is a document issued by Cyrus the Great, consisting of a cylinder of clay inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform script. The cylinder was created in 539 BC, surely by order of Cyrus the Great, when he took Babylon from Nabonidus, ending the Neo-Babylonian empire. This document is clearly propaganda, praising the Achemenid ruler Cyrus and treating Nabonidus like an impious and bad king.

Cyrus Cylinder

The text can be divided in two parts:

- Lines 1 to 18 tell a story of Cyrus' deeds in the third person : the document tells about Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king, who is said  to have forbidden the cult of Marduk among others, and to have oppressed his subjects. So the subjects have made complaints to the gods, and Marduk had found Cyrus in order to make him the world’s ruler. All the inhabitants of his new empire become very happy to see him as their new king.

- In the second part, Cyrus speaks in the first person. He begin with his titles, and continues  saying that he took care of the Marduk’s cult at Babylon, and that he had “allowed them to find rest from their exhaustion, their servitude”. He also tells that lot of kings bring to him levies, and that he restored the cults in all the former kingdoms which are now part of his, and that he released the former deported persons.

Different readings  of this document can be done, and were done:

- Formerly some specialized historians took the text as a testimony close to the reality, but today this interpretation is mostly out of use.

- Some others see in this document a confirmation of the Bible in its historicity, with Marduk assimilated to Yahve. In fact in the Bible Cyrus is shown like Yahve’s object, who give to him the power to make his kingdom and the will to release captive Jews and help them to rebuild their temple. In fact the cylinder shows Cyrus saying: “the gods who dwelt there I returned to their home and let them move into an eternal dwelling. All their people I collected and brought them back to their homes,” (line 32) which could strongly be the confirmation of releasing captive Jews, even if these are not named in the text. One thing is clear: Cyrus choose to show that he has one powerful God at his side, Marduk, who gives him the legitimacy to overthrow Nabonidus and conquer his empire.

- Many historians today are agreeing to see this document as propagandistic, in which Nabonidus is treated worse than he was, using for this false portrayal the Marduk cultists’ anger against the last Babylonian king.

- A recent current is to understand the Cyrus Cylinder as the first charter of human rights. This interpretation began when, in 1971 at the 2500th birthday of the Persian monarchy, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi made Cyrus the Great a key figure in government ideology, in order to make a pre-Islamic legitimacy of his government. The same year, his dynasty offered a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder to the United Nations, with an English “translation” that is largely truncated and manipulated in order to show that Cyrus has made the first charter of human rights.

The problem is that this translation is largely diffused by the UNO and on the web, contributing to this idea, while speaking of human rights or charter is an anachronism. In fact Cyrus had effectively made a policy of tolerance in some minor points, especially regarding the cults, and this policy was continued by his successors during 200 years. But taking “(…) find rest (…) from their servitude (…)” (L.26) like an abolition of slavery abolition for example is a total anachronism, as the existence of multiple kind of slaves during Achemenid rule proves. We surely should understand these tolerance policies more like a way to quickly associate new subjects at his empire, in order to have the least troubles possible in his vast empire.

Here is the more recent translation of the Cyrus Cylinder, made by A. Kuhrt in 2007.

[First four lines broken]

5. An imitation of Esangil he made […] to Ur and the other cult-centers

6. A cult order that was unsuitable […] he spoke daily, and, an evil thing

7. he stopped the regular offerings […] he placed in the cult-centers. The worship of Marduk, king of the gods, he removed from his mind.

8. He repeatedly did that which was bad for his city. Daily […] he destroyed all his [subjects] with an unending yoke.

9. In response to their lament the Enlil of the gods grew very angry […] their territory. The gods who lived in them left their dwelling-places,

10. despite his anger (?) he brought them to Babylon. Marduk […], to all the places, whose dwelling-places were in ruins

11. and to the inhabitants of Sumer and Akkad, who had become like corpses, he turned his mind, he became merciful. He searched through all the countries, examined (them)

12. he sought a just ruler to suit his heart, he took him by the hand: Cyrus, king of Anshan, he called, for dominion over the totality he named his name.

13. Gutium and all the Umman-manda he made subject to him. The black-headed people, whom he allowed his hands to overcome,

14. he protected in justice and righteousness. Marduk, the great lord, who cares for his people, looked with pleasure at his good deeds and his righteous heart.

15. He ordered him to go to Babylon, and let him take the road to Babylon. Like a friend and companion he went by his side.

16. His massive troops, whose number was immeasurable like the water of a river, marched with their arms at their side.

17. Without battle and fighting he let him enter his city Babylon. He saved Babylon from its oppression. Nabonidus, the king who did not honour him, he handed over to him.

18. All the inhabitants of Babylon, the whole of the land of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors knelt before him, kissed his feet, rejoiced at his kingship; their faces shone.

19.”The lord, who through his help has brought the dead to life, who in (a time of) disaster and oppression has benefited all’ – thus they joyfully celebrated him, honoured his name.

20. I, Cyrus, king of the universe, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters,

21. son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan,

22. eternal seed of kingship, whose reign was loved by Bel and Nabu and whose kingship they wanted to please their hearts – when I had entered Babylon peacefully.

23. I set up, with acclamation and rejoicing, the seat of lordship in the palace of the ruler. Marduk, the great lord, […] me the great heart, […] of Babylon, daily I cared for his worship.

24. My numerous troops marched peacefully through Babylon. I did not allow any troublemaker to arise in the whole land of Sumer and Akkad.

25. The city of Babylon and all its cult-centers I maintained in well-being. The inhabitants of Babylon, [who] against the will [of the gods … ] a yoke unsuitable for them,

26. I allowed them to find rest from their exhaustion, their servitude I relieved. Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced at my [good] deeds.

27. Me, Cyrus, the king, who worships him, and Cambyses, my very own son, as well as my troops

28. he blessed mercifully. In well-being we [walk] happily before him. [At his] great [command] all the kings, who sit on thrones,

29. from all parts of the world, from the upper Sea to the Lower Sea, who dwell [in distant regions], all the kings of Amurru, who dwell in tents,

30.brought their heavy tribute to me and kissed my feet in Babylon. From […], Ashur and Susa,

31.Agade, Eshunna, Zamban, Meturnu and Der, as far as the territory of Gutium, the cities on the other side of the Tigris, whose dwelling-places had [of o]ld fallen into ruin

32.- the gods who dwelt there I returned to their home and let them move into an eternal dwelling. All their people I collected and brought them back to their homes.

33.And the gods of Sumer and Akkad, which Nabonidus to the fury of the lord of the gods had brought into Babylon, at the order of Marduk, the great lord, in well-being

34. I caused them to move into a dwelling-place pleasing to their hearts in their sanctuaries. May all the gods, whom I have brought into their cities,

35.ask before Bel and Nabu for the lengthening of my life, say words in my favour and speak to Marduk, my lord: “For Cyrus, the king, who honours you, and Cambyses, his son,

36. […] the kingship.”. The lands in their totality I caused to dwell in a peaceful abode.

37 […] goose, 2 ducks and 10 wild doves, over and above the goose, ducks and wild doves

38 […] I supplied in plenty. To strengthen the wall Imgur-Enlil, the great wall of Babylon […] I took action.

39.[…]  The quay-wall of brick on the bank of the moat, which an earlier king had built, without completing the work

40 […] on the outer side, what no other king had done, his craftsmen (?), the levy […] in Babylon

41. [… with] asphalt and bricks I built a new and [completed the work on it (?)].

42. […] with bronze bands, thresholds and nukuse (door-posts) [… in] their [gates]

43. [… An inscription] with the name of Ashurbanipal, a king who preceded me […] I found

44 […]

45. […] eternity.

About the Author

Antoine Simonin
Passionate about ancient Central Asia. Maintains the website From Bactria to Taxila. Works in the Europa Barbarorum project.

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