Geneva Anderson digs into art

Rare British Museum Treasure—The Cyrus Cylinder—makes its first visit to the U.S. and is at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum through September 22, 2103. Talk this Sunday

The Cyrus Cylinder, 539–538 BCE. Iraq, Achaemenid period (550–330 BCE). Baked clay. © Trustees of the British Museum

The Cyrus Cylinder, 539–538 BCE. Iraq, Achaemenid period (550–330 BCE). Baked clay. © Trustees of the British Museum

At just under 9 inches long and shaped like a barrel, the 2,500 year-old Cyrus Cylinder is a relatively small baked-clay artifact that is one of the British Museum’s greatest treasures.  It’s severely cracked and missing bits and pieces, but this humble object bears an account, in Babylonian cuneiform, by Cyrus, the King of Persia of his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.  The Cylinder, commonly referred to as the “the first bill of human rights,” is able to stand with the Rosetta Stone and the Magna Carta as one of the great icons of civilization and human rights.  Its inscription, in remarkably vivid Babylonian cuneiform, looks like a series of scrawls and scratches to the untrained eye but encouraged freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire, which stretched from present-day Egypt to India in the day of King Cyrus.  Long been hailed as an international symbol of tolerance and justice, the Cylinder traveled to Tehran’s National Museum of Iran in 2010 where it was seen firsthand by about half a million people but it has never before been on view in the United States.  It is now on display at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum as part of The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning through September 22, 2013.

The exhibition also includes 16 other rare ancient Persian objects in the British Museum’s collection which provide a context for understanding the Cylinder’s cultural and historical significance.  Included are a solid gold armlet, in the form of a winged griffin-like mythical creature, and the seal of Darius I, showing the Persian king in his chariot hunting lions.  If you visit the exhibition, there are a number of talks (described below) by esteemed Persian scholars on the Cylinder and its context which will maximize your experience at the Asian.

Dating to 539 B.C., the Cyrus Cylinder was uncovered in 1879 at Babylon (in modern Iraq) during a British Museum excavation.  The original function of the Cylinder was as a foundation deposit—an object buried under an important building to sanctify it.  The Cylinder was buried beneath the inner city wall of Esagila, the Temple of Marduk, Babylon’s protector God, during the extensive rebuilding program undertaken by Cyrus the Great after he captured the city in 539 B.C.  While the Cylinder itself was never intended to be seen or used again, the its text was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed.

The Cylinder is vital for understanding how Cyrus presented himself and how the Achaemenid dynasty would be carried on.  In his defeat of Babylon’s rulers, Nabonidus and his son, Belshazzar, Cyrus proclaimed his continuation of the Neo-Assyrian empire over the muddled Neo-Babylonian empire.   The Babylonian empire reached its zenith the great Nebuchadnezzar, but fell into a state of chaos under his immediate successor, Nabonidus, who after ruling for only three years, went to the oasis of Tayma and devoted himself to the worship of the moon god Sin.  He declared his son Belshazzar co-regent and left him in charge of Babylon’s defense and, in a story chronicled in the Bible’s book of Daniel, Cyrus was able to enter the city, conquer Belshazzar and assume rule, thus greatly impacting the cultural legacy of the Near East.

The Cylinder’s inscription chronicles how Cyrus, aided by the god Marduk, gained victory without a struggle; restored shrines dedicated to various gods; and allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands. The text does not mention specific religious groups, but it is thought that the Jews were among the people who had been forcibly brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II (the previous ruler of Babylon) and then allowed by Cyrus to return home. The Bible chronicles that the Jews returned from Babylon at this time and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem.  Cyrus is revered in the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect documented in the Cylinder’s proclamation.  Such enlightened acts were rare in antiquity.

The Cyrus Cylinder is an object of world heritage, produced for a Persian king in Iraq and seen and studied for more than 130 years in the British Museum.  Today, according to John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum, there are just a handful of experts who are actually fluent in ancient Babylonian cuneiform and able to read the Cylinder.  “The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning for the Ancient Near East,” said Curtis. “The Persian period, commencing in 550 BC, was not just a change of dynasty but a time of change in the ancient world.”

The values of freedom from captivity and freedom of religious practice proclaimed by Cyrus the Great are enduring ideas underlying ethical governance that have made the Cylinder a universal icon. Today, a copy of the Cylinder is on display in the United Nations building in New York City. The Cylinder appears on postage stamps issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it was seen firsthand by about half a million people at the 2010-2011 exhibition in Tehran.

Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, said, “The San Francisco Bay Area is home to both the signing of the United Nations Charter and the birth of the Free Speech Movement, major pillars supporting human rights and civil liberties. The Asian Art Museum is proud to partner with the British Museum and our U.S. museum partners to bring the Cyrus Cylinder to San Francisco. This important object provides not only a foundation for understanding the ancient world, but also a touchstone for continued efforts to strive for common human freedoms.”

Sunday, September 8, 2013, 2 PM—Dr. David StronachNew Light on the Cyrus Cylinder—British archaeologist, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus of Near East Studies at UC Berkeley, speaks about new discoveries related to the Cyrus Cylinder.  Stronach, recognized as a pioneer of archaeology in Iran, graduated from Cambridge in 1957, and was made director of the newly founded British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran in 1961, holding that post for some 20 years. During that time, he excavated at Pasargadae (1961-1963) and Nush-i Jan (1967-1968).  He is a leading expert on Pasargadae, the capital city of Cyrus, and the gardens and monuments of Cyrus and will talk about the Oxus treasure.

[ARThound’s previous (2011) coverage of Dr. Stronach “Ancient Iran from the Air:” acclaimed archaeologist David Stronach presents Georg Gerster’s forthcoming book on Iran, at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor this Saturday]

Sunday September 22, 2013 at 2 PM—Dr. Jennifer RoseFrom Samarkand to San Francisco.  Dr. Jennifer Rose, professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, provides an introduction to the Zoroastrian religion, one of the world’s oldest surviving belief systems. From its origins in Bronze Age Central Asia to its evolution across three powerful Iranian empires, and its expansion to India, Europe and North America, Zoroastrianism has had a profound impact on surrounding cultures and religions.  Advance ticket purchase recommended.

Details: The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning is at the Asian Art Museum through September 22, 2013.  The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco.  Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended evening hours every Thursday until 9 p.m.  Admission (Cyrus Cylinder exhibition is included in general admission): $12 Adults; $8 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under.   On weekends, admission is $2 more.  Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced and has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister.  Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets.  Info:

September 5, 2013 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment