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The Cyrus Cylinder-2,600-year-old symbol of tolerance-on view at Metropolitan Museum
Armlet. Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (124017)© Trustees of the British Museum.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Cyrus Cylinder—a 2,600-year-old inscribed clay document from Babylon in ancient Iraq and one of the most famous surviving icons from the ancient world—is the centerpiece of the traveling exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning June 20. The Cylinder is relevant to millions of people across the world. It marks the establishment of Persian rule in 539 B.C. by Cyrus the Great, with the defeat of Babylon, the restoration of shrines, and the return of deported peoples and their gods. Cyrus’ legacy is celebrated in the biblical tradition, where he is seen as a liberator, enabling the return to Jerusalem. The Cylinder and 16 related works on view, all on loan from the British Museum, reflect the innovations initiated by Persian rule in the ancient Near East (550–331 B.C.) and chart a new path for this empire, the largest the world had known. Also on display will be works of art from the Metropolitan's Department of Drawings and Prints and Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts that celebrate Cyrus and his legacy as a liberal and enlightened ruler. A unique aspect of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum will be its display within the Galleries of Ancient Near Eastern Art, where objects from the permanent collections—including the famous lions from Babylon—will provide a stunning backdrop.

The barrel-shaped Cyrus Cylinder, buried as a foundation deposit, is inscribed in the Babylonian language in Babylonian cuneiform (wedge-shaped writing). The Cylinder was broken, at the time of its excavation in 1879, or soon after, and now comprises several pieces fixed together; just over one-third is missing. Its shape is typical for royal inscriptions buried in the foundations of buildings and city walls in Mesopotamia in the first millennium B.C., and also for proclamations. Inscribed on the orders of the Persian king Cyrus the Great, the Cylinder tells of his conquest of Babylon (539 B.C.); of his restoration to various temples of statues that had been removed by Nabonidus, the previous king; and of his own work at Babylon. Two clay fragments from a cuneiform tablet long in the collection of the British Museum were recently discovered to duplicate the text of the Cylinder, demonstrating that it was not unique. These fragments, which will be on view in the exhibition, also add information that is missing from parts of the Cylinder.

The Cylinder has resonances far beyond Iranian cultural heritage. The text of the Cylinder, which mentions the return of deported peoples and their gods, has been compared with biblical accounts that praise Cyrus’ role in the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile, and mention the building of the Second Temple. Cyrus is hailed as an ideal ruler in classical sources, and leaders throughout the millennia, as diverse as Alexander the Great and Thomas Jefferson, have been inspired by his example.

Cyrus the Great laid the foundations for the powerful Persian Achaemenid dynasty, which—under the subsequent reign of Darius the Great (522–486 B.C.)—stretched from Egypt to India, and from Arabia to the Aral Sea. This first “world empire” shifted the ancient Near East’s political focus from Mesopotamia to Iran. Innovative practices were crucial to administer such a vast and culturally diverse region. Key to Persian imperial success was a policy of religious and cultural tolerance, which fostered political stability. The objects in the exhibition highlight the innovations introduced in the Achaemenid period and include inscriptions, coins, stamp and cylinder seals, a votive plaque, gold and silver tableware, and a gold armlet. Some of these objects are part of the Oxus Treasure, one of the most significant finds from the ancient Iranian world, which was probably originally discovered close to the northern banks of the Oxus River in present-day Tajikistan.

The Achaemenid kings were introduced to coinage after Cyrus captured Sardis (547/546 B.C.), where coins had been in use for about a century. The exhibition will include three coins that feature an image of a crowned kneeling figure drawing a bow, often referred to as the “royal archer.”

Engraved cylinder and stamp seals played an important role in the ancient Near East. The impressions they made on clay documents served as permanent visual reminders of the sealer’s participation in the performance of a personal, legal, or administrative act.

Examples of both types of seals will be shown. Of special note is the well-known seal of Darius the Great in his chariot, hunting lions in the manner of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal; a winged figure, perhaps Ahuramazda, is above. A trilingual cuneiform inscription in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian reads: “I (am) Darius, great king.” Two other seals show a figure in a Persian-style robe and a crown, usually referred to as the “Persian royal hero,” struggling with a mythological creature and a wild beast.

Achaemenid kings paid homage to Ahuramazda, the supreme Zoroastrian deity. Whether or not the kings were strictly Zoroastrian, the religion took root in Iran under the Achaemenids. A votive plaque from the Oxus Treasure shows a figure holding a barsom or bundle of sticks, an object typically associated with piety in Zoroastrian art.

Many classical authors refer to the great wealth of the Persian royal treasuries. Two shallow bowls—one of gold and the other of silver—suggest the kind of luxury tableware that was available to the Persian elite.

Large animal-headed armlets were presented as diplomatic gifts. On display will be an armlet with terminals in the form of mythical creatures.

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June 20, 2013

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