The Mysterious Cyrus Cylinder And The First Ancient Proclamation of Human Rights

Cuneiform writings on an antique cylinder unearthed at a temple in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) revealed some surprise edicts. Many people think the Cylinder, which is linked to the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, contains the world’s earliest statement of universal human rights.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was written more than two millennia before the French Revolution. A charter known as the Charter of the Citizens was granted by an ancient Near Eastern ruler and is regarded as the first recorded assertion of human rights. The Cyrus Cylinder is the name given to this charter today.

Amid March 1879, the Cyrus Cylinder was discovered in the ruins of Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. The ancient relic was formed of baked clay and was 22.5 cm (8.85 in) in length. It was a foundation deposit at the city’s principal temple, the Ésagila. The story on the cylinder details the Persian monarch Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C., the creator of the Achaemenid Empire, which at the time was the world’s biggest empire. It also details the capture of Nabonidus, Babylon’s final ruler. The narrative was dated to between 539 and 530 B.C. and was written in cuneiform writing.

The Cylinder’s inscription mentions Cyrus’ support for religious, racial, and linguistic freedom, as well as his permission for those deported by the Babylonians to return to their homelands. It praises Cyrus as a benefactor of Babylonian inhabitants who improved their lives and renovated temples and religious sites throughout Mesopotamia and the area. The following are some excerpts from the text:

“I declare that while I am alive, I will respect the nations of my empire’s traditions, customs, and faiths and that none of my governors or subordinates will look down on or disrespect them.” From now on, I will never allow anybody to oppress anyone else, and if that happens, I will reclaim their rights and punish the oppressor.”

“I will never allow someone to take control of another’s moveable or landed property without their consent or compensation.” I prohibit unpaid, forced work while I am still alive. Today, I declare that everyone has the right to choose their faith. People are free to reside in any place and work as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.”

Some opponents contend that considering the Cyrus Cylinder to be the world’s first human rights charter is anachronistic and misses the document’s context. They argue that Cyrus was more concerned with the gods’ opinions and made attempts to satisfy them than acting in the best interests of the people. On the Cylinder, for example, it is written:

“I returned the gods of the country of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus had brought into Shuanna at the direction of Marduk, the great king, unhurt to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy,” says Marduk.

These gods were intended to return the favor to Cyrus in exchange:

“May all the gods to whom I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses, his son, may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant (?) days and the people of Babylon call blessings on my kingship.” I’ve made it possible for all of the world’s people to live in peace.”

They further claim that the Cylinder was unearthed as part of the Ésagila’s foundation deposit, implying that Cyrus’ intended audience was the gods of the realm rather than mortals.

Regardless of one’s point of view, the Cyrus Cylinder is a remarkable work of literature that vividly depicts events that occurred over 2,500 years ago and provides insight into the thoughts and wishes of a strong ruler who once presided over an empire.

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