Britain’s Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution may spring to mind as great fountains of modern enlightened government, but an artifact much older has been considered by many scholars as the very first declaration of human rights.

After he annexed Babylon in 539BC, Khuroush, ruler of the First Persian Empire (the Achaemenids), known in the west as Cyrus the Great, issued an unprecedented decree. His words were inscribed on a baked clay cylinder that was unearthed in 1879 by a British Arab archaeologist, Hormuzd Rassam, from a foundation in present-day Hillah, ancient Babylon, 85kms south of Baghdad. It was named the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ and is now on display in the US for the first time. An image of the thingummy, lifted from the net, is shown below:-

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No, its not a ear of corn

At that point of time in history, there was a norm for all invasions. Go in, plunder, pillage, rape, burn, loot, raze every building to the ground and enslave. No one batted an eyelid to that. If you were working in Network News then and reported that, you’d be fired for fooling around on the job. It wasn’t sensational news at all.

But that changed when Khuroush recorded his decree on a convex shaped clay barrel 9 inches long and 4 inches in diameter in its middle. The Cyrus Cylinder. It was a text that came to be regarded as one of the most important and iconic announcements in world history.

Most of the inscription on the cylinder, deciphered as Babylonian cuneiform, hails Khuroush’s victory over the Babylonian ruler, Nabonidus, and sings paeans to his glory. The text praises Khuroush, sets out his genealogy and portrays him as a great king from a line of great kings. It goes on and on for most of the text, about how he was the only sane guy in the world and everyone else was a prick, yada, yada, yada. It might been penned by one of his minions, expecting a promotion and a raise (I do that all the time, with limited success). Or maybe he was hoping the great king would slip him a couple of busty Nubian slaves (I would do that, with probably very limited success). Old Khurry might have been great, but he was mighty vain too.

Also in this text, Khuroush went on to state that he recognized the religious freedom and rights of the people in conquered lands. He decreed that those people who had been captured and enslaved by his predecessors should be set free and allowed to go back to their homes and the statues of their different gods returned to their original shrines, to be freely worshiped.

I’m sure there were some aides reporting to him who must have exclaimed,” What the f—k you doon, boss, are you nuts or sumpn?” There’s however no mention of these individuals. Must have lost their heads right after.

Khuroush finds revered mention in the Bible, which talks of the ‘exiled Jews, who had wept by the waters of Babylon when they remembered Zion, who could now return to Jerusalem and rebuild their destroyed temple”, thanks to him. This earned him the title “Shepherd of God” and even the “Lord’s anointed” (Messiah) in the Book of Isaiah.

Believe me, if Hitler had followed Khuroush’s example when his  Panzer Divisions thundered into Ukraine in 1941, the Soviet Union would have ceased to exist and Nazi Germany could well have won the Second World War.

Under Khuroush, the Persian empire became the largest kingdom the world had ever seen, stretching from the Indus Valley in the east, to Egypt in the west, unifying many tribes, languages and cultures. Check out the map of the Achemenids empire below that I filched from the other guy, Ol’ Wiki:-

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A map of the Persian Empire in dark green, during Khuroush’s reign.

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King Khurry’s Gold Standard (I may be getting carried away a bit here)

Xenophon, an ancient Greek historian (430-450BC), whose “Cyropaedia” has been read by statesmen down the ages, believed that Khuroush embodied all the qualities of a perfect king. The British Museum is now sending the Cyrus Cylinder on a tour of American museums, beginning with the Smithsonian, in Washington, DC. The curators hope that the show will highlight the Persian king’s religious tolerance and his close relations with the Jews in particular. Whether that will help improve ties between America and Iran, remains to be seen.

In 2010 the cylinder was sent to Tehran on loan. Nearly 500,000 people queued up to see it and its presence evoked a fierce national debate on Iranian values. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened the exhibition at the National Museum of Iran, reminding visitors that Islam had a rich tradition of tolerance and that the Iranian constitution reserved seats in parliament for a Christian (Armenian), a Zoroastrian and a Jew.

Yet, today there is a great contradiction between what Iran once stood for, its rich heritage, its support for free thinking and freedom of religion and what it is today. It is a nation marked by its intolerance of minorities and is at loggerheads with Israel and yet Jews have traditionally revered Khuroush for freeing them from captivity.

The Cylinder’s importance in the history of the Middle East is profound and the story of ancient Persia is woven into even American history. As part of his classical education, one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, studied Khuroush the Great.  One of his textbooks is now on display in the Smithsonian next to the Cyrus Cylinder. The principles of tolerance that Khuroush proclaimed are thought to have inspired Jefferson when he helped draft the US Constitution.

The 2,600-year-old artifact may be puny but its size belies its importance. What it says about a key moment in history provides important lessons in tolerance and justice even today, many millennia later.