Historic "Bill of Rights" Cylinder on Display at Getty Villa

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The Cyrus Cylinder, dated to 539 B.C. and believed to be the first declaration of human rights, is on display until Nov. 2 at the Getty Villa.

The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay cylinder from 539 B.C. that has been called the first bill of human rights, is currently on display at the Getty Villa until Dec. 2. 

The artifact is considered a cultural treasure not only because of its age, but also because it records the history of a benevolent, tolerant ruler. 

Cyrus the Great (580-529 B.C.), who founded the Achaemenid Empire in Persia, modern-day Iran, is recorded as being a generous conqueror who allowed the people whose lands he conquered to continue practicing their own religious beliefs.

The Cylinder, just nine inches long, is also seen today by Iranians as a bridge to other cultures. 

“Obviously, it has a bearing of great resonance on today’s world,” said David Saunders, co-curator of the exhibit and co-director of the museum’s antiquities wing. 

After his conquests, Cyrus found himself the ruler of a diverse empire, Saunders said. The Cylinder is a record—distributed during Cyrus’s time as propaganda—of one man’s attempt to run a multicultural empire. 

Part of the Cylinder tells the story of Cyrus conquering Babylon (a city state about 30 miles south of present-day Baghdad in Iraq). In the Hebrew Bible, Cyrus is presented as a hero who freed the captive Jewish people from Babylon, restored their wealth and let them rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. 

“You can see how these stories were kept alive,” Saunders said. “It reinforces his reputation before the Cylinder was discovered in 1879.” 

Even the ancient Greeks, historically the enemies of the Persian Empire, refer to Cyrus with respect in their histories, Saunders said. 

Saunders, who studied ancient Greek and Roman civilization at Oxford, said it has been an interesting exhibit for a museum that specializes in those cultures. 

“I had always learned about the Persians from the Greek perspective,” he said. “This has been the best way to learn about Ancient Persia.” 

The Cylinder, currently on loan from the British Museum in London, was unearthed in 1879 during the excavation of a temple in Iraq. 

Experts say that compared to other artifacts, it does not immediately stand out. 

At a symposium about the Cylinder held at the Getty on Sunday, Dr. Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, said the Cylinder contains odd spacing, and the clay it’s made out of is crude and gritty. 

“I think it’s a mass production speed thing rather than anything else,” Finkel said. 

The Cylinder is one of thousands that would have been distributed throughout ancient Persia as propaganda to further the reputation of the king. 

But Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts said at the symposium that the story of mercy at the core of the Cylinder’s message is what makes it distinct. 

“It’s something that sets it apart so much from the kings that had been before,” he said. 

Many leaders have cited Cyrus as an inspiration throughout history. Thomas Jefferson was said to have read the biography of Cyrus before drafting the U.S. Constitution, and a replica of the Cylinder is housed at the United Nations headquarters in New York City as an example of a declaration of universal human rights. 

The Cylinder has been touring American museums since this spring, starting at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibition at the Getty Villa is its last stop before the Cylinder returns to England. 

Each museum has tried to present the Cylinder in a different context, Saunders said. 

“Each time adds new lenses to the object,” he said. 

For example, in addition to the artifacts from the British Museum, the Getty is uniquely displaying an album of photographs taken in Iran in the mid 19th century. The collection contains the first photographs ever taken of Achaemenid palaces and structures, some of them no longer standing, Saunders said. 

“This seemed like a fabulous opportunity to display this album,” he said.