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The relic shows how politically savvy kings in the ancient world took power. By promptly announcing reforms, they at once legitimized conquest, publicly rebuked the vanquished regime and portrayed a new ruler as benevolent and acting in concert with the gods. That was especially important for Cyrus, who presided over as many as 50 million people — about 44 percent of the world’s population.
The inscription, in Babylonian cuneiform, provides Cyrus’ account of his conquest of Babylon, which he claims to have achieved with the help of the god Marduk. It goes on to enumerate relief measures he brought to the city and explains how he returned a number of images of gods seized by the Babylonian King Nabonidus to their temples throughout Mesopotamia. Though Jews are not specifically referenced, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II was part of Cyrus’ policy, according to scholars.
Some contemporary historians believe Cyrus was less a human rights champion than a hard-nosed pragmatist, realizing he couldn’t possibly set up a powerful central government to preside over such a vast kingdom. Regardless, his policies provide a window into a time of dramatic change in the ancient world.
“You could almost say the Cyrus Cylinder is a history of the Middle East in one object,” said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. “It is a link to a past which we all share and to a key moment in history that has shaped the world around us.”