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The Legacy of Cyrus the Great: Iran and Beyond


The Cyrus Cylinder: Discovery and Creation of an Icon
John Curtis, British Museum
From the beginning, the Cylinder was celebrated as an important historical document. It did not acquire its present iconic status until the late 1950s, however, when it began to be described as the First Charter of Human Rights. This came about partly because of the promotion of Cyrus by the Shah of Iran and other leading politicians as a liberal and enlightened monarch, and the belief that these values and ideals were enshrined in the Cylinder. This culminated in the choice of the Cylinder as the official symbol of the 2,500th anniversary of Persian monarchy in 1971.This talk considers whether the Cylinder can really be considered a human rights document or whether it is, as some scholars suggest, nothing more than a Babylonian building inscription. It also looks at the life of the Cylinder since 1971, and considers what it represents for different constituencies at the present time.

The Cyrus Cylinder and its Babylonian Setting
Amélie Kuhrt, University College London
When considering the Cyrus Cylinder, it is crucial to remember that it is a Babylonian document and that it fits perfectly with Babylonian conventions. It reflects the accommodation reached, following negotiation with the citizenry, between a Persian conqueror and the conquered. This has important implications: It does not, for example, allow us to see it as introducing a new policy of toleration contrasting with that of Assyrian and Babylonian rulers. All references to “restoration” are part of a familiar local rhetoric deployed by foreign victors and would-be kings ready to accept the duties imposed on a legitimate Babylonian king.

Between Persia and Greece: Cyrus in Context
Wouter Henkelman, German Archaeological Institute
Cyrus’s portrayal as the “Father,” a description introduced by Herodotus, has a tremendous effect on the perception of the first ruler of the Persian Empire, both in ancient Greece and beyond. Often, consciously or unconsciously, a distinction between Cyrus and his successors has been assumed based on this Greek view. Even in more recent approaches, Cyrus is sometimes seen as belonging to a different cultural and historical context than Darius the Great, the re-founder of the Persian Empire, who is curtly described by the same Herodotus as “the merchant.” The figure of Cyrus seems to tower above the rest of Persian history, as if he belonged to a different world. By seeing Cyrus from a broader perspective—and using primary rather than Greek sources—much can be learned about the historical significance of this enigmatic person.

An Archaeology of the Babylonian Cyrus Cylinder
Zainab Bahrani, Columbia University
The Cyrus Cylinder is an artifact with many lives. It was originally a foundation text, written after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BCE. In the nineteenth century, the text was discovered in Babylon, an archaeological site in the south of Iraq; at the time, the land was part of the Ottoman Empire. In what archaeological context was the Cylinder found? What was the historical relationship between archaeology and politics and what were the competing claims on the past at that time? This lecture explores the history of archaeology in Babylon, focusing especially on the 1870s, the era when the Cylinder was excavated by Hormuzd Rassam, an archaeologist from the city of Mosul. It traces the story of Rassam’s original discovery of the Cylinder and its subsequent interpretations when it was brought to the British Museum in 1879. The lecture concludes by considering our own uses of the past and the meanings that we have attributed to this artifact in our own time.

The “Many Cyruses” of the Renaissance
Jane Grogan, University College Dublin
Cyrus the Great was a familiar figure to schoolchildren, artists, weavers, writers, and many others during the Renaissance. Scriptural accounts of Cyrus joined with classical writings to shape him as a heroic prince and a model imperialist; in particular, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, a fictionalized biography of the first Achaemenid emperor, nourished a burnished conception of Cyrus for Renaissance readers. But it was not without a skeptical undercurrent, one more in tune with Herodotean’s Cyrus of Book I of the Histories. Renaissance conceptions and reconfigurations of Cyrus were therefore dynamic and inquiring, found in political theory as much as in literary reception or historical thought. This paper surveys the rich, varied, and interrogative Renaissance engagement with the figure of Cyrus, with the values for which he was made to represent in the classical tradition and beyond, and more recently, in Renaissance debates about kingship, empire, and temperance.

What the Founders Learned from Cyrus the Great—and What We Can, Too
Caroline Winterer, Stanford University
We know that America’s Founding Fathers admired the classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. The Roman architecture of Washington, D.C., is a monument to those ideals. But few people know that the founders were also deeply interested in the ancient cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, including the Persian leader Cyrus the Great. This talk explores what the revolutionary generation knew about Cyrus the Great and his world, and what we can learn from the founders about transcending the East/West divide today.

Cyrus and Neo-Achaemenid Architecture in 20th-Century Iran
Talinn Grigor, Brandeis University
Perhaps the most fantastic engagement with Cyrus occurred in October 1971, when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi organized a celebration of the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian Empire. Designed to pull Iran out of the Middle Ages and into the king’s utopian Great Civilization, the points of his White Revolution were juxtaposed with the Cyrus Cylinder under the modernist dome of Shahyad. The combination of the old and new rendered the Pahlavis the legitimate successors to Cyrus’s throne and Iran an admirable ancient nation among the ranks of the community of modern nation-state. This talk traces a history of neo-Achaemenid and neo-Sassanian architecture in the late Qajar and Pahlavi periods. The narrative spans from nineteenth-century Parsi temples in Bombay to aristocratic residences in Tehran, and from the 1934 mausoleum of Ferdowsi to Persepolis in 1971. Through these structures, it explores the artistic discourse that was formulated in order to imagine a modern nation with deep roots in antiquity.

Archaeotopia: Future Past Persia
Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, University of Toronto
Dissatisfied with the existing order, Iranian nationalists and modernists since the early nineteenth century have sought to create an archaeotopia (archaeo + topia), an archaic and archaeologically informed vision of the future. As a monumentalized and memorialized site, Persepolis and its founding dynasts played an increasingly important role in the development of the modern Iranian national imagination. This talk explores the changing configuration of this archaeotopic past and how it served as a prospective scenario for the future on the eve of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–09, the Ferdowsi Millennium in 1934, and the 2,500th anniversary celebrations in 1971, for which the Cyrus Cylinder was a pivotal symbol. It further explains the recent popular interest in Cyrus the Great and his identification with Zul-Qarnain, a Quranic personality.

Symposium Overview

Gold Griffin Headed Armlet
from the Oxus Treasure
From the region of Takht-i Kuwad, Tadjikistan, 5-4th century BCE
W x H x T: 11.6 x 12.8 x 21.6 cm (at horns)
British Museum, London, ME 124017
Photo: ©The Trustees of the British Museum

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