The un-pharaoh


by David Holzel
Senior Writer

Jewish tradition has a warm spot for Cyrus, the sixth century BCE Persian king who freed the Jews from their exile in Babylonia. As told in the biblical books of Ezra and Chronicles, Cyrus was the anti-pharaoh who didn’t need to be prodded to let the Jews go.

Cyrus’s un-despotic legacy is in the spotlight, thanks to the exhibit of the Cyrus Cylinder at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, on loan from the British Museum. The size of a loaf of bread, the clay cylinder was inscribed to mark the king’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE.

“I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world,” the inscription in Babylonian cuneiform announces.

“I soothed their weariness; I freed them from their bonds. … I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements,” it continues.

On its face the barrel-shaped cylinder seems to be a standard kingly statement — a kind of elaborate press release. But what about claims that the Cyrus Cylinder is an enlightened call for universal freedom?

“It’s not,” says Matthew Suriano, assistant professor of Jewish studies at the University of Maryland. “That’s part of the modern reading of the text. It wasn’t a policy of religious tolerance, not in our understanding of the term.”

The story the cylinder tells is of the Persian king’s victorious arrival in Babylon at the behest of Marduk, the city’s main God. It sounds like a cakewalk for the Persians, “but it doesn’t mention the bloody campaign he had been having in southern Mesopotamia,” uriano says.

Cyrus restored the cultic practices in Babylon, and went on to conquer the largest empire the Near East had seen. The cylinder was buried beneath the city’s foundation — bequeathed to posterity — where an archeologist uncovered it in 1879.

In the Hebrew Bible, Cyrus appears as the king wearing the white hat. His decree to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple opens the book of Ezra, and its repetition in Chronicles completes the biblical canon. The book of Isaiah calls him “messiah,” a word previously given only to kings of Judah, Suriano says.

Although the Cyrus Cylinder makes no mention of the Jews, there is a very real connection between it and his decree to end the Jewish exile in Babylonia.

In both accounts, “a god of a certain people, a captured people, tells Cyrus to restore a cultic worship,” Suriano says.

Cyrus may have been “no different than his predecessors or any of his contemporaries,” e says. But at this time of year especially he stands out. Unlike pharoah, he didn’t need any special convincing to heed God.

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia is on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through April 28. For information, go to

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