On the Town

The King’s Reach

Cyrus the Great’s 2,600-year-old declaration of human rights goes on display at the MFAH.

By Michael Hardy April 25, 2013 Published in the May 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

In 539 BC, a great emperor declared that Babylon was controlled by an evildoer and decided to stage a preemptive invasion. The Babylonian ruler was quickly overthrown, like his equally inept twentieth-century successor Saddam Hussein (Babylon was in modern-day Iraq, after all), and Babylon occupied by a foreign army. This month, a relic from that war—the Cyrus Cylinder, a football-sized hunk of clay and considered one of the most important artifacts in the British Museum—goes on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning
May 3–June 14
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
1001 Bissonnet St. 713-639-7300. mfah.org

According to the Babylonian cuneiform writing that covers the cylinder, King Cyrus of Persia (modern-day Iran) invaded Babylon because its ruler, Belshazzar, was bringing “yet more evil to his city every day.” But it’s what the Persian king did next that made history. First, as recorded on the cylinder, he freed the foreigners enslaved by Belshazzar, allowing them to return home. Although the cylinder doesn’t mention them, the Old Testament states that one of the groups Cyrus freed was the Israelites, allowing them to return to Jerusalem. Subsequently, Cyrus also allowed the conquered Babylonians to continue worshipping their own gods. That’s why a replica of the cylinder is on permanent display at United Nations headquarters in New York.

“It’s the first document we have about human rights,” says MFAH curator Frances Marzio, who organized the exhibition in collaboration with The British Museum. “There are theories that this was a common practice of the Persian kings, but the Cyrus Cylinder is the first evidence of it.”  

For its first visit to the United States, the cylinder is traveling to just five museums, including the MFAH. Together with 16 other Persian artifacts from the same period, the cylinder was set to arrive in Houston on April 30, giving curators just a couple of days to install the exhibition before it opens to the public. In preparation for its arrival, curators spent one to two weeks acclimatizing an exhibition gallery to meet the British Museum’s exacting standards. Some museums have had trouble achieving the humidity level mandated by the Brits, but Marzio says she isn’t worried. 

“We’re Houston,” she says, laughing. “We know how to do air conditioning.” 

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