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History, human rights and a cylinder

As you pore over the curious, wedge-shaped marks on a clay cylinder at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), know that you’re taking in what is often believed to be the first declaration of human rights. The Cyrus Cylinder was inscribed in 539 BC after the Achaemenid king, Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon that year. It carries inscriptions in Babylonian cuneiform (a cuneiform script is one of the oldest known systems of writing). The CMVS showcases a most absorbing exhibition, The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia -- A New Beginning, which has been organised by The British Museum. Apart from the Cyrus Cylinder, the exhibition will also display 30 other historically significant artefacts.


The Cyrus Cylinder

Dr John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects, The British Museum and Curator of the exhibition, relates the remarkable story of the cylinder. “The Cyrus Cylinder is significant for five reasons -- unlike other rulers of his time who destroyed entire cities, Cyrus occupied Babylon peacefully. He freed Babylonians from forced labour, which was, again rather uncharacteristic of rulers then. Cyrus promoted freedom of worship by returning religious statues to their respective shrines all across the Persian empire. People who had been deported, including Jews, were sent back home. Most importantly, the Cyrus Cylinder is more a proclamation than a foundation, because we recently found two small cuneiform tablets. The cylinder is believed to be the first charter of human rights, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it that, because the concept of human rights didn’t exist till the 18th or 19th century,” says Dr Curtis.


A gold armlet from the Achaemenid empire (Oxus treasure) 5-4 century BCE

Cyrus the Great, adds Curtis, is often compared to Ashoka for being a liberal monarch and being more far-sighted than most other rulers of their times. To provide an Indian context to the cylinder, the first documentary evidence of Indian proclamation of human values (Ashokan Edict, 300 BCE) and a relief panel from Persepolis is on display. “I believe this comparison holds special meaning for Indians,” says Dr Curtis.

The exhibition, he adds, was first taken to Tehran in 2010 and in five American states between 2011 and 2013. “I think this piece of history is very significant for India because of its Parsi population. Cyrus was the founder of the Persian empire and is definitely known to believe in Ahura Mazda.” Its relevance today is undeniable, adds Dr Curtis. It is a symbol of tolerance toward people of various faiths and beliefs.

The other 30 artefacts have been selected to put the cylinderin better context, and indicate the developments of their times. They include inscriptions in Old Persian cuneiform, jewellery and tableware, a gold plaque from the Oxus Treasure associated with the Zoroastrianism, coins and seals. In Iran, adds Dr Curtis, the cylinder was revered for its story. “As a mark of respect, many visitors walked out of the exhibition without turning their backs to the cylinder. Cyropaedia, by Xenophon, a famous book on Cyrus The Great, is regarded as the last word on ideal governance, much like Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. I hope Mumbai takes back an equally enriching experience,” says Dr Curtis.

The exhibition also includes an animation workshop on human rights, cuneiform script, relief sculpture and numismatics. The CMVS has also organised tactile tours for the visually impaired, too.

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