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Persian Empire Treasure Begins U.S. Tour


A formerly lost archeological treasure has made its way to the United States for the first time. It comes from Iran and dates back to the days of the ancient Persian Empire. It's called the Cyrus Cylinder. It'll be on tour across the U.S., starting tomorrow, with the Smithsonian Museum here in Washington.


The Cyrus Cylinder isn't too much too look at - made of clay and shaped kind of like a loaf of bread. What's special about it is that it's etched with writing from the time.

INSKEEP: That would be 539 BC, 2,500 years ago, writing that is the oldest known declaration of human rights.

MONTAGNE: It is a matter of huge pride for Iranians that this message came from their culture. We invited into our studio, Ahmad Karimi. He's the chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Maryland.

Welcome to the program.

AHMAD KARIMI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: So we need to brush up here a little on ancient history. Exactly who was Cyrus and how did this cylinder come to be?

KARIMI: Cyrus was the founder of the first of Iran's pre-Islamic dynasty. And he united so many people, 23 nations.

MONTAGNE: Those 23 nations, of course, being the Persian Empire, which stretched over was a large part of the known world...


MONTAGNE: that time. The Cyrus Cylinder, what was that?

KARIMI: The Cyrus Cylinder was ordered in 539 to commemorate his entry into Babylon, so the text commemorates that. The text reads: I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the earth, son of Cambyses.

MONTAGNE: This doesn't actually sound much like a King who was going to be terribly benevolent. And yet, in fact, this is a document that is really about peace and freedom...

KARIMI: Yeah. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...and human rights.

KARIMI: Yes. He said I brought release to the Babylonians. I put an end to their misery and complaints. And he says, I ordered all men to be free, to exercise their religion and free in movement. That's the part that modern Iranians refer to.

MONTAGNE: Well, one of the, maybe, great ironies of this is that among the things that he does on the Cyrus Cylinder, is free the Jews...


MONTAGNE: Who are in Babylon, permitted them and encouraged them to go back to Jerusalem...


MONTAGNE: ...rebuild their temple. This is really quite a generous approach to captive people.

KARIMI: It really is. I agree, for which the Bible praises him very highly and he says, you know, following Cyrus is edict, some Jews returned to their homeland. So it was that biblical saying that really established Cyrus as a very benevolent king.

MONTAGNE: I gather the cylinder was buried for hundreds of years.


MONTAGNE: And when he came back to Iran three years ago, a million Iranians came to see it. And many people outside of Iran might be surprised to know that even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pointed to this with pride, and I'm guessing possibly a tone of don't talk down to us about human rights - we have Cyrus.

KARIMI: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: He was the first.

KARIMI: Exactly. It now has become an iconic object in the minds of Iranians. And so, yes, people from Ahmadinejad, who finds himself in dispute with let's say the Ayatollah Khamenei, on the one hand, to people who want to have nothing to do with the Islamic Republic, they all seem to respect it and want to take pride in it.

MONTAGNE: Now some have called this arrival of the Cyrus Cylinder to the U.S. a kind of soft diplomacy - a way to improve relations, if not to relations, then certain images. What do you think? Do you think it'll have an effect?

KARIMI: Yes. In the history of cultural the policy, it will be mentioned somehow. When two states fail to talk to one another and the desire is within the population of both countries to start some dialogue going, objects like this serve a central purpose. That is, they get people together, they make possible conversations - if not at the state level - at least people to people conversations.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

KARIMI: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Ahmad Karimi is a professor of Persian language, literature, and culture at the University of Maryland.

INSKEEP: And the Cyrus Cylinder will be on display in several U.S. cities during the course of this year.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.