A 2,600-year-old political football comes to America

Compared to many of the works on display at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian art, the Cyrus Cylinder isn't much to look at: a hunk of clay roughly the size and shape of a football covered in tiny Babylonian cuneiform. But quite a bit of political history is packed into this unprepossessing canister, normally on display at the British Museum but appearing in Washington starting this weekend as the first leg of five-city U.S. tour.

The cylinder was created in Babylon shortly after the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered the city in 539 B.C. At the time it was customary for kings to bury tablets as foundation documents to dedicate new buildings. The cylinder's text proclaims Cyrus' victory, criticizes the previous Babylonian king, and states that the various religious communities deported by the Babylonians will be allowed to return home and worship at their temples in peace.

The cylinder is often described as the world's first bill of rights, but the exhibit's curator John Curtis, keeper of special Middle East projects at the British Museum told me that that's a bit misleading:

"The concept of human rights as we understand it didn't really exist at all. But it's still very unusual document. It does promise some rights that contemporary documents don't. Cyrus promises to restore Gods to the temples from which they'd been removed. Essentially he's guaranteeing freedom of worship. The second thing he promises to do is send back people who had been deported to Babylon....It also says that he's freeing the people of Babylon from forced labor. The last thing is that even though he's captured the city, he doesn't set fire to it, he allows the people to stay and live in peace.We know that it's much more than just a foundation document. It was a proclamation."

At a media preview this morning, British Museum Director Neil MacGregor explained that the cylinder indicates what made the Persian empire -- which at its height stretched from China to Egypt and the Balkans, encompassing nearly all of what we now call the Middle East -- so unique for its time. The Persians were the first "road empire," stretching laterally across land rather than centering on a river like the Egyptians, and the first multi-lingual, multi-ethnic empire. The Persians were also pioneers in establishing a colonial bureaucracy to oversee the people they conquered -- through governors known as satraps -- rather than simply turning up every few years to demand tribute in exchange for not burning their cities down.    

The Persians weren't big history writers, so until recently most of what we knew about them came from accounts by others. Cyrus gets favorable treatment in the Old Testament for allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple, and some of the language in the Book of Ezra echoes what's on the cylinder, only with Jehovah substituting for the Babylonian god Marduk as the deity guiding the King's actions.

Greek authors are the main source of Ancient Persian history, which MacGregor suggested this was akin to "only knowing about 20th century America from Soviet sources." Cyrus was one of the few Persian kings to get favorable treatment by Greek scholars, particularly Xenophon, author of a biography called the Cyropaedia. The biography was popular among political thinkers during the renaissance -- Machiavelli was a fan -- and the enlightenment. The  Sackler's exhibit includes an annotated Cyropaedia owned by Thomas Jefferson. The cylinder was discovered in modern day Iraq in 1879 -- a major find as it seemed to confirm the biblical account of Cyrus as a benevolent and religiously tolerant ruler.

Though it resides permanently in London, the cylinder has been the source of some controversy in modern Iranian history. In 1971, it was shipped to Iran to be the centerpiece of an elaborate celebration thrown at the ancient city of Persepolis by Shah Reza Pahlavi to commemorate the 2,500 year anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. The lavish event, which included food flown in from Maxim's of Paris, gallons of champagne and Baccarat crystal was estimated to cost more than $200 million, provoked the ire of Ayatollah Khomeneni's followers, and is seen by some historians as the beginning of the end of the Shah's rule.

Though it has a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the country's pre-Islamic past, the current Iranian government has also embraced Cyrus. The cylinder was viewed by more than half a million people when it was displayed in Tehran in 2010 with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad comparing Cyrus' support for the Jews to his own government's support for the Palestinian cause.

Coming on the heels of its visit to Iran, the cylinder's American tour is bound to be imbued with political significance -- as well as somewhat naïve headlines along the lines of "Can a text from ancient Persia break down mistrust between enemies?"

That's obviously a question to which the answer is no, but the cylinder is still worth reflecting on. As Sackler Director Julian Raby put it, this was a document that viewed the people under a ruler as "subjects not objects." It's a political notion we shouldn't take for granted.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images