“Superstar” Assyriologist Dispels Myths About Cyrus Cylinder

Irving Finkel Gives First Talk in New Central Gallery May 1

By Steven Scarpa, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications

Irving Finkel has many myths he wanted to dispel in his talk at the Yale Peabody Museum last week about the Cyrus Cylinder, a 6th century object commonly described as “the first charter of human rights.” But one misconception seemed to get under his skin.

“There are no human rights in antiquity. There were never human rights in antiquity,” Finkel said.

Finkel, described by many as a “superstar” Assyriologist, gave the first talk in the Yale Peabody Museum’s newly opened Central Gallery on May 1 to a capacity crowd. Finkel, who serves as an assistant keeper at the British Museum, gave a speech entitled “Cyrus and his Cylinder: What Was He Thinking?” The talk, both funny and informative, argued both for and against the primacy of the object.

“His exalted status is reflected by the length of his Wikipedia entry,” Agnete Lassen, Associate Curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection, quipped in her introduction.

It’s also reflected in the millions of views on his YouTube lectures about the Great Flood, cuneiform writing, ancient games, ghosts, and other topics offering a glimpse into the ancient world. “He is the best possible person to speak about the Cyrus Cylinder,” said Eckart Frahm, professor of Assyriology.

The inscribed clay cylinder, on loan from the British Museum, is on display at the Peabody through June. The piece, named after King Cyrus I, founder of the Persian Empire, was excavated in 1879 and sent it to the British Museum in London. Another small fragment, donated to Yale University in 1922, was later reunited with the London fragment once researchers realized that the two were related.

The text, written in Babylonian cuneiform, begins with an account of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BCE. Cyrus then announces that he would allow those who were previously exiled to return to their homes and for the local religion to be practiced freely, both which could be interpreted as pragmatic rather than benevolent decisions. “(The cylinder’s) only concern is with restoring peaceful circumstances,” Finkel said.

Cyrus is commonly regarded as an honorable ruler in the Bible and other ancient texts, but he would have had no conception that he was bestowing rights upon his conquered subjects. “It is just a load of (BS),” Finkel said, using a more colorful phrase.

In addition, Finkel took issue with the common conception of the Cyrus Cylinder as a special object in and of itself. It was found in a wall where no one would see it, Finkel pointed out, and isn’t a particularly grand specimen. Quite a bit of the text on the cylinder is missing. The cylinder also isn’t likely to be a rare example. If one has been found, there are probably dozens still buried around its original location in Iraq if people bothered to look, he said.

And, yet Finkel acknowledged that something profoundly important happened because of the cylinder. Over the course of thousands of years, what the cylinder was to people began to change. It’s embraced by Iran as a foundational artifact and the pride with which it is imbued has given the simple clay cylinder a special status beyond what it ever meant in its own time.

The object has transcended its original status as a piece of monarchial propaganda. “Now it is a symbol of human rights. It is a real symbol of human rights … representing to the world truth, justice, and fairness,” he said. “It is quite a remarkable thing to be able to document.”

Last updated on May 6, 2024

More from: