Cyrus King of Persia

ONE OF THE MOST iconic objects in the collection of The British Museum is a small clay prism—the Cyrus cylinder. It is about 22cm long and 11cm in diameter, and is covered by neat cuneiform writing. It was found in Babylon in 1879. It complements the Bible narrative and is a witness to its accuracy.

Cyrus was the king of Persia, who captured the city and empire of Babylon in 539 bc. On  the cylinder Cyrus claims that Marduk god of Babylon turned away from Nabonidus the last king of Babylon because of his injustices, and appointed Cyrus to replace him. He states: “Without any battle he (Marduk) made him (Cyrus) enter Babylon sparing Babylon any calamity.”

Isaiah 45 is an amazing Bible prophecy. It was written around 200 years before Cyrus, but it describes Cyrus and what he was to do: ‘Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed’ (Isaiah 45:1).

In the concluding section of the cylinder Cyrus describes his new religious policy of tolerance, reversing the Babylonian policy of carrying away captive gods and peoples from subjugated lands. It records how he returned a number of god images collected by Nabonidus to their original temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Persia. The cylinder is regarded as a symbol of “tolerance and respect to different peoples and different faiths”, and has been described as the “first charter of human rights”.

Although the Jews are not mentioned on the cylinder, we know that they were involved in  the policy he describes. Cyrus was instrumental in the return of the Jews to Israel after the Babylonian captivity:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah”… (Ezra 1:1–2).

The Bible had foretold that the temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt. It also tells us that it will be rebuilt again, in the Kingdom of God. This time it will be a place of worship for all nations (Isaiah 2:1–4).

Tom Ingham

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