In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing … “Anyone of you of all His people … let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of the Lord God of Israel.” (Ezra 1:2–3, JPS)

The famous Cyrus Cylinder, a clay barrel-shaped cuneiform cylinder found in Babylon in 1879 and now in the British Museum, details the Persian king’s entry into Babylon, his conquest of the city in 539 B.C.E. and his defeat of Nabonidus, the last native Babylonian king. This began the Achaemenid era, which lasted until Alexander the Great defeated Darius in 331 B.C.E. The text of the Cyrus Cylinder is often taken as confirmation of the quotation from Ezra above. It is, however, political propaganda.

The text is a response to some of the actions of Nabonidus. For 10 years, he had stayed in the Arabian city Teima, precluding the observation of the New Year’s rituals that required the king’s presence in Babylon. According to the text, Marduk, chief deity of Babylon, named Cyrus as a righteous and worthy heir to the crown. Cyrus marched against Babylon, and the irreverent Nabonidus was handed over; Babylon capitulated without a fight.

In the lofty style and first-person voice of such royal inscriptions, Cyrus acknowledges Marduk’s beneficence by restoring neglected temples and returning various gods to their sanctuaries.

Although no mention is made of the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, this text may have inspired Ezra’s claim that Cyrus authorized the Judeans’ return and rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. However, the cylinder mentions only the restoration of cities in Babylonia, mostly near Cyrus’s ancestral home.

In modern times, the cylinder’s propaganda value was again made evident when, in the 1971 celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Achaemenid era, the Shah of Iran termed the cylinder the world's first charter for human rights.—L.E.P.