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The Earliest Declaration of Human Rights

The Cyrus Cylinder, a significant ancient document supporting religious tolerance and freedom, has shaped our multicultural world.

As Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms have become increasingly powerful tools in raising awareness of social injustice around the globe, it’s mind-blowing to discover that the first expression of human rights pinpoints to ancient Persia in the year 539 BCE. When the armies of Cyrus the Great conquered the city of Babylon, now modern-day Iraq, King Cyrus did things that were unheard of up to that time. He freed all slaves, declared religious freedom, and established racial equality. While doing so, Cyrus portrayed himself as a liberator and reformer, unlike typical conquerors of that time.


Policy of Tolerance


The Cyrus Cylinder, etched in Akkadian cuneiform script, describes the conquest of Babylon and King Cyrus's intention to allow freedom of worship to communities displaced by the defeated Babylonian ruler, Nabonidus. The clay cylinder is the oldest known charter of universal human rights and a symbol of humanitarian rule. The historical nature of the cylinder has been debated, with some scholars arguing that Cyrus did not make a specific decree but rather that it articulated his general policy for allowing exiles to return to their homelands and rebuild their temples.


The Achaemenid Empire

By promoting religious tolerance and freedom, King Cyrus was able to found one of the first great world empires, the Achaemenid Empire (550 - 330 BCE), which, at its peak, encompassed all of present-day Middle East. Cyrus respected the languages, religions, and cultures of all the lands to which he laid claim. He believed that different faiths should co-exist, although the government was to not endorse any of them. Cyrus also considered all nations and peoples to be equal in terms of their rights. As a result of his humane policies, Cyrus gained the support of his subjects, thus securing the integrity of his empire.


Scholars believe that Achaemenid policies were influenced by the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. However, "It cannot... be ignored that political considerations played an important role in Cyrus’s policy choices. Administering the vast territories of the Empire, as well as preventing rebellions, required Cyrus to pursue an ideological strategy that enabled him to collaborate with local elites. His desire to do so is one of the main reasons why Cyrus pursued a policy of allowing local customs to continue without disruption and presenting himself as the guardian of all temples and sanctuaries" ("Cyrus the Great and Religious Tolerance"). In other words, tolerance was the primary political objective of the governing policy of Cyrus and his descendants, ensuring there were few reasons for subjects to rebel.


The Satrapies


In addition to his fair treatment of conquered peoples, Cyrus also helped to establish one of the most efficient government bureaucracies in the ancient world. Cyrus regularly incorporated and appointed local clergy in each territory he conquered into his ruling structure. These satraps were responsible for governing the area and regularly reporting to Cyrus. Subsequent Achaemenid emperors, Cambyses and Darius, continued Cyrus’s policies and allowed the satrapies to maintain their own laws, as well as their religious and cultural values. Tolerance proved to strengthen the political stability and success of the Achaemenid Empire so much so that it lasted 200 years.


Legacy of Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great - GDJ/ Pixabay

The idea of human rights spread across the region to India, Greece, and eventually Rome. Xenophon, the Greek historian, wrote Cyropaedia in the early 4th century BCE, referring to Cyrus as the model ruler who governed a diverse society based on tolerance, which was revolutionary for people accustomed to the ruthless rule of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires. These thoughts became popular with Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers. The Cyrus Cylinder inspired many government policies around the world, such as The English Magna Carta (1215), The Petition of Right (1628), The United States Declaration of Independence (1776), The Constitution of the United States (1787), The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), as well as The Birth of the United Nations (1945).


The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered among ruins in modern-day Iraq in 1879 and is currently kept at the British Museum. This declaration has been translated into Farsi, English, and French, and its provisions parallel the first four articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire, in 1971, the Cyrus Cylinder was the official symbol of the celebrations. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran presented the United Nations with a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder, which is on display in the lobby at the UN Headquarters in New York City.


Works cited:

"Cyrus the Great and Religious Tolerance." Tolerance, 1 July 2015, tolerance.tavaana.org/en/content/cyrus-great-and-religious-tolerance.


Hassani, Behzad. “Human Rights and Rise of the Achaemenid Empire: Forgotten Lessons from a Forgotten Era.” The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, June 2007, www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/History/hakhamaneshian/human_rights.htm.


“The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning (Getty Villa Exhibitions).” Www.getty.edu, www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/cyrus_cylinder/.

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