Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through April 28, 2013

True confessions: I had never heard of Cyrus or his cylinder before I went to see this show, but I gather he's been the focus of much debate and discussion for centuries.  Shame on me for missing out all these years, but I know about him now!

Cyrus the Great, in case any of you are also living in ignorance, was a King of Persia, who defeated the last ruler of the Babylonians in 539 BC.  After his victory, he issued a proclamation allowing his new subjects to continue to worship in the shrines they had been using heretofore, and allowed those deported from their homes to return to their native lands.  Although not mentioned by name, this is widely believed to refer to the Jews, who subsequently returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple.

Cyrus has, over the years, been an inspiration to many rulers and philosophers, including those of the Enlightenment.  His proclamation has been described as the first declaration of human rights, as he allowed for religious freedom.

The Cyrus Cylinder generally resides at the British Museum, and is now on loan to the Sackler; I believe it will travel a bit more before returning to London.  The Sackler has pulled out all the stops for this exhibit; although not large enough to warrant the use of their big special exhibit space, they've constructed a small, but impressive, space for it on the first sublevel.  There's an antechamber, freshly painted with dark blue paint that offers basic information and two videos.  The cylinder itself is in the first room of the exhibit, with dramatic lighting to focus your gaze immediately.    Also in the first room are other artifacts of the same time period.  In the second room, there are many quotations on the wall, along with Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Cryopedia, a novel written about Cyrus, extolling his many virtues.

The thing that struck me as I went through the show is that the cylinder is probably the least impressive looking object on display.  The other items in the room are lovely gold jewelery, coins and other pieces; beside them the cylinder looks like, well, a clay football covered in chicken scratch (actually Babylonian cuneiform) that has clearly seen better days.  Is it the most important object on display?  No question.  Is it the most eye-catching?  Not really, even with the special lighting, but that's no slap at the curators at the Sackler, who deserve an enormous amount of credit for setting up this fine show.

The second room, the one full of quotations about Cyrus, demonstrates the uses to which his proclamation has been put over the years.  Everyone from Machiavelli to Isaiah to Jefferson has had something to say about him.  I couldn't help but wonder what Cyrus would have made of their comments.

Verdict: One of those "do not miss" exhibits.  Quite easy to see in a lunch hour, even with the videos and all the commentary.

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