The Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran (2)

31 December 2010
Photo Jona Lendering

Cyrus Cylinders For Sale

The Cyrus Cylinder has become a symbol of Iranian nationalism – for reasons that I already described above. Now, the object is in Tehran: a loan from the British Museum, where it normally is to be seen. This is remarkable, because in the twentieth century, the relations between Britain and Iran have gone from bad to worse, and quite recently, the Iranian Parliament discussed cutting the diplomatic ties altogether. It was no surprise that when the loan was, last year, unexpectedly postponed, the Iranians felt cheated.

There was a reason for this, however: two small fragments of cuneiform texts had been discovered that contained texts similar to that of the Cylinder. Apparently, Cyrus broadcast his interpretation of the conquest of Babylonia widely. The British Museum found the study of these fragments more important than loaning the object to Iran. I do not know why, but at first sight, I get the impression that those Iranians who argued that it was a deliberate act, may have a point. If the study of so many so much more important texts can be postponed (for half a century, a substantial part of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets was ignored), it is indeed rather suspicious that finding two fragments is considered important enough to risk a diplomatic riot.

Many Iranians no longer trust the British and there are wild (but unfounded) speculations that the Cylinder sent to Tehran was a replica. All this shows on the one hand how important the Cylinder has become to the Iranians, and how bad the relations between the two countries have become. Although I came to Iran to attend an engagement party in Isfahan, a visit to this exhibition, with all the political fuzz surrounding it, was irresistible.

A modern Persian carpet showing Cyrus the Great, seen in Tehran.

The museum has taken many security measures: visitors are not even allowed to take telephones with them. No one can say that the Iranians do not treat the object without proper care. After entering the museum, the visitors of the exhibition first arrive in a waiting room with replicas of Achaemenid art and large panels with information about the cylinder. I am aware that Persepolis is quite unrelated to Cyrus, and I am also aware that we have only Darius’ word that Cyrus belonged to the Achaemenid family (Herodotus’ evidence is probably derived from the Behistun text and can be eliminated), but the room is carefully arranged and it’s all nicely done.

After a few minutes, we could leave the waiting room and enter the room devoted to the cylinder itself, which lies in a glass display, together with the two new fragments. The Iranian woman with whom I visited the exhibition, was surprised that the object was so small. After five minutes, we had to leave the room again, as if a new group of people were being allowed to enter. The system is probably designed to manage large numbers of visitors, and I have heard that there have indeed been hundreds of people every day, but when I was there, we were with only five people in the room, and no one entered when we were requested to leave.

What always saddens me, is that that the Tehran museum does not sell any good books. You can get some replicas, but the visitor who really wants to know more, is left disappointed. The current exhibition would have been the perfect moment to change this, but the two small shops outside sell the usual touristy rubbish, including posters and mugs with a false translation of the Cylinder. The hundreds of visitors offered the perfect opportunity to spread good, up-to-date information; why the Iranian archaeological authorities have not seized this chance, I do not know.

The Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran (1)

30 December 2010

The Cyrus Cylinder

“How can you rule a country that offers two hundred types of cheese?”, Charles de Gaulle used to say, meaning that France was insufficiently unified to be governed. His contemporary, Mohamad Shah, faced the same problem: ruling a country with large ethnic minorities, with people on several stages of economic development, with diverse political orientations.

The only thing they shared was a religious orientation: it is possible to interpret the Shi’a as an expression of Iranian nationalism. Iran is indeed Islamic, but under its own conditions, and since the sixteenth century, the Shi’a has been used by worldly leaders to unify the country. The clerics usually supported the Safavid and Qajar dynasties: after all, until the return of the Twelfth Imam, the believers live in uncertainty about the exact nature of the Divine Law. However, the father of Mohamad Shah, Reza Shah, had introduced policies similar to Atatürk’s, in which religion was not to play a role. This way to unify Iran was blocked.

Department of Foreign Affairs

The break was expressed in many ways, including architecture. If you are in Tehran, you can walk from the old Qajar palace to the twentieth-century buildings of the Department of Foreign Affairs: on the one hand the traditional style, with beautiful painted tiles, on the other hand a modern classicism, comparable to Italian architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, using Achaemenid and Sasanian models. The message was clear: there had once been a real Iran, ruled by kings, and Reza Shah was to restore it after many dark centuries of theocratic rule.

Achaemenid Soldier in Reza Shah's Palace

Mohamad Shah had similar ideas and started, in the 1960s, to put forward the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty as some kind of ideal ruler. In 1971, he commemorated Cyrus’ death, with many royals from all over the world visiting Persepolis and Pasargadae. Focusing on Cyrus was clever, because he was well-known: both Greek sources (e.g., Herodotus) and the Bible speak friendly about him. It all seemed to be confirmed by a document found in Babylon, the Cyrus Cylinder. On another occasion I will blog about the Shah’s misinterpretation of this text as a human rights charter; now, I am focusing on the exhibition of the cylinder in the National Archaeological Museum of Tehran.

[to be continued+]


24 May 2010

Tomb of Cyrus

I fondly remember my first visit to Pasargadae, the capital of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire. Although it was an amazing idea to be at the place where the great conqueror had actually lived, but the plain itself was what impressed me most. It still does. Although there’s a village next to it, it feels as if the place is terribly empty.

Our photos have been online since 2003. Much has improved since then. The road that made it possible to reach Gate R and Palace S by car, which created vibrations that threatened the monuments, has been removed (I remember a team of Afghan laborers, two summers ago, destroying the pavement with big hammers). Inexpert repairs to the tomb of Cyrus have been reverted, and in general, everything looks better than it used to.

It was about time to update my webpages. So here it is, and here are other links: Gate R, the bridge (small page), the audience hall in Palace S, the residential Palace P, the water works in the garden, the Zendan, the Tall-i Takht, and finally the tomb of Cyrus, with a rare photo of its interior. Plus: a reference to a cuneiform text that may be related to the destruction of the Tall-i Takht in 280. It doesn’t prove much – as always, there’s a lacuna where it shouldn’t be – but at least it’s probably worth a thought.

Common Errors (8): The Year 547

15 May 2009
Nabonidus Chronicle, obverse (British Museum)

Nabonidus Chronicle, obverse (British Museum)

One of the most important texts for the study of the chronology of the sixth century BCE is the Nabonidus Chronicle, which seems to prove that the Persian king Cyrus the Great captured the Lydian capital Sardes in 547. This is an important synchronism between the chronologies of Greece and the ancient Near East. However, things are more complex than they are usually presented: it was not Lydia, but Urartu that was overthrown.

The historian’s first task is to get the sequence of events right. The more important issues, like explaining the events and explaining their significance, must wait until the chronology has been established. Those studying the eastern Mediterranean in the Archaic Age, have to cope with two problems:

  • The absence of a common era;
  • An incredible lack of sources.

At the moment, dendochronological researchers are making great advances, but the complications for the centuries before 490 BCE are still great, and our chronology remains to a large extent based on Egyptian king lists (overview) and Babylonian chronicles and Astronomical Diaries.

For Greece, the sequence of events in what we call the sixth century BCE is more or less known from Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The Histories contain a general account of the history of towns like Sparta, Corinth, and Athens, and many synchronisms: people who knew each other, battles, et cetera. It is obvious that Herodotus uses two chronological systems, which appear to be out of step for a generation, but his outline of Greek history -the relative chronology- is pretty clear. Unfortunately, it is difficult to establish an absolute chronology, i.e., to make a match between the events and the number of years.

However, the situation is not entirely hopeless. It is clear that the rule of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, coincided with the reign of the Persian king Cambyses, and that Polycrates’ downfall occurred after the double coup d’ état in Persia that took place in 522. We can be reasonably certain that the death of Polycrates occurred in 522-518. Finally, there is another synchronism between Greek and Persian history: the conquest of Lydia and the death of its king Croesus. This event is mentioned by Herodotus and several other authors, and took place between 550 (when the Persian leader Cyrus the Great overcame his Median overlord Astyages) and 539 (the year in which Cyrus took Babylon).

The Nabonidus Chronicle, also known as ABC 7 (= document #7 in A.K. Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 1975), appears to offer more information. The text mentions Cyrus several times. In the first place, there’s a reference to his overthrow of Astyages in the sixth year of the Babylonian king Nabonidus, i.e. 550 or 549. In the second place, the events in the ninth year of Nabonidus, 547/546:

In the month of Nisannu, Cyrus, king of Persia, called up his army and crossed the Tigris below the town of Arbela. In the month of Ajaru he marched against the country [damaged], killed its king, took his possessions, put there a garrison of his own. Afterwards, his garrison as well as the king remained there.

The damaged word is of course the crux. One sign can be read, and there is space for two other signs. In 1924, Sydney Smith proposed to read Lu-…, which he took as the first syllable of the word Lydia. Grayson thought that even a second sign could be read, and reconstructed Lu-u[d-di]. If this is correct, the king who was killed was Croesus, and we have a synchronism between the histories of the Near East and the Aegean world.

A first problem, however, is that Herodotus says that Croesus was not killed. Cyrus wanted to burn him alive, but when Croesus prayed to Apollo, it started to rain, and Cyrus -understanding that the Lydian was blessed by the gods- accepted him as a courtier. But this story poses no real problem. The Greek poet Bacchylides writes that when the last king of Lydia wanted to burn himself alive, the god intervened and took him  away to the mythical Hyperboreans in the extreme north. This is another way of saying that the god had pity and gave Croesus a tranquil death – he was not tortured but quietly “taken away” to a better place. Herodotus has rationalized this story and used Croesus to shape his narrative: the former king is always the “tragic warner” who invariably gives sound advice that is ignored. This is not historiography as we like to read it, but this is how Herodotus does things.

So, Croesus was killed or killed himself when Sardes was captured, and Herodotus’ story is no objection to accepting the synchronism. Most historians have put the end of Lydia in 547, which gives us the possibility to date several important events in Greece. An example is the battle of Thyrea between the Spartans and the Argives, which took place at the time of the fall of Sardes.

Of course, this assumes that Smith and Grayson are right that the damaged word is Lu-u[d-di]. However, Zadok pointed out that the orthography of Lydia is Lu-ú-du, and Grayson says in the “Addenda and Corrigenda” to ABC 9 (included in the second edition) that the signs may indeed be Lu!?ú!?-[du]. However, he also notes that Lambert read the first sign as Zu. To make matters worse, the first scholar to read this text, Hagen in 1894, read Su.

Nobody accepts the synchronism any more, and many scholars feel a bit embarrassed that they have so long seen on this tablet what they wanted to see. The only thing we know for certain is that in 547, Cyrus conducted a successful campaign west of the Tigris. In 1977, Cargill summed up the evidence and concluded: “There exists […] no clear evidence for the exact date of the conquest of Lydia”.

But this was too pessimistic. In 1997, Oelsner decided to settle the issue once and for all, and concluded that the sign is Ú, the first sign of Urartu. This makes sense. It is likely that Cyrus, after he had conquered Media, spent several years to establish his power in Iran – in other words, he demanded subjection by the tribes that had once been loyal to Astyages. Urartu belonged to these territories. If this is correct, we may assume that Sardes was in fact captured in 542 or 541, although a date after the fall of Babylon (539) can not be excluded: we have only Herodotus’ word that Sardes was captured before the cultural capital of the ancient world.


  • J. Cargill, The Nabonidus Chronicle and the Fall of Lydia, in: American Journal of Ancient History 2 (1977) 97-116
  • A.K.Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (1975)
  • J. Oelsner, “Review”, Archiv für Orientforschung 46/47 (1999/2000) 373-380.
  • R. Rollinger, “The Median ‘Empire’, the End of Urartu, and Cyrus’ Campaign in 547” in: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West Asia (2004).
  • Sydney Smith, Babylonian Historical Texts Relating to the Capture and Downfall of  Babylon (1924)
  • R. Zadok, Répertoire Géographique des Textes Cunéiformes:   Geographical Names According to New and Late Babylonian Texts 8 (1985)

<Overview of Common Errors>


15 March 2009
The tell, seen from the west

The tell, seen from the west

The Bronze Age city of Anšan lies northwest of modern Shiraz. With a car, you reach Tall-e Malyan (its modern name) in an hour. I was impressed by the fertility of the wide valley that was once dominated by this city, which was the capital of a kingdom that was sufficiently powerful to be known to the scribes of ancient Babylonia. They called it URU an-ša-an. Dozens of towns appear to have to obeyed the ruler of this city: in 2000, seventy-seven other settlements were known from this valley alone.

All of these belonged to the third millennium, and that is why the discovery of Tall-e Malyan in 1971 was a sensation: it suggested that the growth of urban life (“the rise of civilization”) was not an isolated phenomenon in Iraq, but took place in a much wider area. This idea has in the meantime been corroborated by the excavations in Jiroft and the Burnt City.

Judging from its ceramics, Anšan was founded in c.5000 BCE and destroyed by a great fire in the Middle Elamite period. That the sixth-century authors of the Nabonidus Chronicle and Cyrus Cylinder still identify Cyrus the Great with the title “king of Anšan” does not prove that the town was still/again alive in the sixth century: it is one of those archaisms that are so often used in Babylonian literature (cf. the third millennium names “Gutium” for all countries in the east and “Hanaeans” for Macedonians).

Today, the low hill lies more or less abandoned, although thousands of sherds prove that this must have been a major city once. I spotted one big, artificially cut stone that may or may not have been part of a large wall. The part that has been excavated is now used as a garbage dump.

An Important Source from Babylon: The Nabonidus Chronicle (ABC 7)

21 January 2009
The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle is one of the most important historiographical texts from the ancient Near East. It documents the main events of the reign of the last king of Babylonia, Nabonidus. It does so without bias: the king’s defeats are mentioned, no attempt is made to hide the fact that he did not really care for the Babylonian cult. Of course, the text was written during the reign of Nabonidus’  successor, Cyrus, but the chronicle also records how this Persian king kills citizens after a battle. So, although this text is limited in outlook, it is a valuable source.

We learn that during his first regnal years, Nabonidus campaigned in the west, and then settled in Tema, an oasis in the western desert; although no explanation is offered, the consequences are repeatedly stressed: the Akitu Festival could not be celebrated. As the bottom of the tablet is missing, we do not know under which circumstances Nabonidus returned to Babylon, but on the reverse of the tablet, we find the king at home again.

The tablet also describes the rise of Cyrus the Great, who is first presented as the ruler of Anšan who subdued the Median leader Astyages (550); we also learn that Cyrus conquered Urartu in 547; and we read how -in October 539- he outmaneuvered the Babylonians in a battle at Opis, which was followed by the killing of citizens. Babylon is captured, Nabonidus is taken captive, and Cyrus enters a peaceful city. The final remarks of the tablet deal with Cambyses, who appears to have made a mistake during the Akitu Festival.

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

I have put online the well-known edition by A.K. Grayson, with two important changes. In the first place, I have inserted his own “Addenda et Corrigenda”, which are too often neglected by students of his Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (1975, 2000). The consequences are disastrous: it is, for example, time and again stated that the Nabonidus Chronicle dates Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia to 547, which is simply untrue, and was already corrected by Grayson himself.

The fact that almost nobody seems to check the additions and corrections, has allowed an erroneous chronology of Anatolia and Greece to survive for more than a generation. And I am afraid it will continue to bedevil us, because it has been accepted in Asheri e.a., A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV (2008), which may become the commentary on Herodotus for some time.

In the second place, I took the liberty to invite my friend Bert van der Spek, who is one of the authors of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period, to add several other notes to make the commentary up to date. Of course, they have been indicated, so that no one will be in doubt about the authorship of the comments – they may be Grayson’s original ones, his own corrections, or additions by Van der Spek or myself. (I think that Grayson, who used the second edition of his book to correct himself, would not have objected.)

The text is here.