Cyrus Cylinder, ‘The First Bill Of Rights,’ Tours US

Cyrus Cylinder
The famous Cyrus Cylinder, a baked clay tablet from the 6th century B.C. that’s often called the “first bill of rights,” has made its U.S. debut at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The Cyrus Cylinder was deposited in the foundations of a building in Babylon during the reign of the Persian king Cyrus the Great. It commemorates his conquest of Babylon and announces religious freedom for the people displaced by the Babylonian king Nabonidus. Among them were the Jews, who had been in captivity in Babylon. Many Jews soon returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple.

While Cyrus’ announcement and inscription isn’t unique for that time, the cylinder became instantly famous upon its discovery in 1879 because of its connection to events that are mentioned in the Bible. Ever since, Cyrus has been considered the model of a just king ruling over a diverse empire.

It’s the centerpiece of a new exhibition titled “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning,” which examines the religious, cultural and linguistic traditions of the vast and powerful Achaemenid Empire (539–331 B.C.) founded by Cyrus the Great.

The exhibition runs until April 28. After the Smithsonian, the Cyrus Cylinder will tour the U.S., stopping at Houston, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. You can see the full details of the schedule here.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Visiting Ur, Ctesiphon, And Babylon In Iraq


Iraq is an ancient land. It’s seen a lot of civilizations come and go and each one has left behind spectacular monuments and rare treasures. On a recent visit, I had the privilege to experience many of these sites. Last time, I talked about the monuments of the Assyrian Empire. Today, I want to talk about three more of Iraq’s ancient wonders.

Perhaps the most famous is Babylon. It was the political and spiritual capital of southern Mesopotamia starting with the ruler Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1550 B.C.), the same king who created the famous law code. The city had its ups and downs but reached a peak under Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 604-562 B.C.).

Babylon was home to the fabled Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens. Equally impressive were its city walls, which stretched for 8 kilometers. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said they were wide enough on top to allow a four-horse chariot to turn around.

The story of the Tower of Babel may have been inspired by a giant stepped pyramid called a ziggurat. It was a temple to the god Marduk and stood 300 feet high. It was later quarried for its baked bricks and there’s little left. The Hanging Gardens have also vanished. What does remain are the city walls and the fabulous Ishtar Gate with its glazed brick reliefs of bulls and dragons. It was through this gate that the images of the gods would be taken in procession. The name Babylon means “the gate of the gods.”

The gate was excavated by a German team in the early 20th century and carted back to Staatliche Museen in Berlin. The gate at Babylon today is a modern reconstruction, and it’s not even full size. Far more impressive are the city walls, also reconstructed, and the original processional way, which, like the Ishtar Gate, is decorated with strange beasts.

Part of the original street level of the processional way remains – a flat surface of bitumen, an early form of asphalt. Strange to say, I found this simple stretch of pavement one of the most evocative sights in a country filled with ancient treasures. People walked along here more than 2,500 years ago, and there it was, stretched out before me. I desperately wanted to vault over the fence and stroll down the road, but even Iraq’s archaeological sites have guards and regulations. What a pity.

Babylon’s reconstruction was done under the rule of Saddam Hussein, who fancied himself one of the great kings of Mesopotamia. He got the cruelty part down pat, but missed out on the greatness. He couldn’t even do a decent reconstruction. Against the advice of the archaeological community, he built the new walls atop the originals and obliterated much of the ancient remains. In true ancient style he had bricks bearing his name used in the building. And now in true ancient style, his people have been busy erasing his name ever since his inglorious end. One of Saddam’s palaces stands on a hill overlooking the site – an empty shell.

%Gallery-172219%Ur, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
When Babylon was enjoying its heyday, the Sumerian city of Ur was already ancient. Its foundation is lost in time, stretching back at least seven thousand years. The city grew steadily and became the center of the most sophisticated civilization the world had yet seen. Writing thrived here, with scribes producing countless clay tablets written in cuneiform, a complex script of wedge-shaped impressions.

The first dynasty of Ur, starting in the 26th century B.C., was hugely wealthy and powerful. Some of Sumer’s best-known treasures come from the royal tombs dating to this period, such as elaborately decorated harps, the Royal Standard decorated with scenes of war and peace, and delicate gold jewelry from the queens, princesses and their female servants. The British Museum now owns many of them. Click the link for an amazing slideshow.

The Third Dynasty was even greater than the First and saw a flourishing of the arts and science. It also created the first known law code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, 300 years before the Code of Hammurabi. This dynasty completely rebuilt Ur and also put up the Great Ziggurat, pictured above, which got a modern facelift courtesy of Saddam Hussein.

One archaeologist I met back in the U.S. told me that during the war, Saddam parked some of his fighter planes next to the ziggurat, hoping they’d be safer there than in the nearby air force base. They got strafed by an A-10 and some of the bullets hit the ziggurat. I intended on checking for bullet holes but got so entranced with where I was that I forgot to. Maybe next time.

Zipping forward several centuries we come to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire in the first century B.C. and later the Sassanid Persian Empire. All that’s visible today is the Taq-i Kisra, shown below. This was an iwan, or great hall, built by the Sassanids in the sixth century A.D. The building was a royal winter residence and it was here in the iwan that this king would sit on his throne and rule his kingdom. The giant brick vault soars 110 feet into the air and used no reinforcement. It’s the largest of its kind ever built and despite all the years and wars and invasions, it’s still standing.

All of these sites and many more have suffered from looting and neglect in the tough years since the invasion. Luckily, a dedicated band of Iraqi and foreign archaeologists have been busy preserving them. New excavations have started and hopefully, as more incredible finds are uncovered, Iraq’s ancient past will come to light.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “The Christian Community Of Iraq!”

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Ctesiphon, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
The name “Babylon” brings up two associations – that of an ancient city in Iraq, and of a place of sin and decadence. It’s only fitting then that Saddam Hussein erected one of his palaces on a hill overlooking the ancient site of Babylon.

This is only one of 70 such palaces, many built during the UN sanctions while Saddam’s people were short on food and medicine. Many Iraqis complained the sanctions did nothing to hurt the dictator, and this Babylon-on-a-hill seems proof of that.

Saddam had palaces in every corner of the country, and this one and another I visited in Basra are both opulent, even though they’ve been stripped of everything even remotely valuable, even the wiring. They were once fitted with the finest rugs and gilded furniture. There are rumors that there were solid gold toilets.

These empty, echoing shells are the only thing left of a huge cult of personality. Saddam’s face used to be everywhere. Statues stood at every intersection, giant murals decorated every neighborhood. He was a constant presence in the media. Saddam used to joke that if an Iraqi family’s TV broke, all they had to do was tape a poster of him on the screen. Now there are only empty plinths and whitewashed walls, and the Iraqis watch satellite channels from Europe and Dubai.

You’ll have a hard time finding Iraqis who will say anything good about Saddam Hussein. Even those who hated the sanctions, bombings and eventual invasion are glad he’s gone. Of all the people I talked to in my 17 days here I only found two guys, workers in a roadside tea stand, had something positive to say about his rule.

“In Saddam’s time Iraq was strong. Now it’s weak,” they said.

True enough as far as it goes, but Saddam’s megalomania was what brought Iraq to ruin and the vast majority of Iraqis understand this. During his reign everyone pretended to love him, because to act otherwise was to court death. In their hearts, though, they hated him. It must have galled the Iraqis to see his image everywhere, and to think about the treasures that filled his palaces.

All those treasures are gone now, except for one sad reminder of a pot-bellied dictator and his limitless greed. In a dark side room on the second story of the Babylon palace, I came across the shattered bowl of a gold-painted toilet. Not solid gold, sadly, just gold paint. Must have been the guest bathroom. It was good enough for me. I’d been in the bus for a long time and there was no other bathroom available so …

%Gallery-171444%Yeah, baby!!!!! Gadling dumps on the dictatorship!

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Beer run in Basra!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Shameless bottom photo taken by a laughing Per Steffensen. He was laughing with me, not at me. Really.]

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism

Iraq Tries To Get Babylon Onto UNESCO World Heritage List (Again)

BabylonBabylon in Iraq is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. A Mesopotamian capital that flourished for centuries, it was home to Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) who introduced the world’s first known set of laws, and Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.) who built the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Time has taken its toll, and so has the modern world. Saddam Hussein decided to rebuild Babylon with modern bricks inscribed with his name, right atop the original walls.

Then came the war to topple him. An American military base was established at Babylon that was soon taken over by Polish troops. A British Museum report on damage to Babylon states that large areas of the site were leveled in order to make a parking lot, roads and areas for tents and bunkers.

Trenches were also dug to give protection to the soldiers. Many of the countless sandbags around the base were filled with soil from the archaeological site. The Ishtar Gate, shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image, suffered significant damage.

Now saline water is leaching into the area, eroding the ancient brick, and three oil pipelines pass right through Babylon.

Despite this, Iraqi archaeologists are applying to get Babylon on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Because of the extensive damage to the site and Saddam’s “reconstruction,” UNESCO has turned down previous applications – twice.

Now Iraq is trying a new tactic. The proposal now includes the historical significance of the Saddam and Coalition eras. Babylon saw many periods of occupation, after all, and these are the two latest. It’s an interesting tactic and if it works, Babylon would attract more serious efforts from the Iraqi and other governments to preserve one of humanity’s great ancient cities.

Iranian and British national museums face off over artifact

Iran’s national museum has cut off ties with the British Museum because of a controversy over a 2,500 year-old cuneiform tablet called the Cyrus cylinder. One of the most important artifacts from Persian civilization, the cylinder was supposed to be loaned to Iran but the loan has been delayed. Iran says the delay is politically motivated, but the British Museum says they need to compare the artifact to two similar tablets that were discovered recently. This is a change from the reason they gave back in October, citing the insecure situation after Iran’s disputed national elections.

In anticipation of displaying the cylinder in Tehran, the National Museum of Iran has spent $200,000 to enhance its security systems, but now it has nothing to display. The UK now faces the possibility of having all its scientific and cultural missions to Iran canceled. The move is similar to what Egypt did to the Louvre a few months ago in protest over some artifacts stolen from the Valley of the Kings.

The Cyrus cylinder was made in 539 BC to commemorate Cyrus the Great’s conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The inscription is significant for several reasons. It mentions returning exiles to their homeland, which might refer to the end of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity. Some scholars have written that this passage and others about just rule make the cylinder is the world’s first declaration of human rights, although it is by no means comparable to a modern constitution. The text is online here.