Since its discovery in 1879, the Cyrus Cylinder has functioned rather like a snowball, gathering layers of meaning as it has been appropriated by different groups with different agendas. (The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Cyrus Cylinder, now on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, should be considered in the same league as the Rosetta Stone, one of the greatest treasures of the British Museum, according to Neil MacGregor, the London institution’s director.

“It sums up a whole moment of human history, and human civilization,” he says of the shoe-box-size clay cylinder covered in cuneiform writing. Created almost 2,600 years ago to glorify Cyrus the Great, conqueror of Babylon and founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the cylinder intersects with Western and Persian history through the ages, amplifying the accomplishments of an emperor who figures in the Bible and the writings of the ancient Greeks and who has been used and misused ever since by petty tyrants, merciless autocrats and earnest Enlightenment proponents of democracy and tolerance.

The Cyrus Cylinder also is hailed as one of the earliest declarations of human rights. Because the inscription includes a promise to allow the captive peoples of Babylon to return to their homelands and rejuvenate their temples and traditional worship, it is often cited as an early example of freedom of religion.

The actual history is a great deal more complicated. But since its discovery in 1879, the cylinder has functioned rather like a snowball, gathering layers of meaning as it has been appropriated by different groups with different agendas. First, it was embraced by biblical scholars who found in it corroboration for episodes within the Old Testament. Later, with the emergence of Zionism, it was embraced by many Jews because it seemed to speak to their particular patrimony in Jerusalem. The shah of Iran also admired Cyrus, borrowing the cylinder in 1971 to serve as the centerpiece of a four-day orgy of self-aggrandizement, celebrating what he claimed was the 2,500th anniversary of the empire his family ruled for just over 50 years.

Its return to Iran, in 2010, gave Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a platform to promote his government and champion the Palestinian cause. But the visit also underscored cleavages in the Iranian political establishment, between hard-line clerical figures allergic to the splendors of Iran’s pre-Islamic past and younger, nationalist leaders who embraced the cylinder as a symbol of Persian heritage. Its appearance in Iran after the Green Revolution had been effectively neutered was criticized by some who saw it as a gift to the notoriously anti-Semitic Iranian leadership and a hollow gesture, given the Iranian government’s lamentable record on human rights.

The cylinder was created almost 2,600 years ago to glorify Cyrus the Great, conqueror of Babylon and founder of the Achaemenid Empire. It is the size of a shoe box and covered in cuneiform writing. (John Tsantes)

Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler museums, argues that it is the susceptibility of the object to interpretation that makes it fascinating.

“For me, it is that element of contention that can provoke us to think,” he says. Raby acknowledges that the cylinder isn’t coming to the Sackler for new scholarly examination and study. Rather, it comes as a purely symbolic object, displayed in a two-room exhibition that focuses attention on the historical afterlife of Cyrus within Western culture.

Although the cylinder gave scholars tangible evidence of Cyrus’s proclamation, he was already a well-known, much-mythologized figure, appearing as a fairy-tale figure in Herodotus, as an exemplar of good education and governance in Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia,” as raw material for Machiavelli and as an inspiration to Enlightenment figures advocating religious tolerance, including Thomas Jefferson.

The last of these attributes, Cyrus’s apparent charity to people of different religious faiths, has been embraced by people hungry for inspirational figures from the distant past, rather like the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who has been hailed as the progenitor of pacifism. The Cyrus Cylinder, however, doesn’t speak in sweeping terms of human rights.

“It is not so much about human rights as seen for individuals,” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of the Freer and Sackler galleries. “What the cylinder does refer to is the rights of peoples.”

Thus Cyrus grants various conquered peoples the communal freedom to worship, positioning himself as the overarching patron of this imperial pluralism. It was a canny, if theologically squishy, way to run a large state. Other accounts dwell more on Cyrus’s realpolitick than his proto-liberal tendencies, depicting an emperor only slightly less bloodthirsty than the average for his age.

Although archaeological evidence suggests that Cyrus didn’t level Babylon after he conquered it, Xenophon tells of the spoils of war: “Cyrus immediately took possession of the castles. . . . After this he distributed houses and palaces to those that he reckoned had been sharers with him in all the actions that had been performed.” Machiavelli, citing Xenophon, says that Cyrus proves that “a prince who wishes to achieve great things must learn to deceive.”

Even the Jewish embrace of Cyrus is based more on his appearance in the Old Testament than anything in the Cyrus Cylinder, which doesn’t specifically mention the Jews. Other critics have argued that the cylinder is hardly worthy of notice, just one of myriad foundation deposits glorifying imperial leaders in the boilerplate tropes of toadyism.

Raby, however, argues that though the cylinder may sometimes be oversold, it should not be underestimated.

“The notion that there was ever a single way of reading this, even in its own time, is absolutely ridiculous,” says Raby.

MacGregor puts the virtues and failings of Cyrus in historical perspective.

“Any empire is about ultimately being willing to kill and making sure that the benefits of the land come to the ruler,” he says. “What is interesting is that this is the first empire of ethnic and religious diversity.”

Visitors to the exhibition will experience a two-dimensional show, with the cylinder itself a frustrating and resistant object (unless you read cuneiform), while the historical accretion to its meaning is documented in another gallery, with quotations from Machiavelli, Aeschylus and Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The cylinder itself measures only nine inches in length, is barrel-shaped, with concave ends, and is densely covered in characters which were read in circular rows from left to right. Scholars don’t know exactly why the cylinder form was used, but it may have been for ease of writing and reading.

The exhibition raises important questions about objects with mainly symbolic value that have already given up their secrets to scholarship and now function more as fraught pawns in games of cultural identity. Critics of the 2010 Tehran exhibition of the cylinder argued that it exposed the object to the danger of seizure by a mercurial and anti-Western government and that it was sent as a museological quid pro quo, to ensure that the Iranians would continue to lend to the British Museum.

MacGregor takes a different view. “There is no endorsement at all of any political regime or any position taken,” says MacGregor, who argues that it was important for both cultural and scholarly reasons for Iranians to have new access to the cylinder, especially after the discovery in 2009 and 2010 of tablet fragments that contained text from the cylinder, suggesting Cyrus’s religious declaration was intended for a wider audience.

The catalogue for the exhibition estimates that “up to a half a million people” saw the cylinder in Tehran. Pardis Minuchehr, director of the Persian Program at George Washington University, visited the display while in Tehran in 2010 and is skeptical of that number. A sense of dismay about the disputed elections of 2009 and the events of the Green movement may have suppressed attendance, she speculates.

And the efforts of the Ahmadinejad government to use the object for its own political purposes may have discouraged visitors, as well. The cylinder, she says, was “used in a very shrewd manner,” with Cyrus reinvented not just in nationalist but Islamist terms.

“This was the first time after the Iranian revolution that the pre-Islamic link had been established, and hence many were skeptical about it,” Minuchehr says. Nevertheless, the exhibition was extended for several months.

Next up, the cylinder will travel to India, where it will figure in a world congress of Zoroastrians in Mumbai in December.

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning

is on view through April 28 at the Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW.