In Tehran, more than a million people viewed it; at the Smithsonian Institution, there was timed ticketing. While worlds apart, all these people came to see a clay object no larger than a football.
Despite its unassuming size and material, the Cyrus Cylinder is no ordinary object. It is one of the most iconic items in the British Museum's collection -- an artifact from 6th century BC Babylon inscribed with the earliest form of writing that is often referred to as the first declaration of human rights.
A five-city tour of the U.S. currently brings the famed object to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in what's a must-see attraction for anyone interested in ancient history, ancient Persian cultural artifacts, archeology and, even, religious tolerance.
The Cylinder is an incredible object thanks to the text inscribed on it in Babylonian cuneiform. After capturing Babylon (modern-day Iraq) in 539 BC, Persian King Cyrus the Great allowed deported people to return to their homeland. The people in question were likely to be Jews deported by the previous ruler of Babylon, and indeed the Hebrew Bible praises Cyrus for this incredible act of freedom of worship. Since being discovered during a British Museum excavation in 1879, the Cylinder has become a symbol of tolerance the world over. It even has its own replica at the United Nations.
In addition to the Cylinder, the modest exhibition also features a little more than a dozen objects that demonstrate innovation and cultural advancement in the Persian Empire. These include a new writing system (Old Persian cuneiform), carved seals, currency and luxury goods like gold armlets and gold and silver bowls.
Ironically, for all that gold, one of the most important pieces in the exhibition is one of the least valuable as far as materials go. The Cyrus Cylinder is just made of clay, but it has the greatest weight.
"The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia; A New Beginning" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, runs now through June 14. For more information, call (713) 639-7300 or visit www.mfah.org.