The Cyrus Cylinder: A Journey through Translation

By Zeinab Amiri & Farzaneh Farahzad (Allameh Tabataba’i University, Iran)


Since its discovery and translation in the late 19th century, the Cyrus Cylinder has made a tangible impact on not only Iranian, but also global historical awareness concerning the ancient Near Eastern politics. Apart from yielding illuminating insight on the past, the Cyrus Cylinder has been appropriated for present political and cultural exploitations, through being imbued with shades of meanings and narratives (Van de Ven, 2017). It has gone beyond a mere archaeological relic and has gained world-wide reputation due to its symbolic significance among different national and ethnic communities. Despite its role in both the composition of the Cyrus Cylinder in the ancient era and the politicization of it in the modern era, translation, in its intralingual, interlingual and cultural senses, has been largely ignored by current scholarship. This study endeavors to show, first, how the composition of this Cylinder might be seen as a translational practice, and, second, how the Cyrus Cylinder was exploited through translation for different legitimation narratives, both in ancient and modern periods.

Keywords: Cyrus Cylinder, Achaemenid dynasty, legitimation narratives, Cyrus the Great, Babylon, Persia

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1. Introduction

The use of translation in the field of historiography, i.e., “the history of the practices of history-writing” (D’hulst 2010: 397) has been, at best, considered as “natural” among both historians and translation scholars (Foz 2006: 131). Gertrudis Payàs (2004: 544), who is one exception, holds that “historians and anthropologists sometimes need to translate or to use translations in order to have access to sources written in other languages.” The importance of translation in the field of historiography is particularly pronounced when it comes to writing the ancient history of a nation, since its language, writing system and culture are all dead and its memory is revived only through material relics and translations of their written records into modern living languages; there is no Greek Cycladic, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian or Old Persian civilizations, neither their languages nor their cultures exist anymore.

The Cyrus Cylinder, or the Edict of Cyrus, and in Persian as manshoor-e Kourosh, e.g., Cyrus Charter, is both a written document and an archaeological relic which was ordered by Cyrus II (ca. 600-530 BCE), known as Cyrus the great, in Persian Kurush-e kabir, the founder of the Persian Achaemenid empire (550-530 BCE). It belongs to the ancient past of the Iranians, or the Persians in the western parlance. As one of the best-known cuneiform inscriptions in the world, the Cylinder was discovered in 1879 by Hormuzd Rassam, an Assyrian archaeologist affiliated with the British Museum, and was first translated into English by Sir Henry Rawlinson, the renowned British archaeologist who also deciphered and translated the trilingual Bisotun inscription of Darius I in 1846 (for a detailed discussion of Cylinder, see Irving Finkel 2013).

There are a number of studies which have analyzed the textual and literary properties of the Cyrus Cylinder (e.g., Harmatta 1971a; Stolper 2013; Razmjou 2020). However, scant scholarly attention has so far been given to its translation despite its importance to the history of this document. The present study seeks to unfold the traces of translation in the history of the Cylinder, from the time it was composed in the late sixth century BCE up to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In precise terms, this study explores:

  • The translationality of the Cyrus Cylinder among the Neo-Babylonian royal literature,
  • The translation of the Cylinder in the biblical historical literature,
  • The (re)translations of the Cylinder in the modern historical literature.

To this end, the text of the Cylinder was first juxtaposed with a sample of royal inscriptions belonging to both Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian kings such as Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal, Nebuchadnezzar, and Nabonidus. The final sample amounted to roughly 67 thousand words[1]. An attempt was made to show how its rhetorical, structural, and phraseological patterns might be a translation or rewriting of the preceding Mesopotamian royal inscriptions. Second, the Cylinder was compared with some biblical passages, including the books of Isaiah and Ezra. Finally, the modern translations of the Cylinder were reviewed to see how it has been interpreted.

2. Why was the Cyrus Cylinder Composed?

The Cyrus Cylinder is a barrel-shaped clay piece of 45 lines which is written in the Late Babylonian cuneiform script. As conceded by many scholars (e.g., see Kuhrt 2007: 110; Stolper 2013: 40; Finkel 2013: 18; van der Spek 2014: 234; Razmjou 2020: 29), the Cylinder is one of the latest examples of a Mesopotamian royal tradition of foundation or deposit inscriptions which date back to the late third millennium BCE. Since then, such inscriptions were used to consecrate important buildings (e.g., sanctuaries, palaces, urban buildings, etc.) and commemorate the king who built it and were then buried under the building (Grayson 1987: 3; Finkel 2013: 18).[2] In a similar vein, the Cylinder was a deposit inscription which was made shortly after the capture of Babylon in 539/8 and was buried in the foundations of the Esagila, the temple of Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon (Wiesehöfer 2001: 2; Kuhrt 2007: 109). The main message of this cylinder, which was part of a much wider policy of gaining legitimation for the new ruler, was to make a sharp contrast between the purportedly impious Nabonidus, the last native king of the Neo-Babylonian empire (ca. 612-539 BCE), and the pious Cyrus as the upright Babylonian king, appointed by Marduk (see Briant 2002: 43; Curtis and Razmjou 2005: 59; Kuhrt 2007: 119; Van der Spek 2014: 3). As a new foreign claimant to the Babylonian throne, Cyrus tried to present himself like the preceding Babylonian monarchs by respecting their temples and building urban constructions, as claimed in the Cylinder (see Kuhrt 2007; Finkel 2013). Indeed, by so doing, Cyrus sought to show that “while a person from beyond the eastern border, he knew how to behave like a Babylonian in matters of religion, administration and tradition in general.” (Finkel 2013: 11). Cyrus’ attempts at winning political legitimation can be metaphorically seen as endeavoring to translate himself into the Babylonian culture.

3. The Cyrus Cylinder’s Translational Properties

In this part, the Cyrus Cylinder is examined in different sections, each followed by a summary and its textual juxtaposition with the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions which were written in either Assyrian or Babylonian languages. These are the two main dialects of old Akkadian language, an Eastern Semitic language, which were spoken in southern and northern Mesopotamia (largely modern Iraq), respectively, since the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE (Luukko and Van Buylaere 2017). However, they were so different in grammar and vocabulary that they were considered separate languages by the ancients themselves (George 2007: 31). It is modern Assyriologists who treat them as variant forms of Akkadian (Luukko and Van Buylaere 2017: 314). Furthermore, both Assyrian and Babylonian languages went through stages of historical development; from Old Babylonian/ Assyrian in ca. 2000 BCE to Neo-Babylonian/ Assyrian in ca. 1000 BCE and eventually to the Late Babylonian in ca. 500 BCE (George 2007: 36). During this time-span of nearly 1500 years, both languages underwent remarkable syntactic and lexical transformations, so much so that understanding royal inscriptions written in Old/middle Babylonian/Assyrian languages entailed diachronic intralingual/interlingual translation.

3.1 Cyrus Cylinder: Lines 1-19: Prologue

This introductory section is narrated in the third person singular and reflects the perspective of Marduk (Finkel 2013: 9) and a eulogy of this god (Harmatta 1971a). It is an apologia which sets the scene for Cyrus’ capture of Babylonia. It relates Marduk’s wrath at Nabonidus’ cultic misdeeds, his summoning up of Cyrus as “the upright king” to rule over Babylonia and his assistance to Cyrus to enter Babylon without a battle[3]  (for a detailed summary of the whole Cylinder, see Kuhrt, 1983, 2007; Wiesehöfer 2001: 38-55). Table 1 provides some examples of the identified parallel rhetorical themes in the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and the Cyrus Cylinder.


Examples in Mesopotamian royal inscriptions

 Examples in Cyrus Cylinder

Divine abandonment

1. [At that] time, the great lord, the god Marduk, had turned away in divine wrath from the land of Akkad[4]… (Marduk-apla-iddina II[5] 01 )


2. […] Mar]duk-apla-iddina (II) […] who did not fear the words of the grea]t [god]s [... had put his tr]ust [in the sea and (its) s]ur[ging waves]. (Sargon II 002)[6]


3. … his (Sennacherib’s) [the Neo-Assyrian king] heart thought about sin... He approached Babylon with evil intent, laid waste to its sanctuaries, …, destroyed (its) rituals, ... The prince, the god Marduk, did not assuage his divine wrath (and) for twenty-one years he took up residence inside Baltil (Aššur)…. (Nabonidus 03)[7]

He [Nabonidus] ma[de] a counterfeit of Esagil, [and] … for Ur[8] and the rest of the cult-cities.


Rites inappropriate to them, [impure] fo[od-offerings] disrespectful […] were daily gabbled, and, as an insult,


He brought the daily offerings to a halt; he inter[fered with the rites and] instituted […] within the sanctuaries. In his mind, reverential fear of Marduk, king of the gods, came to an end.


He did yet more evil to his city every day; … his [people], he brought ruin on them all by a yoke without relief.


Enlil-of-the-gods[9] became extremely angry at their complaints, and […] their territory. The gods who lived within them left their shrines,

Divine selection

1.The one [Nabonidus] whose name the god Marduk — the Enlil of the godssteadfastly called for kingship to provision the cult centers and renew (their) sanctuaries… (Nabonidus cylinder 15)


2. In a favorable month,…, in accordance with their sublime command, I joyfully entered the House of Succession... (Esarhaddon 001)


3. He [Marduk] duly chose me, Sargon, the reverent king, from among all rulers and exalted me. He made my [weapon]s prevail [in order] to bar the e[v]il enemy Chaldeans from the territory of the land of Sumer and Akkad… (Sargon II)


4. He (the god Marduk) looked (with favor) upon Marduk-apla-iddina (II), […] prince who reveres him, to whom he (the god Marduk) stretched out his hand …(Marduk-apla iddina II 1)


5. The king of the gods, the god Asari, duly named him [to] the shepherdship of the land of Sumer and Akkad (and) personally [sa]id: “This is indeed the shepherd who will gather the scattered (people) Marduk-apla iddina II 1)

… He [Marduk] inspected and checked all the countries,


seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan[10], and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything.

Divine assistance

1.Through the strength of the gods Aššur, Sîn, Šamaš, Nabû, Marduk, Ištar of Nineveh, (and) Ištar of Arbela, I conquered all of (my) arrogant enemies.  (Esarhaddon 01)


2.[For the god Enlil], king of the gods, valiant, who drives out the enemies in battle, [...] the sublime, who walks at the side of the king, he one who conquers the enemies ...] (Esarhaddon 130)


3…[With the support of the gods Aššur, Bēl 3.(Marduk), and Nabû, the] great [god]s, my lords [who march at my [ide,] … (Ashurbanipal 03)


4. [With] the power of the great lord, the god Marduk, … he defeated the widespread army of Subartu and shattered their weapons… (Marduk-apla iddina II 1)

He made the land of Guti and all the Median troops prostrate themselves at his feet, while he shepherded in justice and righteousness the black-headed people


… whom he had put under his care. Marduk, the great lord, who nurtures his people, saw with pleasure his fine deeds and true heart,


… and ordered that he should go to Babylon. He had him take the road to Tintir (Babylon), and, like a friend and companion, he walked at his side.

Joyous reception

Happily, I entered Babylon, the city of the Enlil of the gods (Marduk); I prayed to the gods who dwelt in Esagil (and) Ezida, (and) offered pure voluntary offerings before them (Sargon 001).

He had him enter without fighting or battle right into Shuanna; he saved his city Babylon from hardship. He handed over to him Nabonidus, the king who did not fear him.


All the people of Tintir, of all Sumer and Akkad, nobles and governors, bowed down before him and kissed his feet, rejoicing over his kingship and their faces shone.

Table 1: Common rhetorical themes between the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and Cyrus Cylinder

The first prevailing rhetorical theme of this section is what Cogan (1974) calls ‘divine abandonment’, according to which, the deities of an enemy leave their city due to their anger at the misdeeds of the king or the inhabitants. This theme was invoked by the new conqueror to justify his ravages and imperial expansions (Van der Spek 2014: 10). This theme is both observed in the Cyrus Cylinder and some of the royal inscriptions (see Table 1). The second rhetorical theme in the Cylinder is divine selection, according to which the new aspirant to power was proclaimed as king by the god of the conquered land. Divine abandonment and selection are then followed by divine assistance; that is, the new conqueror is not only chosen by gods, but he is also assisted by them in his military expeditions. This is why Cyrus is claimed to have been assisted by Marduk in his military campaigns. This theme can be discerned, among others, in the royal inscriptions of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal (see Table 1).

This section ends with Cyrus’ peaceful capture of Babylon and his joyous reception by the Babylonians. There is no translation (in the sense of translating of nonverbal events into verbal accounts) of the Opis battle which Cyrus’ army fought against the Nabonidus army. Interestingly, very few parallel examples of joyous reception were found among the preceding royal inscriptions. One exception is seen in the Annals of Sargon II, the Neo-Assyrian king, when he seized Babylon, although it does not represent the invasion of Babylon as a peaceful act and merely writes that, “Happily, I entered Babylon…” (see Table 1, row 4). This is understandable given Cyrus’ need for political legitimation among his Babylonian subjects.

3.2 Lines 20-22: Royal Protocol

From the line 20 of the text of the Cylinder onwards, Cyrus himself becomes the narrator. This shift of point of view was, as far as the analyzed sample showed, unique to the Cylinder. This structural device is understandable given that Cyrus was a foreign conqueror of Babylon and was in need of legitimation; the scene had to be made ready from a third-person point of view to convince the audience of Cyrus’ role as a divinely-chosen savior for his Babylonian subjects, not as a usurper. However, the way Cyrus presents himself and his genealogy, has countless parallel examples in the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions. Table 2 provides some examples of royal protocol in the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and the Cylinder.


Mesopotamian royal inscriptions

Cyrus Cylinder

Royal protocol

1. Sargon (II), appointee of the god Enlil, … great king, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters (of the world), favorite of the great gods];… (Sargon II 001)


2. I, Ashurbanipal, great king, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters (of the world), creation of the hands of (the god) Aššur  (and) the goddess Mullisu; … son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria(grand)son of Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria; descendant of Sargon (II), king of the world, king of Assyria, governor of Babylon, king of [the land of Sumer and] Akkad,… (Ashurbanipal )


3. Nebuchadnezzar (II), king of Babylon, pious prince, selected by the steadfast heart of the god Marduk, true shepherd who ensures that the sanctuaries of the god Nabû are looked after correctly, …, am I. (Nebuchadnezzar II 012).


4. Nabonidus, king of Babylon, the one nominated by the gods Nabû and Marduk, heir of Nabû-balāssu-iqbi, wise prince, am I. (Nabonidus 001)

I, Cyrus (II), king of the world, great king, strong king, king of Babylon, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters (of the world), son of Cambyses (I) — great king, king of Anšan — grandson of Cyrus (I) — great king, kin[g of] Anšan — descendant of Teispes — great king, king of Anšan — the eternal seed of kingship, whose reign the gods Bēl (Marduk) and Nabû love and whose k[ingshi]p they desired to their heart’s content. When I peacefully entered i[n]to Babylon, amidst joy and happiness, I took up (my) lordly residence in the palace of the ruler.[11]

Table 2: Royal protocol in Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and Cyrus Cylinder

This section of the Cylinder describes Cyrus’ autonyms (i.e., royal epithets) and his genealogy, going back to his great-grandfather (for a discussion of this royal self-presentation, see Stolper 2013). Upon close reading and comparison of this part with the preceding royal inscriptions, it was found that it bears more similarities with the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions than with the Neo-Babylonian ones. As seen in Table 2, the royal titles of “king of the world”, “strong king”, “great king”, “king of the four quarters (or rims) of the world” and “king of Sumer and Akkad” which are all used in the Cylinder, have their prototypes in the royal inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian kings, e.g., Sargon II and Ashurbanipal. They were not discerned in the Neo-Babylonian royal inscriptions, even in those of Nebuchadnezzar II who was the most powerful Neo- Babylonian king. This finding is in line with Harmatta (1971a) who argued that this similar royal protocol stems from the fact that Cyrus, like Ashurbanipal, the great Neo-Assyrian king, claimed world domination. It’s noteworthy that these expressions for royal self-presentation were not, however, initiated by Ashurbanipal; rather they were in use since at least the late 3rd millennium, when the great Akkadian empire (ca. 2300-2100 BCE) was founded by Sargon of Akkad (ca. 2334-2279 BCE) (de Blois and Van der Spek 1983/2019: 19). This implies that these Neo-Assyrian royal protocols were themselves translated from the Old Babylonian language.

3.3 Lines 22-43: Positive Assessment of Cyrus and Restoration Policy

This section which makes up the main body of the Cylinder, first presents Cyrus’ peaceful capture of Babylon and then enumerates Cyrus’ benevolent cultic restorations and building projects in Babylon. As seen in Table 3, representation of building projects and cultic restorations has also its prototypes in both the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian royal inscriptions.


Mesopotamian royal inscriptions

Cyrus Cylinder

Cultic and building restoration

1.He directed his attention [to] renovating the abandoned cult centers and sanctuaries of all the gods of the land Akkad… (With regard to) the outer enclosure wall of Eanna in the lower courtyard, he tore down its parapet and laid bare its foundation. (Sargon II 3)


2. The one who (re)constructed the temple of the god Aššur, (re)built Esagil and Babylon, returned [the] plundered [god]s of the lands to their (proper) place, and … the one who completed the rites, (re)confirmed sattukku offerings, … ; (40) ... [all of the people] who live in them; the one who repaid their losses; who gathered the [scattered] people of [Babylon] (and) (re)settled (them) in peaceful dwellings; (Esarhaddon 048)


3…. he [Marduk-apla-iddina II] directed his attention to performing the rites, to administering correctly the rituals, and to renovating the cult centers and the sanctuaries of the divine residences of the great gods of the land of Akkad.


4. I provided Esagil with silver, gold, precious (and) valuable stone(s), copper, musukkannu-wood, …. I put Imgur-Enlil and Nēmetti-Enlil, the great walls of Babylon, (back) in order, …(Nebuchadnezzar II 012)

25 I sought the safety of the city of Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for the population of Babylon […, w]ho as if without div[ine intention] had endured a yoke not decreed for them,


26 I soothed their weariness; I freed them from their bonds (?). …


32 I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements,


34 I returned them [gods] unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy.


38 I strove to strengthen the defences of the wall Imgur-Enlil, the great wall of Babylon,

Table 3: Cultic and building restoration in Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and Cyrus Cylinder

3.4 Lines 44-45: Concluding Prayers

In the final section, Cyrus asks for a long life and secure throne and full age from Marduk for himself. Likewise, all the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions end with such prayers.


Mesopotamian royal inscriptions

Cyrus Cylinder

Concluding prayer

O Marduk, great lord,… Give me as a gift a life of long days, the attainment of very old age, a stable dynasty, a firmly secured throne, the cutting down of the enemy, (and) the attainment of the heart’s desire…. (Nebuchadnezzar II C213 // C200).

in its place. May Marduk, the great lord, present to me as a gift a long life and the fullness of age,


45 [a secure throne and an enduring rei]gn, [and may I …… in] your heart forever.

Table 4: Concluding prayer in the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and Cyrus Cylinder

Besides all the rhetorical similarities mentioned above, there are also phraseological similarities. For example, the term ‘shepherd,’ (line 13) was amply used as a royal epithet in the Mesopotamian inscriptions; it can be discerned even in the well-known Code of Hammurabi, composed around 1755-1750 BC in Old Babylonian; “Hammurabi, the shepherd, called by Enlil, am I.” Phrases like ‘from the upper sea to the lower sea’, ‘kissing the feet’ of the new conqueror and ‘bringing tributes’ for him by other kings are also typical of the Mesopotamian inscriptions (e.g., in Ashurbanipal 003, prism B; Nebuchadnezzar II 011, prism). Phrases such as to ‘take the hand of’ [Cyrus], ‘to call him [king] by name’, ‘to proclaim him aloud for kingship’ (line 12), ‘like a friend and companion’, ‘walk at his side’, ‘hand over to him’ [Nabonidus], (lines 15 and 17) all have their precedent examples in the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions.

Far from being an accurate reproduction of its preceding Mesopotamian royal inscriptions, the Cylinder also possesses some unique thematic and narrative novelties which fit its own cultural and political context. The first one is the shift in point of view explained earlier. Second, in line 35 of the Cylinder, Cyrus asks for Marduk’s mercy for both himself and his son, Cambyses. Although asking for gods’ mercy was highly typical in the royal inscriptions, none of them refer to their succeeding heirs to the throne though. These differences might be textual innovations emanating from the Persian literary tradition.

Drawing on these similarities and differences, the Cylinder, without a doubt, stands in a translational relationship with the preceding Mesopotamian royal inscriptions on the following grounds:

  • The very act of borrowing cylinder writing on the part of Cyrus can be assumed as a cultural translation.
  • As an edict issued by Cyrus to his Babylonian subjects, the Cylinder is written in the Neo-Babylonian language, not in Cyrus’ own language. Indeed, it is Cyrus who translates himself in Babylonian terms.
  • The text of the Cylinder bears more rhetorical, textual and phraseological similarities with the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions than with the Neo-Babylonian ones. This implies that the Babylonian scribes were not merely copyists, but expert translators who were well-versed in the preceding Neo-Assyrian royal literature. Simply put, writing the text of the cylinder entailed interlingual transfer.
  • The textual similarities with the Neo-Babylonian inscriptions can also be considered as signs of intralingual translations.
  • The Cylinder is a ‘metatext’ which is a translation of not a single text, but of a repertoire of Mesopotamian royal ‘prototexts’. The idea of translation as an intertextual practice not as equivalence, as defined by Author2 (2009), is more pronounced in historiography, since the historical ‘metatext’ is in intertextual dialogue with a plurality of ‘prototexts’ not a single one. This further attests to the fragile idea of originality.

3.5 The Cyrus Cylinder: A Journey through Translation

In this part, the translation of Cylinder into other cultural traditions is explored.

3.5.1 Biblical Tradition

The earliest translational traces of the Cylinder can be discerned in the biblical tradition which has yielded a favorable image of Cyrus as the liberator of the Jewish people who had been put into exile in Babylon since Nebuchadnezzar had demolished the land of Judah in 597/6[12] (Kuhrt 2007: 109). Although no straight reference to Jewish liberation exists in the Cylinder, lines 30-32 have been taken as testimony for the idea that Cyrus issued a decree for the return of Jewish exiles and the rebuilding of their god’s temple in Jerusalem and thus put an end to the so-called Babylonian captivity. Juxtaposing the Cylinder text with Old Testament’s texts mentioning the name of Cyrus (e.g., Ezra, Daniel, Deutro Isaiah) reveals significant phraseological and rhetorical similarities (For further discussion see, Razmjou 2020).

Cyrus Cylinder


‘While he [Cyrus] shepherded in righteousness the black-headed people…’ (line 13)

‘[The Lord] who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd.’ (Isaiah, 44: 28).

[Marduk] ‘took the hand of Cyrus, king of Anshan’ (line 12),

[Yahweh] whose right hand [Cyrus] I [Yahweh] I took hold of (Isaiah, 45:1),


[Marduk] ‘called him by his name’ (line 12),

[Yahweh] ‘summons you [Cyrus] by name’ (Isaiah, 45: 3)

[Marduk] assisted him ‘like a friend and companion’ and ‘walked at his side’ (line 15).

 ‘will go before you [Cyrus]…’ (Isaiah, 45: 2)

‘Marduk…ordered that he [Cyrus] should go to Babylon, he had him take the road to Tintir [Babylon] (line 15)

‘I [Yahweh] have called him [Cyrus]. I will bring him [to Babylon] and will succeed him in his mission’ (Isaiah, 45: 15)

Table 5: Textual similarities between the Cyrus Cylinder and Isaiah

These textual similarities can be taken as evidence that the biblical sources were translated from their preceding Neo-Babylonian source, given the fact the Jews lived in Babylon when the Cyrus Cylinder was composed. However, the figure of Cyrus, when represented in biblical historical narratives, was translated into Jewish cultural and theological terms. While Cyrus was ‘called’ by Marduk to rule over Babylon in the Cylinder, he was ‘summoned’ by Yahweh, he was hailed as Yahweh’s “anointed” and “Messiah” (Isaiah, 45: 1).

3.5.2 Modern Era Tradition (19th century onwards)

Within the western tradition, the Achaemenid kings were fairly well known through the translations of Greek and biblical literature. Within Iran, however, since the Sassanid era (224-651 AD), the factual history of the Achaemenids, including the figure of Cyrus, was replaced with the mythical Avestan dynasties of Pishdadians and Kayanians. This replacement of historical narrative with mythical narrative persisted until the late 19th century through Arabic and later Persian (re)translations of the Middle-Persian Khwaday-namag (i.e., book of kings) (for further information, see Daryaee 2014; Hameen-Anttila 2018). In other words, the Achaemenids were almost unknown to Iranians up until the late 19th century.

Thus matters stood in Iran until the mid-nineteenth century when nationalist sentiments began to emerge in Persian historical thought. Later known as “proto-nationalist historiography” (Amanat 2012: 293), this line of historical thought put great emphasis on the glories of Iran’s pre-Islamic past. More particularly, it was the deciphering and translation of ancient cuneiform inscriptions by Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895) in the 1840s as well as the translations of European archaeological and historical works which caused a boom in nationalist historiography which aimed to “contrast Iran’s glorious past with the plight of its present” (Amanat 2012: 337).

It was within such nationalist milieu that the Cylinder was discovered in 1879 after being buried underground for over 2400 years. One year after its discovery, the Cylinder was transliterated and translated into English by Henry Rawlinson[13]. Its translation into other European languages (e.g., German Tr.: F. H. Weissbach 1911; Eilers 1971/4; Berger 1975) and retranslations into English (e.g., R. W. Rogers 1912: Budge 1922 (a partial trans.); Smith, S. 1924; Openheim in Pritchard, 1969: 315-6; Grayson 1975) emerged within decades.

Since the late 19th century, owing to the translations of Greek and biblical texts and European travelogues, the figure of Cyrus was an emergent national figure, praised as an ideal powerful king among the Iranian cultural and political elites. However, Cyrus and many other historical ancient figures were identified with the well-established Persian mythological characters. Evidently, it was only after the first Persian translation of the Cylinder by the renowned historian, Hasan Pirniya (1871-1935), in his ground-breaking book, History of Ancient Iran, published in 1933, that Cyrus’ true history was revealed to the Iranians. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, until 1979, eight other Persian full/ partial retranslations and summaries appeared in the Iranian historical books (Falsafi 1939; Bastani-Parizi 1951; Hedayati 1956; Moghaddam 1961; Khanbaba-Bayani 1968; Shahpour-Shahbazi 1969; Ashrafi 1971; Bayani 1971). A close reading of these Persian translations as well as the translators’ pre/post commentaries showed their emphasis on Cyrus as a champion of religious toleration towards the Jews and other cults and his respectful treatment of his subjects. Table 6 shows a summary of comparison between Roger’s (1912) English translation and Pirniya’s (1933) Persian translation.

Roger (1912)

Pirniya (1933)

……a weakling was established in rule over the land

نبونید پادشاهی بود ضعیف‌النفس

[Nabonidus was a weakling]


مردم استغاثه کرده گفتند نظری کن.

[People appealed and said, “Look upon us”]

He [Marduk] spared his city Babylon a calamity.

و شهر خود را از تعدّی خلاصی بخشید.

[And he saved his city from aggression]

When I [Cyrus] made my triumphal entrance into Babylon

وقتی که من بی جنگ و جدال وارد تین‌تیر شدم.

[When I entered Tintir[14] without a fight]

With joy and rejoicing I took up my lordly residence in the royal palace.

با مسرت و شادمانی مردم در قصر پادشاهان بر سریر سلطنت نشستم.

[With the joy and happiness of the people, I sat on the throne in the palace of the kings]

The needs of Babylon and of all its cities I gladly took heed to.

اوضاع داخلی بابل و امکنه مقدسه آن قلب مرا تکان داد...

[The internal situation of Babylon and its sacred places moved my heart]

Table 6: A comparison of Roger’s (1912) and Pirniya’s (1933) translations of the Cyrus Cylinder

Pirniya’s translation, and his book in general, provoked increased interest in the life of Cyrus, to the extent that, among the 94 identified books on the history of ancient Iran published between 1927 and 1979, 24 were exclusively about Cyrus, (half of which were translated). These books were mostly translations of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, which is a fictional eulogy of Cyrus as an ideal leader.

Being translated into European and Persian languages, the Cyrus Cylinder was gradually raised beyond a mere archaeological relic and was imbued with a multitude of meanings and narratives beyond its original function by different ethnic and national groups. First, it was appropriated by the Jewish community as a further archaeological and historical proof for invigorating the biblical story of Jewish liberation by Cyrus, Ko’resh, their “Messiah” (Van de Ven 2017: 73-75). This new historical narrative was invoked by the Jews to establish their own state in Palestine, to the extent that the American president Harry Truman declared himself “the soul creator of the state of Israel, proclaiming ‘I am Cyrus’ repeatedly at a Jewish Theological Seminary in November of 1953.” (Van de Ven 2017: 74).

Within Iran, being in want of political legitimation, the First Pahlavi monarch, Reza Shah (r. 1925-1941) (and more particularly the Second Pahlavi monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah (r. 1941-1979), went to great lengths to construct a pre-Islamic “national memory of the glorious past” (Vaziri 1993: 197) so as to provide “a nationalist, nonreligious identity onto which Western ways might be grafted.” (Gregg 2005: 309). Cyrus became a paragon for this “Aryan Neo-Achaemenid nationalism” (Bausani 1975: 46; cited in Van de Ven 2017: 79). Seeking to establish his own legitimacy by identifying himself as the successor to the great Achaemenid empire, the Second Pahlavi displayed a profound desire “to not only slot the Cyrus Cylinder into the narrative of his own nation, and the continuity of Persian monarchy, but also into the tale of international civilizational development” (Van de Ven 2017: 82). In order to perpetuate the cultural and national memory of Iranian’s past, the Second Pahlavi launched a widespread pro-Achaemenid campaign and carried out a number of things. First, the Cylinder was labeled as “First Declaration of Human Rights” in the 1960s (Curtis 2013: 86). Second, the 2,500-year anniversary celebrations were held in October 1971, for which the Cylinder was chosen as “the official symbol” (Curtis 2013: 88) and “as a symbol of Iranian military prowess and humanitarian achievements” (Van de Ven 2017: 80) so as “to represent the depth of Iranian history, and the achievements of its empires through time” (Van de Ven 2017: 144) and to show that “Persia had been the birthplace of human rights” (Bailey 2004; as cited in Curtis 2013: 88). Second, the United Nations Conference on Human Rights was held in Iran in 1968 and a truncated translation of Cylinder was delivered to United Nations in October 1971 so as to perpetuate the narrative of the Cylinder as “The First Bill of Human Rights”.[15] Finally, an attempt was made by the Second Pahlavi to “introduce a new ‘Imperial’ calendar dated from the accession of Cyrus the Great in 559 BC.” (Ansari 2012: 183)

4. Conclusions

The present study traced the translationality of the Cyrus Cylinder and its (re)translations into other languages. It showed that the Cylinder was not only composed through interlingual and intralingual translation in the ancient era, but it has also had a translational life in the modern era. Some parts of the text of Cylinder also were translated into Hebrew language. In modern era, the original text of the Cylinder is preserved in the British museum and is understood by Assyriologists alone. The translation of the Cylinder into modern languages, while securing its afterlife, becomes a “metalanguage” (Venuti 1993: 196) of cultural appropriation and embeds it in an ever-changing network of cultural meanings and legitimation narratives, including biblical veracity, Jewish nationalism, Iranian cultural supremacy and Iranian national identity.

The ancient past is a ‘lost original’ which can be read through its modern translations; it is either seen through its material remains or its translations. The bulk of cultural knowledge on, say, Cyrus the great, comes from translations (of both the cuneiform cylinder and Greek sources), which in turn have generated further historical interpretations. Translation, as a discursive practice, is one of the essential ways of generating and furthering historical knowledge, ultimately leading to the construction and dissemination of culture-bound historical narratives. Not only is history translation in the narrativist sense of translating events into historiographical narrative (e.g., White 1973), but history is also written through translation; historians use translation as an essential operative tool. Reading many historical works on the life of Cyrus, for example, shows that they are metatexts which rest on intertextual relations with many ‘local’ and/or ‘global’ prototexts (see Author2 2009). Once Lefebvre and Bassnett (1998: 6) held that “translation is in history, always.” Now, it might be added that history writing is also in translation.


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[1] The study used the English translations of these royal inscriptions which are accessible in Oracc: Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus ( For the full text of the Cyrus Cylinder, Finkel’s (2013) was consulted, which is the most recent and complete English translation.

[2] Among the many Assyrian and Babylonian kings whose cylinders have survived, we can mention: the Cylinder B of Esarhaddon, the clay Cylinder of Nabopolassar, the cuneiform Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II and the Cylinder of Nabonidus.

[3] However, before entering the city of Babylon, Cyrus’ army had defeated Nabonidus’ army in the city of Opis and had brought about a brutal massacre there, causing the forceful submission of the Babylonians (for more information, see Nabonidus Chronicle available at:

[4] All emphases added to highlight the similarities.

[5] The Chaldean king Marduk-apla-iddina II (reg. 722-710 BCE) (the biblical Merodach-baladan), who seized the Babylonian throne by force from Sargon II (reg. 722-705 BCE), the Neo-Assyrian king.

[6] In this cylinder, Esarhaddon attributes his father’s, Sennacherib, invasion of Babylonia to gods’ wrath at the Babylonians’ misdeeds:

[7] Only Nabonidus attributes Nabopolassar’s (626-605 BCE), the founder of Neo-Babylonian empire, the usurpation of Babylon to Marduk’s wrath at Sennacherib’s cultic violations.

[8] An ancient Mesopotamian city

[9] A religious title for Marduk

[10] Ancient Elamite city, modern Tal-e Malyan (Finkel 2013: 9).

[11] This part of the English translation of the Cyrus Cylinder has been taken from Oracc, RIBO (Royal Inscriptions of Babylonia Online).

[12] For a discussion of Babylon’s invasion of Judah, see: Isbell (2017).

[13] H. C. Rawlinson (1880). Art. II. Notes on a newly-discovered Clay Cylinder of Cyrus the Great. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 12, pp.70-79.

[14] The old Sumerian name for the city of Babylon (Finkel 2013)

[15] This translation can be found in: UN Press Release HQ/264.

About the author(s)

Zeinab Amiri is PhD candidate of Translation Studies in Allameh Tabataba’i university, Tehran, Iran. She has published papers on translation and Iranian women journals. She is currently studying translation in ancient Iran for her doctoral dissertation.

Farzaneh Farahzad is a Professor of Translation Studies in Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran. She has published extensively on Translation Studies. Her recent works include a “A Comprehensive English-Persian Dictionary of Translation Studies” , “Translation Studies: From literary studies to linguistics” in Persian, and “Women Translators: Different Voices and New Horizons”, published by Routledge. She is one of the pioneering figures in introducing TS in Iran, and in curriculum development for TS programs. She is the author of several course books in Persian and English and of a great number of Persian and English articles. Her model of Translation Criticism, and her approach to Intertextuality have inspired a great number of local and international researches.

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