The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
It's about the size and shape of an English rugby ball or an American football. Cylindrical, actually broken in two pieces, but now painstakingly restored. Embedded in its hardened clay are symbols, cut in, incised with the end of a wedge-shaped stick. Cuneiform writing.
And it's perhaps one of the most important objects in the known world. At least, that's what Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum says. It is 'the first attempt we know about running a society, a state with different nationalities and faiths—a new kind of statecraft'.
And if you want to see this wonder of the world, then just take a short trip on the tube to Tottenham Court Road and visit Room 52 in the British Museum.
Let me explain: in 1879, an archaeological dig from the British Museum unearthed in Babylon (in modern-day Iraq) what became known as the Cyrus Cylinder. The cylinder was a foundation deposit left by the conquering Persians after they had ransacked Babylon in 539 BC. If you remember the story, in the Book of Daniel, of Belshazzar's feast—when the mysterious hand appears and literally writes on the wall, foretelling the fall of Babylon that night and the arrival of the Medes and Persians—well, the Cyrus Cylinder is the 'morning after the night before'.
And alongside the sort of things you would expect a conquering King to talk about—listing his regal titles as 'The Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World'—there is something else, something incredible, quite amazing even to our own ears.
Because not only does the Cyrus Cylinder proclaim the king's conquests, but it also talks about the restoration of religious sites and the repatriation of deported peoples.
Let me join up the dots to explain the significance of this. Jerusalem had been sacked, utterly laid waste by the Babylonians some fifty years earlier in 586 BC. Moreover, a huge number of their people had been deported, taken into Exile in Babylon. You might remember Psalm 137 ,or at least Boney M's version:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'
How could we sing the LORD's song
in a foreign land?
So this rugby-ball cylinder represents not just the conquest of Babylon by the Persians, but also hope and freedom and liberation and restoration for the Jews and other minorities. It is the beginning of the long journey home which began 20 years later. It signals the start of the re-building of the Temple—the creation of the Second Temple we read about in Ezra.
No wonder, then, that Isaiah speaks about Cyrus in this way:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed.
It is an amazing image of the God of Israel adopting, anointing, making his own the king of another people, another race, another empire. What does he call him? 'My anointed', the actual word is 'messiah', recalling the anointing of the Israelite kings with oil as a sign of their consecration, their being set apart for service to the nation.
As HM The Queen becomes the longest-serving monarch in British history, we are reminded that this same ritual act of anointing is performed at Coronations just here on the Cosmati Pavement. It is a moment regarded as so holy that in the broadcast of the 1953 Coronation, the cameras were diverted and the scene was not shown.
But what might this brief episode in the ancient Middle East, even one so spiritually connected with our own monarch through the ritual of anointing, what might it tell us today?
Culturally, the creation of the Babylonian Empire was the first time in world history, as MacGregor claims, when religious, faith, ethnic, linguistic differences were tolerated and embraced. At its height this was the first global empire spanning a vast array of peoples and nations.
More importantly for us now, it set the imprint of what was hoped for in the Middle East even until today. In 1917, Jews in Eastern Europe celebrated the British Balfour Declaration which created a Jewish Homeland in Palestine with images of Cyrus alongside George V. Cyrus represents the hope of many that the Middle East could become the home of many peoples. It is a hope which has lasted centuries, but which is now severely threatened by ISIS.
But the second issue is theological: when it was discovered in 1879, many Christians were struggling with the historicity of the Bible in the wake of the debates over Evolution—could the Bible be trusted as historically accurate? It seemed to be so: nowhere else other than the Bible was there talk of Cyrus being instrumental in the return of the Jews and the restoration of religious sites. It was confirmation that the Bible was true.
However, there is a twist in the tale. The Cyrus Cylinder does indeed mention God, it mentions God a lot! But, it is not the God of Israel who is talked about, Yahweh, Jehovah. Rather it is the Persian God, Marduk. It is Marduk who drives the people before Cyrus, it is Marduk who raises up and strikes down.
The Prophet Isaiah appropriates the same language to talk about Jehovah. But this signals an incredibly important moment: the point at which the Jewish faith, and we as Christians following, ceased to talk about having 'our one God' (henotheism) and began to explore what it means to believe there is only God (monotheism). This is a move from tribal to global; from a possessive and ritualised understanding of God, to one which embraces both continents and peoples: a universal understanding.
It raises for us the question about whether God can be understood to be acting through the events of history. And, if so, what are we to make of the decimation of Christian and other minorities in the Middle East and the flood of migrants into Europe which has followed?
who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd,
and he shall carry out all my purpose';
and who says of Jerusalem, 'It shall be rebuilt', and of the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid.'