As the first king to create a multiethnic and multi-faith society, the Persian King Cyrus the Great made coexisting cool before those “coexist” bumper stickers were plastered on every Prius in Los Angeles.
In an event the Getty Museum's new Director Timothy Potts deems as “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” the Cyrus Cylinder is now making the final stop of its U.S. tour at the Getty Villa in Malibu, through Dec. 2. “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning,” the exhibition it's a part of, is chock-full of pre-Islamic artifacts that reveal the triumph and achievement of the Persian Empire.
And Tehrangelenos are likely eager for the opportunity to remember and embrace a noble part of their identity that's not yet been desecrated by Hollywood (we're looking at you, 300), a history the current regime in Iran can't take away, a period when Shahs of Sunset was not even a spark in Ryan Seacrest's dreamy blue eyes.
“This document is one of the major turning points in ancient history,” says Potts. It helped historians realize “that the very positive image of [King Cyrus] in ancient Greek writing and the Old Testament are actually based on the acts he did during his reign.”
The Persian King Cyrus the Great is commonly known as the “the most amiable of conquerors” because he wasn't into rape, pillage and murder. Instead he authored the very first declaration of human rights on a clay cylinder describing his entrance into Babylon and proclaiming that “people are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate other's rights.”
Dated 539 BC and found in Babylon, modern day Iraq, in 1879, the Cylinder itself does not look very impressive. At 22.5 centimeters in length and written in Cuneiform script, the Cylinder is the Keith Richards of history and antiquity: broken and cracked, yet timeless, and monumental to the evolution of culture.
Even before 1879, Cyrus was a model for political theorists. The Cyropaedia, written by a historian and student of Socrates, Xenophon, is a biography of Cyrus the Great that influenced Thomas Jefferson, who owned a couple of copies.
While Cyrus' personal religious beliefs are uncertain (he's said to have been a Zoroastrian), he called for religious tolerance, restored temples, allowed the exiled to return home and put an end to slavery. (Thomas Jefferson probably didn't know about that last item.)
As Potts puts it, Cyrus' reign showed “an empire is much more likely to stay together and work as a whole when peoples cultures are respected and worship is allowed than if you force everyone into one way of behaving and one form of religion.”
Cyrus was so great, in fact, that even the Greeks didn't have the heart to hate him. “The Greeks fought wars against the Persians,” says Potts. “And yet they still wrote in their accounts about how liked, tolerant and just he was as a king.”
For the Jews, Cyrus was greatest goy that ever lived. His legacy resonates with the Iranian Jewish community because of the role he played in allowing them to return to Judea, rebuild their Temple and worship however they chose.
The Cylinder's message of “live and let live” could not have come at a more appropriate time considering the hullabaloo some families have raised against Rabbi David Wolpe's decision to perform gay marriage at the highly Iranian-populated and supported Sinai Temple.
We don't know Cyrus' policy on gay marriage, but it's safe to say that he is probably turning over in his elaborate grave at the very sad political and social state Iran is in today. As for the Iranians who were able to escape the oppressive regime, L.A. has been a relative haven of coexistence, where you're not judged based on which God you worship as much as you are by what car you drive.
But seriously. “This is really an amazing opportunity and experience for all of us — Iranian and non Iranian — to come together and celebrate this occasion and appreciate the Iranian culture through the lens of a shared ideal,” says Bita Milanian, executive director of the Farhang Foundation, which is responsible for Los Angeles exhibition.
The Cylinder has been translated to all official UN languages, and a replica of the original ,presented by the Iranian royal family in October 1971, sits at the UN headquarters in New York as a reminder of international allegiance to peace.
In the two-month period of the exhibition, other related activities are available at the Getty Villa. There's even a course in sculpting your very own cylinder and a unique culinary workshop on ancient Persian cuisine, with historian-chef Maite Gomez-Rejon.
Due to the object's limited-time visit, the Getty Villa has extended its hours until 9:00 p.m. on Saturdays through November 30. Date night will never be the same again. Please use cologne responsibly. You know who are.