The First Known Religious Freedom Document Is Over 2,500 Years Old
By: Lisa Navarrette, M.S.
The Cyrus Cylinder was dedicated to the City of Babylon in 539 B.C. by its new king, Cyrus of Anshan (Persia). The cylinder is made of clay and is nine inches wide by four feet tall. While its size is unimpressive, its inscription and the freedoms it granted are of immense importance. The cylinder is the first known historical document to grant religious freedom. Its inscription describes the society’s religious violations and restless servitude of the people by the previous King, Nabonidus.
“a command dishonoring them [. . .] he planned daily and inenmity, he caused the daily offering to cease; he appointed [. . .] he established within the city. The worship of Marduk, king of the gods [. . .] he showed hostility toward his city daily [. . .] his people; he brought all of them to ruin through servitude without rest. On account of their complaints, the lords of the gods became furiously angry and left their land; the gods, who dwelt among them, left their homes, in anger over his bringing into Babylon. Marduk [. . .] to all the dwelling places, which had become ruins, and the people of Sumer and Akkad, who were like corpses.”
The cylinder notes that Cyrus, then known as King of the World, intended to restore religious freedoms and abolish servitude. The city joyfully accepted Cyrus as their new King, and he delivered on his promises: restoring the temples and religious cults. The cylinder claims that because of this, the gods and departed residents returned to the city.
“Their dwellings, which had fallen, I restored. I cleared out their ruins. …the cities on the other side of the Tigris, whose sites were of ancient foundation – the gods, who resided in them, I brought back to their places, and caused them to dwell in a residence for all time, And the gods of Sumer and Akkad—whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon—by the command of Marduk, the great lord, I caused them to take up their dwelling in residences that gladdened the heart.”
Cyrus, King of the World, was a beloved ruler throughout the Near East. He supported cultural and religious diversity which was not common in the ancient Near East. He served as an enlightened ruler and understood that it was sensible statecraft that allowed different people to worship their own gods and have their own cultures.
According to Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Cyrus’s actions were extremely significant to many people groups, especially the Jews. She believes that without his actions, “the exiled Jews would probably have disappeared from the map of history.” Even though Cyrus worshipped the god Marduk, he allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, rebuild their temple, and worship their own God. Though the cylinder does not name the Jews specifically, it does account for the rebuilding of the temple. Cyrus’s actions are also recorded in the Bible in several places, most notably 2 Chronicles 36:23 (ESV):
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.”
In addition to being the first, the cylinder is significant in that it inspired future religious freedom documents, including the Magna Carta and the British Petition of Rights. Cyrus was an exceptional leader and a great example for leaders today. While religious persecution rages around the world today, one can look back 2,500 years ago to a leader whose main objective was granting peace amongst his conquered. If today’s leaders exuded the statesmanship of Cyrus, religious persecution would cease to exist.
Lisa Navarrette has studied at both Roosevelt and Harvard Universities and is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Law & Policy at Liberty University. She writes for several human rights organizations and hopes her writing will have an impact in securing justice and human rights for all people.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.