WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) One of the great things about living around here is that we can go anytime to see the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and other documents celebrating freedom.
But starting Saturday, and for the next two months we have a fleeting chance to see a far more ancient proclamation of human rights.
At the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery tucked behind plexi glass is the Cyrus Cylinder. Nearly 2600 years ago, the Persian king Cyrus the Great ordered it written in cuneiform after he conquered Babylon, and tossed out Belshazzar, successor of Nebuchadnezzar, who had enslaved the Jews.
"This is probably the first press release by a victorious army," said British Museum Director Neil MacGreggor in a recent speech.
The cuneiform starts as these things usually do: "I Cyrus, King of All The Universe, the great king, to powerful king..."
But then Cyrus goes on to free the captured peoples in Babylon and to grant them freedom to worship as they please. "He will let them recover the Gods, the statues, and the temple vessels that had been confiscated. All the people that the Babylonians had repressed and removed will go home," says MacGreggor.
It's just a modest clay cylinder about the size of a football, but it is layered with meaning for Jews, for Christians, and for modern day Persians.
When the British Museum lent the cylinder to Tehran, a million Iranians, including the President, came to see it. And a day before the official opening in DC, Persian Americans were already drawing lessons. "History shows us that we were one day in prison and they were released," said Reza Saiedi, after taking a look.
Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of Cyrus' ancient Greek biography...
Alexander the Great wept at his tomb. Machiavelli and Caesar saw him as the ideal ruler. He's celebrated in the Bible.
And the stories are all confirmed in an ancient cylinder unearthed in 1879.
"It really underscores the power of the object, how it speaks across time and space to so many different people," says Freer|Sackler Chief Curator Massumeh Farhad.
The cylinder and other objects on loan from the British Museum are on display at the Sackler Gallery through April 28th.