WASHINGTON -- For 2,600 years, the weighty praise of world leaders has been heaped upon the fragile clay of the Cyrus Cylinder. The diminutive object, now cracked and missing one-third of its original form, has withstood the test of time as a symbol of tolerance.
This month the Persian artifact adds another chapter to its history, making a long-awaited U.S. debut. At the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, exhibit-organizers say the cylinder is right on time. Amid today's political tensions between the United States and Iran and in the Middle East, they say the moment is ripe for museum-goers to find new relevance in an ancient treasure.
Iranian-American Massumeh Farhad, the chief curator at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries, where the cylinder is on display, said that she thinks "the Cyrus Cylinder, and Cyrus, himself, in many ways, has represented this ideal [of overcoming differences]."
"Governments come and go, but I think it's really important to have these ideals to know [that] 'this is what we should aspire to.' One of the reasons the Cyrus Cylinder is so important is because, I think, it's a reminder that yes, we can do more," Farhad said.
About the size of a rugby ball, the Cyrus Cylinder was made on the order of Persian emperor Cyrus the Great after he captured Babylon in 539 B.C. It was ceremonially buried in the foundation of one of the city's walls.
Its inscription, carved in spiky cuneiform, announces Cyrus's victory, but also his intention to allow freedom of worship in his empire and the right of return for peoples displaced by the territory's previous ruler.
According to the Smithsonian, such declarations of religious tolerance were not uncommon at the time, but Cyrus's was unique in its scope. Scholars say that when cross-checked with other sources, including the Bible's book of Ezra, it becomes evident that the Persian ruler allowed displaced Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, would call Cyrus a "Zionist hero."
The empire founded by Cyrus became the world's largest, stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia at its height. It also was the world's most diverse.
In the fourth century B.C., Greek historian Xenophon portrayed Cyrus as an ideal ruler in his "Cyropaedia." The account inspired Alexander the Great, as well as Enlightenment thinkers in Europe and the United States. Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence, owned multiple copies.
The cylinder itself was unearthed in 1879 in present-day Iraq by a British archaeologist. It has remained in the British Museum almost ever since.
In 2010, the museum loaned the cylinder to Iran. It became one of the most-viewed exhibits in the country's history.
Both the country's monarchs and post-revolutionary leaders have espoused it as a symbol of Persian identity -- and used it for political purposes.
At a ceremony to celebrate the loan, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad vowed that Iran would again "set free the people that tyrants have enslaved."
There is no particular reason, the Smithsonian's Farhad said, that the cylinder did not come to the United States until now. But she and her colleagues see an opportunity in the timing.
Julian Raby, the director of the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries, told Reuters: "We're at a very, very tough moment in terms of how we view Iran and how we view Israeli-Iranian relationships. Anything that gets us to reflect on these things is, I think, a good thing."
The cylinder's U.S. tour is in part sponsored by the Iran Heritage Foundation, a U.K.-based charity whose mission is to "promote and preserve the history, languages, and cultures of Iran and the Persian world."
The foundation told the British press that it hopes the exhibit will especially appeal to U.S. Jews, who are accustomed to Iranian-Israeli hostility, as well as to Iranians expatriates and Iranian-Americans.
Flora Haghighi, who was among several Iranian-Americans at the exhibit on the day that RFE/RL visited, said, "[The cylinder] is very important, especially nowadays, when there are a lot of troubles in [Iran]. Definitely, looking back at the history -- that people in Iran were peacemakers -- it gives a good feeling to all Iranians."
But she said the object's U.S. tour is likely more important to Americans who are considering it for the first time: "I think [the cylinder] also sends a message to other people -- not to Iranians -- that Iran is not just about war."
Chelsea Ellsworth, an anthropology student who came to view the cylinder, told RFE/RL that she was not aware of such a tolerant ruler in Iran's past.
"It makes you think [Cyrus] must have been inspired somehow. That's a sign that he was scholarly, he studied. He studied the religions and realized that they had merit to them and he decided it was worth allowing people to worship what they wanted. Not everyone takes that time to research other cultures and other people," Ellsworth said.
The cylinder is on display at the Smithsonian through April 28
. It then travels to Houston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Before returning to London, the cylinder will make a stop in Mumbai, where it has particular importance for the city's Zoroastrian community.