The text can be divided in two parts:
- Lines 1 to 18 tell a story of Cyrus’ deeds in the third person : the document tells of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king, who is said to have forbidden the cult of Marduk among others, and to have oppressed his subjects. Consequently, the subjects made complaints to the gods, and Marduk found Cyrus in order to make him the world’s ruler. All the inhabitants of his new empire then became very happy to see him as their new king.
- In the second part, Cyrus speaks in the first person. He begin with his titles, and continues saying that he took care of the Marduk’s cult at Babylon, and that he had “allowed them to find rest from their exhaustion, their servitude”. He also tells that lots of kings bring to him levies, and that he restored the cults in all the former kingdoms which are now part of his, and that he released the former deported persons.
Different readings of this document can be and have been made:
- Formerly some specialized historians took the text as a testimony close to reality, but today this interpretation is mostly out of use.
- Some others see in this document a confirmation of the Bible in its historicity, with Marduk assimilated to Yahve. In fact in the Bible Cyrus is shown as Yahve’s object, who give to him the power to create his kingdom and the will to release captive Jews and help them to rebuild their temple. In fact the cylinder shows Cyrus saying: “the gods who dwelt there I returned to their home and let them move into an eternal dwelling. All their people I collected and brought them back to their homes,” (line 32) which could be the confirmation of releasing captive Jews, even if these are not named in the text. One thing is clear: Cyrus chose to show that he has one powerful God at his side, Marduk, who gives him the legitimacy to overthrow Nabonidus and conquer his empire.
- Many historians today agree that this document is propaganda, in which Nabonidus is treated worse than he was, using for this false portrayal the Marduk cultists’ anger against the last Babylonian king.
- A recent current theory is to understand the Cyrus Cylinder as the first charter of human rights. This interpretation began when, in 1971 CE at the 2500th birthday of the Persian monarchy, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi made Cyrus the Great a key figure in government ideology, in order to establish a pre-Islamic legitimacy of his government. The same year, his dynasty offered a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder to the United Nations, with an English “translation” that is largely truncated and manipulated in order to show that Cyrus made the first charter of human rights.
The problem is that this latter translation is largely diffused by the UN and on the web, contributing to this idea, while speaking of human rights or charter is an anachronism. In fact Cyrus had effectively made a policy of tolerance in some minor points, especially regarding the cults, and this policy was continued by his successors over 200 years after. But taking “(…) find rest (…) from their servitude (…)” (L.26) as an abolition of slavery, for example, is a total anachronism, as the existence of multiple kinds of slaves during Achemenid rule proves. We surely should understand these tolerance policies more as a way to quickly associate new subjects in his empire, in order to have the least troubles possible therein.