One of the seminal figures of ancient Persia, King Cyrus the Great, is being celebrated in San Francisco.
The Cyrus Cylinder, named after the founder of the First Persian Empire, goes on view at the Asian Art Museum on Friday in the exhibition “Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning.”
Along with the younger Rosetta Stone and Magna Carta, the cylinder, on display in the U.S. for the first time, is a treasured historical object and considered the first declaration of what has become known in modern times as human rights.
Nearly 2,600 years ago, Cyrus, after invading Babylon, ruled Persia, the largest empire in history up to that time (stretching from present-day Egypt to India). His declaration of victory and rules of conduct were written in cuneiform wedge-shaped script and preserved on a baked clay cylinder, which was placed under the walls of Esagila, the temple of Marduk, protector god of Babylon.
Excavated in 1879, the cylinder has been in the British Museum, which has loaned it to the Asian Art Museum.
Cyrus' statement on the cylinder records his humane deeds after cessation of wars, such as restoring shrines, support for freedom of worship and allowing displaced peoples to return home.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, describes the cylinder as “an unprepossessing thing, about the size of a football … it has been knocked about over the centuries, and several bits of it are missing. Yet today it is not just a major document of world history … it offers the world many ways of thinking about the past and, more important, the future of the Near East.”
Other rare artworks in the exhibition include a gold armlet in the form of a griffinlike mythical creature, and the seal of Darius I, showing the Persian king in his chariot hunting lions.
A musical program, the premiere of the “King Cyrus Symphonic Suite,” complements the exhibit. Presented by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, the concert Sunday in The City will be conducted by the piece's composer Loris Tjeknavorian and performed by the 77-piece San Francisco Philharmonic, formed just for the occasion. Soloists are soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, pianist Tara Kamangar and narrator Houshang Touzie.
Tjeknavorian wrote the piece in 1972 for the 2,500th anniversary celebration of the Persian Empire, performed before heads of state from across the world at the ancient city of Persepolis. Later, he expanded it into a symphonic suite in three movements portraying episodes in the life of Cyrus, based on writings by Herodotus and Xenophon.
The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: Opens Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except open to 9 p.m. Thursdays; closes Sept. 22
Tickets: $8 to $12
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org
Note: The “King Cyrus Symphonic Suite” concert is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Nob Hill Masonic Center, 1111 California St., S.F. Tickets are $38 to $278. Visit www.livenation.com