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Cyrus takes Babylon: the Cyrus Cylinder

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Map of Babylon. Map design Jona Lendering.
In October 539 BCE, the Persian king Cyrus took Babylon, the ancient capital of an oriental empire covering modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. In a broader sense, Babylon was the ancient world's capital of scholarship and science. The subject provinces soon recognized Cyrus as their legitimate ruler. Since he was already lord of peripheral regions in modern Turkey and Iran (and Afghanistan?), it is not exaggerated to say that the conquest of Babylonia meant the birth of a true world empire. The Achaemenid empire was to last for more than two centuries, until it was divided by the successors of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great. A remarkable aspect of the capture of Babylon is the fact that Cyrus allowed the Jews (who were exiled in Babylonia) to return home.
Chronicle of Nabonidus
Verse account of Nabonidus
Prayer of Nabonidus
Cyrus Cylinder
Second Isaiah
Cyrus' cylinder. British museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Cyrus' cylinder (British Museum)

Cyrus' cylinder

In this text, a clay cylinder now in the British Museum, Cyrus describes how he conquers the old city. Nabonidus is considered a tyrant with strange religious ideas, which causes the god Marduk to intervene. That Cyrus thought of himself as chosen by a supreme god, is confirmed by Second Isaiah; his claim that he entered the city without struggle corroborates the same statement in the Chronicle of Nabonidus.
The Akkadian text
can be found here.

The god Marduk and his snake dragon. From: J. Black & A. Green, Gods, demons and symbols of ancient Mesopotamia (1992)
Marduk and his snake dragon (from J. Black & A. Green, Gods, demons and symbols ofancient Mesopotamia,1992; ©!!!)

At the end of his story, Cyrus tells that he "returned the images of the sanctuaries to return home". This means that he gave the statues back to the temples of the subject people; the Babylonians had captured these imagines and kept them as hostages. It was not uncommon that a new king reverted his predecessor's acts.

The tyranny of Nabonidus

[1-8] When [...] of the four quarters. [...] An incompetent person [i.e., Nabonidus] was installed to exercise lordship over his country. [...] he imposed upon them. An imitation of Esagila he made, and [...] for Ur and the rest of the cultic centers, a ritual which was improper to them, an unholy display offering without [...] fear he daily recited. Irreverently, he put an end to the regular offerings and he interfered  in the cultic centers; [...] he established in the sacred centers. By his own plan, he did away with the worship of Marduk, the king of the gods, he continually did evil against Marduk's city. Daily, [...] without interruption, he imposed the corvée upon its inhabitants unrelentingly, ruining them all.

Marduk's anger

[9-11] Upon hearing their cries, the lord of the gods became furiously angry and [...] their borders; the gods who lived among them forsook their dwellings, angry that he [sc. Nabonidus] had brought them to Babylon. Marduk, the exalted, the lord of the gods, turned towards all the habitations that were abandoned and all the people of Sumer and Akkad, who had become corpses. He was reconciled and had mercy upon them.

Marduk finds a new king for Babylon

[11-14]Marduk surveyed and looked throughout the lands, searching for a righteous king, his favorite. He called out his name: Cyrus, king of Anšan; he pronounced his name to be king all over the world. He made the land of Gutium and all the Umman-manda [i.e., the Medes] bow in submission at his feet. And he [i.e., Cyrus] shepherded with justice and righteousness all the black-headed people, over whom he [i.e., Marduk] had given him victory. Marduk, the great lord, guardian of his people, looked with gladness upon his good deeds and upright heart.

Cyrus takes Babylon

[15-19] He ordered him to go to his city Babylon. He set him on the road to Babylon and like a companion and a friend, he went at his side. His vast army, whose number, like water of the river, cannot be known, marched at his side fully armed. He made him enter his city Babylon without fighting or battle; he saved Babylon from hardship. He delivered Nabonidus, the king who did not revere him, into his hands. All the people of Babylon, all the land of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors, bowed to him and kissed his feet. They rejoiced at his kingship and their faces shone. Lord by whose aid the dead were revived and who had all been redeemed from hardship and difficulty, they greeted him with gladness and praised his name.

Cyrus' titles

[20-22a] I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters, the son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anšan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anšan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anšan, of an eternal line of kingship, whose rule Bêl and Nabu love, whose kingship they desire for their hearts' pleasure.

The prince of peace

[22b-28] When I entered Babylon in a peaceful manner, I took up my lordly abode in the royal palace amidst rejoicing and happiness. Marduk, the great lord, established as his fate for me a magnanimous heart of one who loves Babylon, and I daily attended to his worship. My vast army marched into Babylon in peace; I did not permit anyone to frighten the people of Sumer and Akkad. I sought the welfare of the city of Babylon and all its sacred centers. As for the citizens of Babylon, [...] upon whom Nabonidus imposed a corvée which was not the gods' wish and not befitting them, I relieved their wariness and freed them from their service. Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced over my good deeds. He sent gracious blessing upon me, Cyrus, the king who worships him, and upon Cambyses, the son who is my offspring, and upon all my army, and in peace, before him, we moved around in friendship.
Assyrian relief from Nimrod, showing the deportation of the statues of the gods of a defeated nation. British museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Assyrian relief from Nimrod, showing the deportation of the statues of the gods of a defeated nation. (British Museum)

Religious measures

[28-33] By his exalted word, all the kings who sit upon thrones throughout the world, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea [i.e., from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf], who live in the districts far-off, the kings of the West, who dwell in tents, all of them, brought their heavy tribute before me and in Babylon they kissed my feet. From Babylon to Aššur and from Susa, Agade, Ešnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e., in Babylon], to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings. In addition, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I settled in their habitations, in pleasing abodes, the gods of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon.

Cyrus' prayer

[34-36] May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily of Bêl and Nâbu that my days be long and may they intercede for my welfare. May they say to Marduk, my lord: "As for Cyrus, the king who reveres you, and Cambyses, his son, [lacuna]." The people of Babylon blessed my kingship, and I settled all the lands in peaceful abodes.


[37-44] I daily increased the number offerings to [...] geese, two ducks, and ten turledoves above the former offerings of geese, ducks, and turtledoves. [...] Dur-Imgur-Enlil, the great wall of Babylon, its de[fen]se, I sought to strengthen [...] The quay wall of brick, which a former king had bu[ilt, but had not com]pleted its construction, [...] who had not surrounded the city on the outside, which no former king had made, who a levy of workmen had led into of Babylon, [...] with bitumen and bricks, I built anew and completed their job. [...] magnificent gates I overlaid in copper, treshholds and pivots of cast bronze I fixed in their doorways. [...] An inscription with the name of Aššurbanipal, a king who had preceded me, I saw in its midst. [...] for eternity.


  • The latest edition is by Hanspeter Schaudig, Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros' des Großen (2001 Münster) (online here)
  • The translation is a modified version of Mordechai Cogan's, which was published in W.H. Hallo and K.L. Younger, The Context of Scripture. Vol. II: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (2003, Leiden and Boston), now adapted to Schaudig's edition with the help of Bert van der Spek. The headings are not authentic.
  • More literature can be found here.
Part six
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