The Cyrus Cylinder at the Getty Villa: Why families should see it now

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Driving my children home from school recently, I spotted a street banner for the Getty Villa’s new exhibition Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning. I pointed to the banner and said, “I’m going to see it tomorrow!” To this, my 9 yr old replied; “Why is it so important? It’s just a piece of stone shaped like a cylinder.”

The key to the Cyrus Cylinder’s (photo below) significance lies not so much in the beauty of the object itself, but in the story it tells. And what a story it is, I told my children after visiting the exhibition.

The Cyrus Cylinder at Getty Villa

The Cyrus Cylinder’s inscriptions tell the story of Persian king Cyrus’ historic march into Babylon in 539 B.C. With this conquest, he became the ruler of the Persian Empire, the most expansive empire ever known at the time.  The inscriptions also describe how Cyrus used his newfound power to end oppression brought about by the previous ruler.

Cyrus allowed exiled people to return to their homes in and around Babylon, and restored religious traditions and sanctuaries. That’s why the Cyrus Cylinder is often referred to as the first “bill of human rights,” and why it is one of the most revered discoveries from the ancient world, especially among Iranian and Jewish communities.

What to See: In addition to the Cyrus Cylinder, there are many related historical artifacts and luxury items on display including gold jewelry, vessels, and carved seals. Here are some highlights from my visit, as well as some from my friend Bita’s visit with her family.

Cyrus Cylinder: The Cyrus Cylinder is the first object you’ll see as you enter the exhibition. Bita’s 9 year-old son, Kian, was intrigued by the tiny script covering the Cylinder’s surface known as Cuneiform — one of the earliest known forms of writing. Bita remembers seeing similar markings on ancient ruins in Hamedan, one of Iran’s oldest cities and the place where her parents were born. But for her son Kian, the writing was completely unfamiliar. He couldn’t help but wonder, “How did they do that?”

Photo of exhibition video on Cuneiform Writing

Writing Cuneiform: I wondered the same thing, and was happy to discover a video demonstrating how Cuneiform symbols were written on the cylinder (photo from video above). Ancient scribes used a tool similar to a chopstick to skillfully, and painstakingly, stamp the symbols on to the cylinder’s wet clay surface. It’s hard to imagine such patience in our fast-paced world of instant text messaging and emails.

Armlet with Griffins on display at the Getty Villa

Gold Armlet: The gold armlet in the second gallery is one of the most stunning objects on display (photo above and below). Originally, the finely crafted griffins were embellished with brilliantly colored materials like gems and enamel. Scholars believe the armlet was used for ritual purposes, rather than for fashion’s sake.

Close-up of Armlet with Griffins from the British Museum

School Enrichment Ideas: If you have a middle school-age child, this exhibition ties in beautifully with LAUSD’s 6th grade curriculum “Ancient Civilizations.” The Villa’s incredible Egyptian mummy portraits (photo below) compliment the curriculum as well. Kian and his older Mateen loved seeing the portraits and learning all about the mummification process.

Getty Museum Mummy Portrait of a Woman

Plan Your Visit: The Cyrus Cylinder is on loan from the British Museum and will be on view at the Getty through December 8, 2013.  It’s a very popular exhibition so try to see it during off-hours. The Villa has special late Saturday hours until 9:00 pm through the run of the exhibition. Advance timed reservations required.


Image Credits:
1. The Cyrus Cylinder, Achaemenid, after 539 B.C. Terracotta. The British Museum. Photo courtesy of Getty Museum.
2. Still shot from Writing Cuneiform video by the British Museum. Photo by Museum Stories © 2013
3. Armlet with Griffins, Achaemenid, 500-300 B.C. Gold. The British Museum. Photo by Museum Stories © 2013.
4. Close-up of Armlet with Griffins, Achaemenid, 500-300 B.C. Gold. The British Museum. Photo courtesy of and © The Trustees of the British Museum (2013)
5. Mummy Portrait of a Woman, attributed to Isidora Master, Romano-Egyptian, about A.D. 100-110. Photo courtesy of Getty Museum.


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