Wednesday, June 19, 2013

‘Cyrus Cylinder at the Met’

As reported a number of months ago in The Journal of The Masonic Society, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will exhibit the ancient “Cyrus Cylinder,” on loan from The British Museum for a tour of the United States with other artifacts of ancient Persia, beginning tomorrow.

From June 20 through August 4, The Met will show The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire. New York City is the third stop on the tour; the artifacts will go to San Francisco in August and Los Angeles in October before being brought back to Britain.

Courtesy The British Museum
The Cyrus Cylinder, the clay cuneiform artifact excavated in Iraq in 1879, dates to the reign of King Cyrus the Great in the Sixth Century BCE. The text includes the royal decree that allowed deported peoples to return to their homelands.

The Cyrus Cylinder often is called “the first charter of human rights,” to lend it a meaning that we in 2013 can appreciate comfortably. (It’s similar to how the First Charge of Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, which calls on Freemasons “to obey the moral Law” and to keep their religious opinions to themselves, is believed by many Masons today to represent the dawn of an ecumenical—or even multicultural—Freemasonry, when its reality was the far more practical goal of facilitating friendships among brethren of the various Christian denominations in 1720s London.) Scholars of the ancient Near East today recognize that rulers in that time and place began their reigns with proclamations and edicts to set a tone, and Cyrus continued a governing tradition we now know was more than a thousand years old.

And this is where Freemasonry ought to show its interest. Cyrus and his edict figure dramatically in the High Degrees of the Scottish and York rites of Freemasonry, and elsewhere, such as the Irish degrees of Knight Masonry. Different Masonic ritual tellings of the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, loosely based on verses of the Hebrew Bible, explain how Zerubbabel was permitted to lead his people out of the Babylonian Captivity to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and continue life in freedom, as decreed by Cyrus. Again, reality showers some cold water on Masonry’s romantic tales; Jews were not mentioned with any specificity by King Cyrus, who actually had established a general religious freedom to benefit a number of peoples who had lived in captivity in the empire.

Regardless, you Scottish Rite and York Rite Masons should charter some buses and visit The Met this summer. The Cylinder and the other pieces in this exhibit lack the fantastic resplendence of, say, the Tutankhamun dig (also exhibited by The Met, 35 years ago), but what will open tomorrow unquestionably possesses the greater spiritual and philosophical heft.

Additional programming is scheduled for June 20, June 25, June 28, and July 11.

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