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A UBIQUITOUS MONUMENT

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Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How can people in a society void of freedom of speech have access to their own monuments?

Monuments are commonly used as a form of propaganda by governments and institutions worldwide. Many of these types of monuments do not necessarily share any meaningful values with collective memory or of the experiences of the people living among them. Through my project, A Ubiquitous Monument, I aim to give a platform for people to create monuments more reflective of their experiences and values Inspired by the earliest declaration of human rights – the Cyrus Cylinder – this project uses a website and AR app to create a platform for the oppressed to catalogue, share, and commemorate their collective experiences in a virtual monument with the hope of harnessing the trauma to create social change. The Cyrus Cylinder is the first declaration of human rights written by Cyrus II, 600 BCE.

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I seek to propose a bridge between two realities. With my project, I want to make a statement to inspire those who are suffering from injustice and encourage them to have hope.

Photo by British Museum 

What is The Cyrus Cylinder?

Cyrus II of Persia was the king of the Achaemenid empire in Iran.

After conquering Babylon, an old-age city located on the Euphrates river (now in present-day Iraq), many great traditions and treasures were passed down through his empire. In this era, Babylon was one of the most glorious cities, and its Hanging Gardens, for example, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This achievement is one of the few rare examples of political victory without military slaughter and attack. 

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In Babylon, it was a tradition that the king makes a cylinder with inscriptions to tell stories. Cyrus wanted to follow Nabonidus rules (the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire) and respect their culture; therefore, he made the Cyrus Cylinder. This artifact, in fact, is not a cylinder, rather it is a barrel-shaped form that is slightly swollen in the middle, made out of a pale-colored clay, and it is as big as a football.

It was buried in one of Babylon’s walls, not meant to be read by human eyes. It was written for gods and – equally important – the next kings who would want to rebuild the city.  It was made after Cyrus took over Babylon and was written in the Babylonian language (a Semitic language), telling the story of how he concurred Babylon. The text of the cylinder was translated by Irvine Finkel, curator of Cuneiform Collections at the British Museum. Some highlights of the translation:

The Tower of Babel, by Peter Bruegel the Elder

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“I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Marduk and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may their … […] […….].” The population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship, and I have enabled all the lands to live in peace. Every day I copiously supplied [… ge]ese, two ducks and ten pigeons more than the geese, ducks and pigeons […]. I sought out to strengthen the guard on the wall Imgur-Enlil, the great wall of Babylon, and […] the quay of baked brick on the bank of the moat which an earlier king had bu[ilt but not com]pleted, [I …] its work. [… which did not surround the city] outside, which no earlier king had built, his troops, the levee from his land, in/to Shuanna. […] with bitumen and baked brick I built a new, and completed its work. […] great [doors of cedarwood] with copper cladding. I installed all their doors, threshold slabs and door fittings with copper parts. […] I saw within it an inscription of Ashurbanipal, a king who preceded me, […] … […] … [… for] ever.”

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Hover over the image to read the translation

The Cyrus Cylinder is known to be the first declaration of human rights in a written form

In contrast, it is fascinating to me that after thousands of years, the same land that owns the first declaration of human rights has turned to have dictato-rs as their leaders with no recognition of freedom of speech and a minimum respect for human rights. This opposition inspired me, and I decided to use this cylinder as a source of motivation of my thesis project.

Why is the Cyrus Cylinder is significant?

The Cyrus Cylinder in the Old

Testament

The Cyrus Cylinder and its effect on Europe and America

Cyrus II let the Jews who were exiled in Babylon, go back to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. It is an essential story in the history of the Jewish people since return from exile, and the second temple reshaped Judaism.

The Jewish version of this story exists in the book of Chronicles, the book of Ezra, and in the Hebrew scriptures. These texts were written years later after the cylinder was created, but it was discovered many years after the Hebrew story had been disseminated, and so the cylinder become known as an archeological proof of a religious narative. The only difference between the content of the Jewish inscription and the cylinder text is the name of the god who put Cyrus in charge. The name is Jehovah for Jewish scripture and Marduk for Babylonian beliefs.

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Xenophon, the Greek historian in his book Cyropaedia that was written in 370 BCE, called Cyrus a great ruler and after that, Cyrus endured a role model for political leaders in the European society. Cyropaedia  was used as a textbook on how to make a diverse society work and it inspired the Founding Fathers of the American revolution.Thomas Jefferson admired Cyrus II, and his ideals influenced the models for a new state in the 18th century based on the norms of that time.

 

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A 16th century image of Cyrus II, Europe

Belshazzar's feast By Rembrandt. Showing a hand appears on the wall and writes: You are weighed in the balance and found wanting, and your kingdom is handed over to the Medes and to the Persians”.

The Forgery

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last king of Iran before the 1979 revolution, planned a big event in 1971 to celebrate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy. They called it “the greatest show on earth” and spent $100,000,000 on this event. 50 tents were set up inside the ruins of Persepolis. The Shah invited 69 heads of monarchy families around the world plus celebrities and served them gilded caviar, quail eggs with pheasant and high-quality wine.

Back then, Iranians were enraged by this splurge since ordinary people were struggling in poverty. Khomeini, who was the religious leader spending time in exile, criticized the Shah by saying: "The crimes committed by Iranian kings have blackened the pages of history books." In the meantime, the Shah was expounding the kindness of Cyrus and how he was a special man who “was the first to establish the freedom of opinion The Shah’s hope was that the world would consider the Cyrus cylinder as an "ancient declaration of human rights"; and he handed the UN a copy of the cuneiform document. After this public display, the United Nations secretary-general declared that Cyrus had "shown the wisdom to respect other civilizations," and the Cyrus Cylinder was even on display in the UN. 

 

It was later discovered that some of the translation that the Shah handed the UN was forged!

Klaus Gallas, Art historian, during the 2500-year ceremony, claimed that "The UN made a serious mistake.”

Here are some forged translations that the Shah made:

  • Cyrus even supported a minimum wage and right to asylum.

  • Slavery must be abolished throughout the world.

  • Every country shall decide for itself whether or not it wants my leadership.

 

In addition, there remains a controversy among historians about Cyrus's system of rules. Some believe that he started a 30-

year war that resulted in wasting a lot of tax money, and he tortured or killed anyone who did not want to pay taxes.

 

But was he, in fact, a violent ruler?

Was this cylinder propaganda in it is own time?

 Based on other Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and the Old Testaments, Cyrus II was a great ruler. But to the answer the second question I would like to mention this quote from Neil MacGregor:

 

 “…this is probably the first real press release by a victorious army that we have got, and it is written by very skilled PR consultants, so the hyperbole is not actually surprising…”

 

All in all, it is interesting that despite this forgery and a couple of fake sentences, the UN still counts the Cyrus cylinder as the first declaration of human rights in human history based on its real translation.

 

Why It Matters

  • Are dead bodies just numbers now?

  • What can we do in order to keep the memory of our victims and their stories alive?

  • In a society where there is no sign of freedom, how can people have their own monuments and hold on to the memories of their loved ones?

Iran is an example of a country that has many national monuments, but is still void of censorcensorcensorcensorcensor

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In my thesis, I seek to propose a bridge between these two realities. With my project, I want to make a statement to inspire those who are suffering from injustice and encourage them to have hope. ­­­

My experience:

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Iterative prototyping decision points

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The Cyrus Cylinder hologram

Custom 3D print model of the original Cyrus Cylinder 

In all these iterations, the connection of the project with the Cyrus Cylinder was not strong enough. Not all people are familiar with the Cyrus Cylinder. Therefore, thiese projects would not be meaningful for many audiences. I decided to change my approach in order to make a stronger connection with the Cyrus Cylinder and its history.

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A ubiquitous monument

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The new cylinder is entirely interactive. Users can choose a random button and assign an event to it. The assigned buttons change color, and by hovering the mouse over them, users can read about its event. There are four colors in general, and each of them is a symbol of:

  • Freedom of speech

  • Freedom of the press

  • Freedom of religion

  • Freedom of access

Therefore, it is easy to navigate all the events that belong to one category. The cylinder has a 3D form and, using Three.js, can rotate 360 degrees on a webpage.

Using AR technology through the app, it is also possible to experience the cylinder in our daily environment. The user can scale up and down, zoom in and out to walk around this ubiquitous monument in their homes, streets, personal spaces.

Early website prototype using Adobe After Effects:

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Final website:

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AR:

Envisioning Future

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Using a website as a platform has its own flaws. For example, there could be trolls adding fake events or wrong information. To prevent that, I am thinking about including a report section where an event would be taken down if users report it as inappropriate. 

There is also a high chance that the authorities would block the website, and in that case, users have to use a VPN.

 

This monument is made out of a collective effort from all people around the world. In the future iteration, I can make different ubiquitous monuments for each part of the world, or I can give users a choice to make their personal monuments based on their family history like a commemorative heirloom.

Resources:

  1. Curtic, John, The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning for the Middle East.

  2. Finkel, Irving, The Cyrus Cylinder: The King of Persia’s Proclamation from Ancient Babylon.

  3. Foxvog, Daniel A., A publication for Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative,  https://cdli.ucla.edu/projects/royal/royal.html

  4. Hayden, Dolores , The power of place Claiming urban landscapes as people's history, Yale University.

  5. Jaar, Alfredo , Geometric of Conscience, 2010.

  6. Lewis, Sarah, The Future Perfect: Race and Monuments in the United States, Harvard GSD YouTube channel.

  7. Lefebvre, Henri, The production of space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith.

  8. MacGregor, Neil, Ted Talk, 2600 years of history in one object.

  9. Nishi, Tatzu, Discovering Columbus, 2012.

  10. Schulz, Matthias, US Treasure Honors Persian Despot,  Spiegel Article,  https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/falling-for-ancient-propaganda-un-treasure-honors-persian-despot-a-566027.html

  11. The British Museum, https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=327188&partId=1

  12. Wodiczko, Krzysztof , Lincoln memorial project, 2020.

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