When Cyrus, "the king of the universe," issued his famous proclamation inscribed on the Cyrus Cylinder after capturing Babylon in 539 B.C.E., he described a policy that allowed for the return of foreign statues to their native shrines together with a policy allowing deported peoples to return to their own native homelands. Here, Cyrus implicitly confirmed the biblical description of deportees as those who were settled in their own communities. His decree acknowledged the Babylonian practice of identifying foreign groups according to their ethnic identities. "Freedom" for Cyrus meant that foreign population groups, who dwelt on Babylonian lands, were no longer subject to the restrictions of dependent status, and were free, if they wished, to return to their homelands. Repatriation for the Judeans meant that exiles could return to Jerusalem to begin the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of their land.
Toward the end of the first century A.D. Jerusalem lay in ruins, the second temple built by Herod the Great (74/73–4 B.C.) destroyed and ransacked by the Roman army. Meanwhile, in Babylon, scribes continued to copy ancient texts, inscribing some of them on cuneiform tablets made of clay. After the last cuneiform scribe passed to his fate, no one remained who could read or write documents in Babylonian, Assyrian, or Sumerian. In 1893, pioneer archaeologists and explorers digging in Iraq began to uncover vast archives of cuneiform tablets that had been buried for two thousand years. Today, philologists, archaeologists, and historians are able to combine narratives previously known only from the Bible with information gleaned from thousands of historic, literary, religious, and scientific texts, illuminating the world of Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib, and Cyrus. The Cyrus Cylinder, now on view at the Met, helps us understand the peoples and policies of the ancient Near East.