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By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON, March 7 (Reuters) - The Cyrus Cylinder of ancient Persia, a landmark in religious freedom and a potent symbol of Iranian national identity, will begin its first U.S. tour with an exhibit that opens Saturday in Washington.
The barrel-shaped clay artifact, 2,500 years old and only 9 inches (23 cm) long, has been described as the first declaration of human rights and an influence on leaders from Alexander the Great to Thomas Jefferson.
It has been celebrated by the shah of Iran and that country's post-revolutionary leaders, as well as by the ancient Hebrews and the founders of modern Israel.
"The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia" exhibit, opening at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, "is about understanding the way Iranians see themselves in the world, and that's obviously important at the moment," said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which loaned the piece.
The artifact bears inscriptions proclaiming the victory of Persian ruler Cyrus over Babylon in the sixth century B.C. It records the Persian emperor's restoration of shrines dedicated to different gods and his intention to allow freedom of worship to people displaced by defeated ruler Nabonidus.
Such declarations of religious tolerance were not uncommon at the time, but Cyrus' was unique in its nature and scope.
"The cylinder has acquired a special resonance, and is valued by people all around the world as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and different faiths," the British Museum says on its website.
More than a million people flocked to see the cylinder when the museum lent it to Iran in 2010, in one of the most-viewed exhibits in the country's history.
Cyrus' proclamation was written in spiky Babylonian cuneiform on the soft clay cylinder, which was buried in Babylon, now in modern-day Iraq. It was dug up in 1879 and has since been in the British Museum.
The exhibit runs through April 28 at the Sackler, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, then travels to Houston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Cyrus' declarations of tolerance, justice and religious freedom inspired philosophers and policymakers for centuries.
Scholars say it shows that Cyrus allowed displaced Jews to return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon and to rebuild the Temple.
In the fourth century B.C., the Greek historian and soldier Xenophon wrote "Cyropedia," a text that portrays Cyrus as the ideal ruler and that greatly influenced Alexander the Great.
Xenophon's portrayal also carried weight with Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers. Thomas Jefferson owned two copies of the cylinder and it influenced his writing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
The United Nations building in New York also has a copy.
The shah of Iran used Cyrus and the Cylinder, which he called a "charter of human rights," to bolster his prestige before he was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"This is a great statement about how a society thought about running itself. And to that extent it's like the Magna Carta," MacGregor told Reuters.
Julian Raby, the Sackler's director, said the show was small in terms of numbers of objects but had a big potential impact.
"We're at a very, very tough moment in terms of how we view Iran and how we view Israeli-Iranian relationships. Anything that gets us to reflect on these things is, I think, a good thing," he said.
The Sackler show includes lectures, other artifacts, a workshop on how to tweet in cuneiform, concerts and a showing of the 1916 silent film "Intolerance," directed by D.W. Griffith. (Editing by Doina Chiacu)