The Iranian American community of Los Angeles is buzzing with excitement over the reveal of a symbolic monument, the Freedom Sculpture. Organized by the Farhang Foundation and crowdfunded by over one million people, the Freedom Sculpture will stand at the intersection of Santa Monica Blvd and Century Park East, at the gateway to Beverly Hills. Intended by the Farhang Foundation to be the “Statue of Liberty of the West Coast,” this sculpture gifted by the Iranian American community to the City of Los Angeles manifests the Iranian American dedication to diversity, inclusivity and respect for cultural differences.
The Cyrus Cylinder demonstrates the oldest edict by a single ruler to allow for religious freedom, indicating that his subjects are able to worship the God of their choice.
Los Angeles is home to the largest Iranian American diaspora, with over 500,000 Iranian American residents. Given Iran’s great diversity, the Iranian American diaspora is likewise heterogeneous, with Iranian Americans who are Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews, Baha’is, Christians, Armenians, Azeris, Kurds, Assyrians, among many more. The diversity of the Iranian American community is paralleled by the diversity present in Los Angeles, widely considered one of the most diverse cities in the world. Hence, the Farhang Foundation has chosen Los Angeles as the home for this Freedom Sculpture.
The Freedom Sculpture is an art piece, designed by artist Cecil Balmond, inspired by a historic artifact – the Cyrus Cylinder. The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, dating back to 539 BCE, in which the Persian Achaemenid king, Cyrus the Great, dictated unprecedented political principles. “The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most important works to have survived from the ancient world,” said J. Paul Getty Museum director Timothy Potts in a 2013 statement. “More than any other object from the ancient world, this declaration by King Cyrus of the return of displaced peoples in and around Babylonia to their settlements has a continuing relevance to the peoples of the Middle East and indeed throughout the world.”
After the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE, Babylon became a colony of the Achaemenid Empire. The cylinder’s text shows how King Cyrus allowed the Jewish exiles in Babylon, who had been previously uprooted and displaced by prior kings, to return back to their homes in Judah, modern day Palestine/Israel.
The Cyrus Cylinder demonstrates the oldest edict by a single ruler to allow for religious freedom, indicating that his subjects are able to worship the God of their choice. It also shows how over 2,500 years ago, the Achaemenid Empire, the largest empire the world had seen, ensured that the state supported and respected religious diversity among its colonies. This unwavering dedication to religious freedom, as a Persian Zoroastrian king facilitated the return of colonized Jews, demonstrates the ancient Persian kingdom’s progressivism, humanity and virtuous rule.
For this, the Cyrus Cylinder has come to symbolize a wide range of values for the Iranian, Iranian American, as well as the global community. The Cylinder is championed as the first human rights charter in the history of the world and even the predecessor to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A replica of the cylinder resides in the United Nations building in New York City, as a symbol of transnational and transhistorical dedication to universal human rights.
During the late 1960s, the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, reintroduced the story of King Cyrus the Great and the Cyrus Cylinder to revitalize nationalist sentiment. Commemorating 1971 as the year of celebration of 2,500 years of Persian kingdoms, the Shah held an extravagant, lavish, almost ostentatious, celebration. With 1971 considered the year of Cyrus the Great, the Shah aligned his own monarchy with that of Cyrus the Great, using the Cyrus Cylinder as the symbol of the commemoration. The Cylinder came to be associated with the Shah of Iran and the historic Persian monarchy.
Currently, the actual Cyrus Cylinder is in the hands of the British government, dispossessing the Iranian people of their right to cherish and celebrate their ancient cultural artifacts. For the Iranian community, this Cylinder, considered by world leaders, the United Nations, and the Iranian people to be the first manifest declaration of tolerance and freedoms, is in the hands of a colonial power as opposed to the descendants of the peoples who created it. The artifact has traveled outside of Britain, ironically, “on loan”, so that Iranians and Iranian Americans are afforded a chance to glimpse at their own history. While on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2013, the Cylinder became the most visited exhibition the Getty had seen – prompting the Farhang Foundation to construct this Freedom Sculpture.
A modern rendition of the 2,500-year-old artifact, the Freedom Sculpture will be made up of two stainless steel concentric cylinders. The two rings, the outer one being silver around an inner ring of gold, are designed to be viewed by moving traffic. Located at one of the busiest intersections of Los Angeles, with up to 100,000 cars passing per day, the Freedom Sculpture is modeled to give the illusion of movement from all directions – symbolizing the transhistorical messages found on the Cyrus Cylinder and their applicability to the modern period. Having raised over $2.2 million dollars from over 1,000,000 people from over 50 different countries, this Freedom Sculpture is the most widely crowdfunded monument ever gifted in United States history.
The sculpture itself will be unveiled on July 4th along with a free celebration featuring prominent Iranian performers, Ebi, Arash, and Max Amini. A public ceremony to officially gift the sculpture to the city of Los Angeles will take place at the intersection of Santa Monica Blvd. and Century Park East, with food, dance, entertainment, and fireworks in the evening. Admission is free and open to all, to celebrate the diversity of Los Angeles alongside the historic significance of the Cyrus Cylinder.
The Farhang Foundation’s intention behind revealing the sculpture on Independence Day is to align the Iranian American community with the larger American community, celebrating the values symbolized by the Cyrus Cylinder as universal human values. In addition, the Farhang Foundation seeks to demonstrate how the values enshrined in the Cyrus Cylinder thousands of years ago are in fact the exact values which have come to influence the foundation of the United States: namely, religious freedom. By unveiling the Freedom Sculpture on Independence Day, the Farhang Foundation seeks to create a parallel between Iranian values and American values, while showcasing the need for diversity and respect for cultural differences.
Given the current political turmoil enacted under Donald Trump, the Iranian American community stands in a precarious political position, seeking on one hand to appeal to the American value system while also acknowledging the realities of being Iranian in America. Many Iranian Americans have been directly affected by the Muslim Ban – a move that curtails mobility across borders and instills fear in the broader Muslim community. However, this Freedom Sculpture emerges at a time of immense political tension as a token of hope and community. The Freedom Sculpture is meant to stand in the heart of West Los Angeles, as a public recognition of diversity, humanity and respect for cultural differences donated by the Iranian American community to the City of Los Angeles.
It is with great honor and pride that Iranian Americans dedicate this sculpture to the City of Los Angeles, to commemorate the values of religious freedom and respect for cultural differences in a political moment where these values are being eclipsed. With the unveiling of the Freedom Sculpture, the Iranian American community hopes to incite curiosity in other cultures, a desire to learn from one another, and a wish to build stronger communities which will resist any future attempts at rescinding its rights.
Top Image: Rendering of the Freedom Sculpture | Courtesy of Farhang Foundation