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We’ve long known that travel is more than mere diversion or entertainment. But can it lead to historical and cultural discoveries, or even bridge bitter rifts?

A 2,600-year-old, 9in-long oblong-shaped piece of clay, which began a nine-month US tour on 9 March, is setting out to do just that. 

The ancient Cyrus Cylinder of Persia (modern-day Iran), on loan from London’s British Museum, is a historical symbol of tolerance and freedom that has long been described as the first declaration of human rights. It is inscribed with Babylonian cuneiform proclamations from King Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Empire (which covered a huge swath of western Asia from 550 BC to 330 BC) and one of Ancient Persia’s best-known leaders. The writings praise Cyrus, outline his peaceful capture of Babylon (an ancient city thought to be located in modern day Iraq) and describe the conquering king’s humane treatment of minorities in the city, including the Jews.

“I permitted all to dwell in peace,” reads the final line of the cylinder.

Scholars of ancient societies consider that one line to be evidence of religious freedom.

“Why this object is so important is because it’s probably the first time in human history that we have evidence of a ruler thinking about how you manage a society with people of different traditions, different languages, different ethnicities, and above all, different religions,” explained Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

As a remnant of the Persian Empire, the cylinder is a source of pride for Iranians around the world. Its US tour hopes to introduce Americans – whose exposure to Iran is largely limited to media coverage of nuclear talks, protests and angry political rhetoric – to the peaceful, tolerant aspects of Iranian culture and to help build bridges between the two countries.

Here’s where to see the Cyrus Cylinder on its five US stops:

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