Friday, 10 September 2010

British Museum to Lend Iran the Cyrus Cylinder for Four Months

Farah Nayeri, British Museum to Lend Iran the Cyrus Cylinder for Four Months, Bloomberg Sep 10, 2010.
The British Museum has agreed to lend the ancient artefact known as the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran for a period of four months, which will allow it to be featured in an exhibition opening September 12. The loan reciprocates those made by Iran's national museum to the successful Forgotten Empire and Shah Abbas exhibitions at the British Museum. The Cylinder dates to the reign of Cyrus the Great (539-530 B.C.) and is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with a text that has been described as the world’s earliest charter of human rights. A replica is kept at UN headquarters in New York City.

In a British Museum press release Neil MacGregor, director of the BM says:
“You could almost say that the Cyrus Cylinder is a history of the Middle East in one object, [...] “Objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space, and this object must be shared as widely as possible”. It was not an easy decision for the British Museum to lend one of its most treasured artefacts to a country which has a prickly relationship with the UK. Relations between London and Tehran have been strained to breaking point with the expulsion of British Council staff from Iran, the launch of the BBC Persian TV channel, and the violent and repressive aftermath of last summer's disputed presidential election. A museum spokesperson says: "This [loan] is part of our ongoing relationship with the National Museum of Iran which both institutions value as a cultural dialogue independent of political difficulties".

The Cylinder has been at the core of a dispute with Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organization, which cut ties with the museum in February for delaying the loan. The British Museum originally promised to loan the Cylinder to Iran after its 2005-6 exhibition, “Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia.” In October 2009, following widespread protests in June 2009 against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the museum said that it was monitoring the Iranian political situation to make sure the loan was made in the best possible circumstances. The loan was further delayed in January 2010 when the British Museum said it discovered, in its own collections, inscriptions similar to the Cylinder’s on two pieces of cuneiform tablets from Babylonia.

The Cyrus Cylinder was excavated in Babylon, Iraq in 1879. It arrived there after Cyrus (king of Persia from 559-530 BC) had conquered Babylon (539 BC) and deposed and imprisoned the last Babylonian king Nabonidus. This cylinder, written in Babylonian cuneiform, was a piece of propaganda in favour of the new ruler, praising Cyrus's kingly virtues, listing his genealogy as a king from a line of kings, describes how he had restored shrines dedicated to different gods and repatriated deported peoples who had been brought to Babylon. (It was this that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem after their expulsion by Nebuchadnezzar II and rebuild their temple.)

The cylinder had been loaned to Iran before when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi arranged to borrow it in 1971 for the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the monarchy at Persepolis. The cylinder is due back in Bloomsbury in January.

(updated using Ian Black and Saeed Kamali Dehghan's alarmist text: Iran lays claim to British Museum's Cyrus Cylinder)

Photo: The 'Cyrus Cylinder').

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