Britain loans Iran the Cyrus Cylinder, 'world's first human rights charter'

The 2,500-year-old clay artefact has returned to the National Museum in Tehran after a months-long dispute over its loan to the Islamic republic

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The Cyrus Cylinder, a small but priceless chunk of ancient Persian clay bearing what is often described as the world's first human-rights charter, is due to go on display in Iran today for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The British Museum repeatedly delayed the loan, which followed months of delicate negotiations that were bedevilled by Tehran's worsening political relations with London over Iran's nuclear programme and other issues. For Iranians, the exhibit will be a rare chance to see the 2,500-year-old artefact, named after Cyrus the Great, one of their most cherished historical figures. Along with the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, the British Museum values the Cyrus Cylinder as one of its most culturally significant possessions. Many Iranians would love their treasure permanently repatriated.

But some Iranians have mixed feelings: they do not want their regime, lambasted at home and abroad for human-rights abuses, to exploit the cylinder for political propaganda, analysts said. Drewery Dyke, Amnesty International's Iran specialist in London, said: "The aspirations set out in the Cyrus Cylinder do not appear to resonate with the current leadership of Iran." Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, defending the loan, said: "Objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space and this object must be shared as widely as possible."

One of the museum's trustees subtly made clear that the loan was a gesture to the Iranian people, not the regime. "To present this particular temporary gift to the people of Iran at this particular time is an act of faith which will have profound meaning and value," Baroness Helena Kennedy, a human-rights lawyer, said in a statement. The British Museum has maintained a good working relationship with its counterparts in Iran despite tensions between Tehran and London. It insisted the loan was especially significant because of that friction.

"It is all the more important to maintain the cultural links which have been so carefully built up over a period of years and which could in themselves lead to a better relationship based on dialogue, tolerance and understanding," the museum said in a statement. The cylinder, a nine-inch piece of spindle-shaped terracotta, was written on the orders of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, after he conquered Babylon in 539BC and freed the Jews and other people held captive there.

The text, in Babylonian cuneiform lettering, enshrined the king's belief in the freedom of worship for different peoples in his empire and records his restoration of shrines dedicated to different gods. The cylinder was discovered in 1879 in the foundations of the main temple in Babylon, in today's Iraq. "You could almost say that the Cyrus Cylinder is a history of the Middle East in one object," said Mr MacGregor, who accompanied the artefact to Tehran. It will be displayed for four months at Iran's National Museum.

The cylinder was last lent to Iran in 1971, when the autocratic Shah adopted it as a symbol of his reign during celebrations to mark 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. The Shah, identifying himself closely with Cyrus the Great, hailed the cylinder as "the first human rights charter in history", ignoring the irony of abuses faced by those who attempted to assert their human rights under his rule. Those repressed after protesting at last year's disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president might see a similar irony today in the regime's keenness to display the artefact.

For a decade after the 1979 revolution, Iran's new rulers shunned their country's imperial past. But, like the Shah, Mr Ahmadinejad now embraces Cyrus the Great. The Iranian president hailed Cyrus as a liberator and human-rights hero in a speech in April. Iranian officials said the cylinder was first due to be loaned last September. They claimed the delay was politically motivated, arguing that the British Museum was reluctant to proceed because of the turmoil that followed Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election. The British Museum denied that, insisting the exhibit would proceed after unspecified "practicalities" were resolved.

It had agreed to the loan after it borrowed ancient treasures from its Iranian counterparts for a highly acclaimed exhibitions in London in 2005 and 2009 that were in part aimed at countering the perception of Iran as an enemy. "This is part of the reciprocity from which we in Britain have also benefited," Baroness Kennedy said. "Art and culture can sustain relationships between the people of different nations even when diplomacy is strained."

After the initial delay last year, the loan was due to proceed in January. But the British Museum postponed it at the 11th hour after the "remarkable" discovery of two small fragments of inscribed clay that cast new light on the Cyrus Cylinder. Suspicious that the find was another exercise in procrastination, Iran's Cultural Heritage Organisation cut ties with the British Museum in February. But the museum managed to smooth relations with Tehran by inviting Iranian scholars to study the fragments at a workshop in June. The two new pieces are being displayed for the first time alongside the Cyrus Cylinder at the Tehran exhibition.

Inscribed with excerpts from the same text as the cylinder, they proved that the ancient human rights charter "was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed across the Persian Empire," the British Museum said. Until the fragments' discovery, the cylinder was thought to be a one-off object, never replicated. The two pieces, slightly smaller than matchboxes, were found among the museum's collection of 130,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments from Mesopotamia that were acquired in the 19th century.

The size of that hoard, together with the limited number of scholars who can translate Babylonian cuneiform, explains why it took scholars so long to realise the immense significance of the two fragments.