Iran anxious after British Museum's 2,500-year-old find

Iran suspects London will delay return of ancient Cyrus cylinder after discovery of fragments that reveal more about old Persian text.

The "remarkable" discovery this month of two small fragments of inscribed clay at the British Museum will cast new light on a 2,500-year-old cylinder that bears the world's first charter of human rights. The finds, however, have aroused Iran's suspicion because it means the British Museum will again delay loaning the so-called Cyrus cylinder to Tehran while scholars in London study and decipher the discovery.

"We will cut off all our cultural relations with the museum if we realise later that the British Museum has been wasting time and seeking excuses to shrug off our requests," Hamid Baqaei, Iran's vice-president in charge of cultural heritage, warned this week. The Cyrus cylinder was written in BC539 on the orders of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, after he conquered Babylon and freed the Jews and other peoples held captive there, while ushering in religious freedom. Two small pieces of clay from a cuneiform tablet were discovered on January 5 to be inscribed with the same text as the nine-inch-long Cyrus cylinder, one of the British Museum's most celebrated possessions.

"Remarkably, the new pieces assist with the reading of passages in the cylinder that are either missing or obscure," the British Museum said in a statement. Despite rising political tensions between Tehran and London, the British Museum has worked hard to maintain good relations with its Iranian counterpart in recent years - and is now striving to smooth ruffled feathers in Tehran. It has invited Iranian scholars to help study the new pieces at an international workshop that the museum will host in June. "Thereafter, it is intended that the two new pieces should be exhibited for the first time in Tehran, together with the [Cyrus] cylinder itself," the British Museum said.

The decision to delay the cylinder's loan had been agreed with the Iranian cultural officials, it added. State media in Tehran, however, quoted an Iranian archaeologist insisting that the discovery of "new pieces of the cylinder is not a good excuse for postponing its exhibition in Iran". The British Museum agreed to lend the cylinder last year after its Tehran counterpart sent ancient treasures to London for a successful exhibition there - one of two in recent years that were in part aimed at countering the perception of Iran as a hostile country.

Tehran was furious when the British Museum, which has housed the cylinder since 1880, failed to send over the prized artefact last September. Iranian officials claimed London was holding back because of the upheaval following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election as president last June. The British Museum denied the postponement was linked to recent events. The treasure was then due to go on display at Tehran's National Museum last weekend.

The two new finds, slightly smaller than matchboxes, were discovered among the British Museum's vast 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 pieces.

Recognising that they belonged to the same text as the Cyrus cylinder was an "extraordinary achievement", the British Museum said. One of the pieces clarifies a passage that could not be read on the Cyrus cylinder. The other provides part of the missing text: a section of the cylinder was broken off before it was unearthed. The cylinder is an account by Cyrus the Great of his conquest of Babylon in BC539. It enshrined his belief in freedom of worship for the different peoples in his empire, which was the biggest known to the world at the time, stretching from Greek cities on the eastern side of the Aegean to the banks of the Indus River. The cylinder was discovered in 1879 in the foundations of the main temple in Babylon - in today's Iraq.