The 2,600-year-old Cyrus Cylinder is embarking on a first US tour with a message of tolerance from Iran's past
The Cyrus Cylinder. Photograph: British Museum. Courtesy Guardian
Ian Black, Guardian
Thirty-plus years of mutual suspicion, demonization and hostility separate the United States from Iran, so it would be naive to hope for any sudden change — on the nuclear front or on any of the other thorny issues that divide Washington from Tehran. But an innovative exercise in cultural diplomacy might, just, make a small dent in the wall of prejudice.
Hopes rest on a rugby-ball sized object whose permanent home is in a glass case in the magnificent Iran gallery of the British Museum. It was there that a modest send-off ceremony was held the other day for the Cyrus Cylinder, heading off on a US tour to give American audiences a glimpse of an ancient civilization whose heritage is too often masked by contemporary clamour and aggression.
The cylinder, one of the most famous objects to have survived from the world of antiquity, is a clay tablet inscribed with Akkadian Cuneiform script. It was made shortly after the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great of Persia captured Babylon in 539BC and records how he allowed deported peoples to return to their homelands. In the words of the Iran Heritage Foundation:
"It tells how the god of Babylon – the conquered land – has chosen Cyrus to improve the lives of the Babylonians, and it talks about Cyrus's efforts in repatriating displaced people and restoring temples across Mesopotamia, letting them worship the god of their choice, not the god of the conqueror. It tells the story of letting people living their lives even after their country was conquered, something that was not heard of at the time."Strikingly — given the hateful nature of current Middle Eastern politics — those peoples included the Jews, who went back to Palestine to rebuild their Temple. Enthusiastic European reactions to the discovery of the cylinder in the bible-reading days of 1879 were influenced in part by the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Ezra, which portray Cyrus as a liberator of the Jewish exiles.
The hope, says the IHF, is that the exhibition — the cylinder and other objects — will appeal to the substantial community of expatriate Iranians living in the US (many of them refugees from the 1979 revolution) as well as to American Jews accustomed to the mutual hostility between the Islamic Republic and Israel, including outlandish Holocaust-denying statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The object is not itself Persian but Babylonian and was found in what is now Iraq by British Museum archaeologists, who acquired it from the Ottomans. It describes events from a Babylonian perspective and records Cyrus as having been guided by the Babylonian deity Marduk. It has however, become closely identified with Persia's pre-Islamic culture: when the British Museum loaned it to Iran in 2010 it was seen by 1m people in three months and there were briefly fears that it might not be returned to its Bloomsbury home.
The US tour will begin in the Smithsonian in Washington — in time for the Persian new year of Norouz - before going on to museums including the Metropolitan in New York and the J Paul Getty in Los Angeles.
Understanding of the artefact's historical and cultural significance has been enriched by the work of the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor, who emphasizes its message of respect for diversity, tolerance and universal human rights - the reason a replica is on display at UN headquarters in New York. As Karen Armstrong, the renowned historian of religion, put it at the send-off event:
"The chief task of our time is to build a global community where people of different persuasions can look at each other's sacred traditions and learn to co-exist."Other experts, however, have cautioned against too liberal and contemporary interpretation of a message from 2,600 years ago, recalling that the text is in essence a boastful proclamation by a conquering tyrant justifying his actions to posterity. In the words of theologian Jacob Wright:
"The values of tolerance that the Cyrus Cylinder has come to represent today must be held high. Yet in doing so, we must also heed the voices of those who opposed Persia's imperial reach. Otherwise, we lose sight of the danger posed by any power that would organize the world primarily for the purpose of greater control, exploitation and expansion."