February 7, 2010

British Museum battles with Iran over Cyrus Cylinder

Posted at 5:05 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

The British Museum’s arguments with Iran continue, as they try to justify their position in continually delaying the proposed reciprocal loan of the Cyrus Cylinder. What is more interesting is that the British Museum clings on to these artefacts proclaiming how important they are, but then it is not included on the list of the 100 most important artefacts in the Museum.

The Guardian

British Museum in battle with Iran over ancient ‘charter of rights’
Tehran alleges time-wasting as curator trawls through thousands of cuneiform clay fragments for Cyrus the Great’s legacy
John Wilson – The Observer, Sunday 24 January 2010

The discovery of fragments of ancient cuneiform tablets – hidden in a British Museum storeroom since 1881 – has sparked a diplomatic row between the UK and Iran. In dispute is a proposed loan of the Cyrus cylinder, one of the most important objects in the museum’s collection, and regarded by some historians as the world’s first human rights charter.

The Iranian government has threatened to “sever all cultural relations” with Britain unless the artefact is sent to Tehran immediately. Museum director Neil MacGregor has been accused by an Iranian vice-president of “wasting time” and “making excuses” not to make the loan of the 2,500-year-old clay object, as was agreed last year.

The museum says that two newly discovered clay fragments hold the key to an important new understanding of the cylinder and need to be studied in London for at least six months.

The pieces of clay, inscribed in the world’s oldest written language, look like “nothing more than dog biscuits”, says MacGregor. Since being discovered at the end of last year, they have revealed verbatim copies of the proclamation made by Persian king Cyrus the Great, as recorded on the cylinder. The artefact itself was broken when it was excavated from the remains of Babylon in 1879. Curators say the new fragments are the missing pieces of an ancient jigsaw puzzle.

Irving Finkel, curator in the museum’s ancient near east department, said he “nearly had a coronary” when he realised what he had in his hands. “We always thought the Cyrus cylinder was unique,” he said. “No one had even imagined that copies of the text might have been made, let alone that bits of it have been here all along.”

Finkel must now trawl through 130,000 objects, housed in hundreds of floor-to ceiling shelving units. His task is to locate other fragments inscribed with Cyrus’s words. The aim is to complete the missing sections of one of history’s most important political documents.

The Iranians have been planning to host a major exhibition of the Cyrus cylinder ever since MacGregor signed a loan agreement in Tehran in January 2009. I was in Iran with the museum director, reporting for BBC Radio 4 on his mission of cultural diplomacy.

Six months before pro-democracy protests were met with violence in the wake of the presidential election, tea and sweet pastries were offered to the British guests at the Iranian cultural heritage ministry. MacGregor was there to meet Hamid Baqaei, a vice-president and close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their friendly discussion was a significant diplomatic breakthrough at a time when tensions between Britain and Iran had been strained to breaking point after the expulsion of British Council representatives from Tehran. The recent launch of the BBC Persian television service had also been interpreted as a provocation by London.

With even the British ambassador in Tehran struggling to maintain a dialogue, MacGregor was the sole conduit of bilateral exchange in January 2009. The sight of a miniature union flag standing alongside the Iranian flag on the table between the British Museum boss and his Iranian counterparts boded well for an amicable meeting. In previous weeks, the only British flags seen in public in Tehran were those being burned on the streets outside the embassy.

MacGregor’s objective was to secure the loan of treasures from Iranian palaces, mosques and museums for the museum’s exhibition on the life and times of 16th-century ruler Shah Abbas. Discussions over the loan of treasures relating to one great Persian leader prompted the suggestion that another – Cyrus – could play a part in a reciprocal deal.

MacGregor may have been put on the spot by Baqaei, but he agreed to a three-month loan by the end of 2009. A year later, Baqaei’s tone towards MacGregor is not so friendly. Quoted by the Fars news agency in Iran, he accused the museum of “acting politically”. Further “British procrastination” would result in a “serious response” from Iran.

The Cyrus cylinder remains a compelling political tract more than two and half millennia after its creation. Accepting her Nobel peace prize in 2003, the Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi cited Cyrus as a leader who “guaranteed freedoms for all”. She hailed his charter as “one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights”.

In 2006, the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw contrasted the freeing of Jewish slaves by Cyrus with Ahmadinejad’s “sickening calls for Israel to be wiped from the face of the map”.

David Miliband, the current foreign secretary, has yet to reflect on the contemporary resonance of Cyrus in a country in which human rights have been violently curtailed of late. But a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: “It is a shame that the British Museum has felt compelled to make this decision.” She added that “we share the British Museum’s concern that this would not be a good time for the cylinder to come to Iran” owing to the “unsettled” situation in the country.

Last week MacGregor presided over a launch, at the British Museum, of the History of the World in 100 Objects, his collaborative project with the BBC. The director is presenting a 100-part series on Radio 4, in which the story of mankind is told through individual artefacts. The Cyrus cylinder was considered for inclusion, but did not make the final hundred.

Some guests at the launch, when told how the discovery of the new fragments had delayed the loan of the Cyrus cylinder, were suspicious. “Fancy that, what a stroke of luck,” said one. “That gets Neil out of a jam for now.”

The director himself says he is determined that the cylinder will eventually be lent to Tehran, along with the newly discovered fragments, to tell a better story about Cyrus. He says he can understand the frustration and anger in Tehran, but it will be worth their wait.

They may well be getting more than they bargained for. To the Ahmadinejad regime, the cylinder is an iconic object, one that fuels collective pride in national heritage. But to those who are fighting for freedom of expression in Iran in the face of violence, the return of Cyrus could offer a potent new rallying point.

The National (Abu Dhabi)

UK ministers warn Tehran of ’embarrassing’ retaliation
David Sapsted, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: January 24. 2010 11:21PM UAE / January 24. 2010 7:21PM GMT

LONDON // British ministers were playing a wait-and-see game yesterday as Iran pondered downgrading diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The worsening of the already sour bilateral ties could owe as much to a row over ancient artefacts as it has to do with sanctions and the UK’s alleged role in fomenting civil unrest.

Officials at the foreign office in London have been monitoring the threat since Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, said last week that relations between the two countries were being “reconsidered”.

The UK government is declining to comment on the reports but in a message posted on its website, the embassy in Tehran said: “We are working to foster links between the Iranian people and the British people. There is much potential for educational, scientific, sporting and cultural exchanges.

“However, the UK and many other countries have serious concerns about the Iranian government’s behaviour: its nuclear ambitions, support for terrorism and promotion of instability in its region, as well as its continued denial of the rights to which its own people aspire.

“Ultimately, the decision lies with Iran’s leaders. We hope they will choose to work with the international community to give Iranian people the future they deserve, and not choose a path of continued confrontation and isolation.”

A senior diplomat in London said yesterday: “If Tehran did decide to downgrade ties, the British would be bound to retaliate and reduce the level of Iranian representation here.

“That would probably suit the Iranians fine. But worse news for them could come if other EU states back the UK and begin taking similar action of their own. The whole thing could escalate dramatically.

“Not only could that influence the attitude of both Moscow and Beijing towards Tehran, but it could also be highly embarrassing to the Tehran regime if diplomats ordered to return to Iran simply refused to go back and, instead, sought asylum in their host countries – and that could happen.”

The Iranian government seems to have been particularly annoyed by Britain’s backing for new financial sanctions against the regime.

“We believe that financial sanctions have an important role to play in exerting pressure at the appropriate points in the regime and not affecting the Iranian people,” David Miliband, the UK foreign secretary, said last week.

Beyond the questions of sanctions, Iran’s nuclear programme and the West’s supposed support of unrest on the streets, there is a much smaller affair that is causing fresh tremors in relations between London and Tehran. It centres, almost absurdly, on two small pieces of clay found in a drawer at the British Museum in London.

This month, the Cyrus cylinder – a document inscribed in clay about the Persian king Cyrus the Great, which has a monumental status in Iran – was meant to have been sent by the museum to the National Museum in Tehran on loan.

Officials in London agreed to loan the precious artefact, dating back to the sixth century BC, under a cultural exchange programme that last year had seen Iranian museums lend their London counterparts several major works for an exhibition on Shah Abbas.

The discovery of the two clay pieces, which contain hieroglyphics that could provide the key to finally deciphering the Cyrus cylinder, has forced the British Museum to decide to delay sending it to Iran for several months.

The decision enraged the Iranians. Hamid Baqaei, Iran’s vice president and head of the country’s cultural heritage organisation, told the Fars news agency: “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.”

The dispute, though seemingly minor, almost certainly represents one of the “10-12 working fields” that Mr Mottaki referred to last week, adding: “We are currently reviewing each area.”

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