January 25, 2010

Cyrus Cylinder discovery delays loan to Iran

Posted at 1:58 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

More coverage of the discovery of new fragments of the Cyrus Cylinder & the delays that it is causing to the proposed loan of the artefact to Iran.

The Art Newspaper

Major discovery delays Cyrus Cylinder loan to Iran
British Museum says the finding of related texts is “very significant” but Iranian cultural heritage head threatening to cut cultural ties to the UK
By Martin Bailey | Published online 20 Jan 10

The British Museum’s (BM) loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran has been delayed, because of a major discovery in London. Part of Cyrus the Great’s text has been found on two fragments of inscribed clay tablets.

The first fragment was identified on 31 December by Wilfred Lambert, a retired professor from Birmingham University, who was going through some of the 130,000 tablets at the museum. Although it had been seen by earlier scholars, no one had linked the text to the Cyrus Cylinder.

BM curator Irving Finkel later found a second fragment which had once been part of the same tablet. Both fragments (slightly smaller than matchboxes) had been excavated by a BM team in 1879 at Dailem, south of Babylon, in what was then the Ottoman Empire (and now Iraq). Two years later the fragments were accessioned into the BM’s collection.

One of the tablets clarifies a passage which could not be properly read on the Cyrus Cylinder. The other supplies part of the missing text (since a section of the cylinder was broken off before it was excavated).

The BM’s Middle East keeper John Curtis describes the find as “very significant”, since the text was not just used in a cylindrical form as a buried object. The cylinder had apparently been buried in 539 BC in the foundations of the walls of Babylon. It is now clear that the text was also inscribed onto tablets and may well have been distributed throughout the Persian empire, representing a proclamation.

The Cyrus Cylinder has been regarded by some modern scholars as the world’s first declaration of human rights. The discovery of the tablet fragments adds to the evidence that it was indeed such a proclamation. It also appears to back up the theory that the Hebrew Biblical Book of Ezra drew upon the Cyrus text in its account of events.

The Cyrus Cylinder, one of the British Museum’s greatest treasures, was due to have been sent on loan to Tehran’s National Museum on 16 January, but this has now been delayed by the discovery. This was agreed with Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organization.

However, the delay has angered Iranian vice president and cultural heritage head Hamid Baqaei. He is threatening to “cut our cultural relations with Britain”, if it appears that the discovery is being used as an excuse not to extend the loan. Baqaei also said he might ask Unesco to take measures against the BM.

The BM now plans to hold an international workshop to discuss the discovery with Iranian scholars, probably in June. There is also a hope that it may be possible to identify further fragments of the Cyrus tablet, which are written by a scribe with a very distinctive hand. The best chance of finding more fragments would be at the BM, but they could be in museums in Turkey, Iraq, Europe or North America.

Following the London workshop, the BM intends to lend both the Cyrus Cylinder and the newly discovered tablet fragments to Tehran later in the year.

Financial Times

Museum row threatens Iran links
By Peter Aspden in London and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

Published: January 21 2010 02:00 | Last updated: January 21 2010 02:00

The Iranian government has threatened to sever cultural relations with the British Museum in a dispute over a prized clay artefact that echoes the recent souring of diplomatic ties between Tehran and London.

The threat will come as an embarrassment to Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, who has made strenuous efforts to establish cultural links with Iranian scholars at a time of rising political tensions. On Tuesday, the Iranian foreign ministry threatened to downgrade ties with the UK over what it sees as British and US attempts to stoke post-election unrest.

The row has been provoked by the discovery of two small fragments of inscribed clay in a drawer at the museum. The pieces of tablet have been hailed as an important find because they offer vital clues to the meaning of the Cyrus Cylinder, a document by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, inscribed in clay, that has iconic status in Iran and is one of the museum’s most treasured possessions.

The museum had agreed to lend the cylinder to Iran after it borrowed several key works from Iranian museums for its acclaimed exhibition on Shah Abbas, the Iranian emperor, last year.

Despite fears over political instability inside Iran, the loan was due to take place this month, but the museum says the discovery of the clay fragments means the cylinder must stay in London to help scholars decipher their meaning.

The delay has prompted Iran to threaten to withdraw future co-operation. According to Fars, the semi-official news agency, Hamid Baqaei, Iran’s vice-president and head of the country’s cultural heritage organisation, said: “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.”

Although there had been no evidence for that, he would report the museum to Unesco if unwarranted delays were to continue.

The museum insisted yesterday that the loan of the cylinder would go ahead. “The proposed exhibition of the Cyrus Cylinder in the National Museum in Tehran seems the ideal place to present the new fragments with the cylinder itself,” it said.

But it added that the new texts needed to be “properly studied” in London. It has invited Iranian scholars to an international workshop to study the new finds.

The Cyrus Cylinder has been described as the “first declaration of human rights”. It was written in Babylonian cuneiform after Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.

There is suspicion in Iran that the political unrest since disputed presidential election last June, which has led to tens of deaths and thousands of arrests, is behind the delay.

Iran has repeatedly accused Britain of interference in the country’s domestic politics and taking side with the opposition movement.

Pioneer cultural diplomat

Building bridges between the scholarly communities of nations that do not necessarily enjoy warm political relations has been one of the keynotes of Neil MacGregor’s directorship of the British Museum.

Links forged between the museum and the cultural institutions of Iran led to the museum’s much-praised exhibition on ancient Persia in 2005, and then last year’s show on Shah Abbas.

This policy of so-called “cultural diplomacy” – Mr MacGregor dislikes the term because it implies promotion of state interests – has led to some of the most popular exhibitions in the museum’s history.

Apart from the Iranian shows, 2007’s “The First Emperor” – which brought China’s fabled terracotta warriors to Bloomsbury – succeeded in attracting millions of visitors.

The discussions leading up to the Shah Abbas exhibition also gave rise to the museum’s offer to lend the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran.

Although Mr MacGregor remains fiercely opposed to the permanent restitution of works in the museum’s collection, he favours mutually agreed loans.

He said yesterday he fully expected the cylinder to be sent to Iran after June’s international workshop, and that he understood the reaction of Hamid Baqaei, Iran’s cultural heritage official, to the delay of the loan.

“He has been a great champion of keeping the cultural conversation going, no matter what has been happening on the political front,” he said.

Asked if the political situation in Iran had played any part in discussions over the loan of the cylinder, Mr MacGregor said it was normal practice for the museum’s trustees to take account of security issues when considering loans, as they had done in confirming this month’s planned dispatch of the Cyrus Cylinder last October.

Iran Focus

Iran ‘reviewing’ relations with Britain
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
The Daily Telegraph

Iran is reviewing all areas of co-operation with Britain in the wake of calls by its MPs to cut diplomatic relations, its foreign minister has said.

By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent

At the same time, one of the MPs involved blamed “British policies” for the bomb attack which killed an academic nuclear physicist in Tehran last week.

The attention Tehran is paying to Britain, long vilified for its colonial-era role in Iran, is a sign of the Islamic regime’s particular distrust of the human rights agenda being pursued by the foreign secretary, David Miliband.

The original call to cut relations came from a motion submitted by 40 members of parliament last week.

In response, the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, told a conference that the government was “considering” the call.

“Iran has carried out a thorough study on its relations with Britain in different fields particularly over the past six months,” Mr Mottaki said.

“There are 10-12 working fields between Iran and the UK. We are currently reviewing each area.”

Mr Mottaki did not expand on what he considered the “working fields” to be.

The Foreign Office said it had reviewed reports of what Mr Mottaki said but had no comment.

One area that is definitely being considered is relations with the British Museum. Iran accuses it of reneging on an agreement to make a loan of the Cyrus Cylinder, an important ancient Persian relic containing an inscription from the 6th century BC often described as outlining the first charter of human rights.

The Museum said the loan had been delayed in September for unspecified “practical” reasons.

“If we find out for certain that the British Museum does not want to send the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran and is simply trying to kill time, we will cut all our ties with that organisation,” said Hamid Baqaie, head of Iran’s Cultural Organisation.

He said he would call on Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation, to do the same.

Most venom in Iran is reserved for America and Israel, which the regime has accused outright of orchestrating the murder of Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, a physics lecturer from Tehran University.

The government says he was killed because of his nuclear work, though he had also given his support to pro-reform factions in anti-government demonstrations.

But Britain has resurfaced in criticism in recent days because of its decision to remove exile groups from its proscribed terror list.

Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, one of the authors of the bill calling for ties to be severed, cited such revisions by Britain as one of the reasons behind the bombing, and said the Iranian people “would not have a moment of peace” so long as the British Embassy remained open.

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