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Rows continue over the latest delays to the return of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran

More coverage & analysis of the continuing delays [1] to the British Museum’s planned return of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran.

Financial Times [2]

Storm in a cylinder
Published: January 22 2010 22:44 | Last updated: January 22 2010 22:44

The row over the British Museum’s delay in honouring its agreement to lend a precious artefact to Iran is no more than a storm in a cylinder – but no less instructive for being confected.

The museum has held up the loan to Iran’s National Museum of the Cyrus Cylinder, a cuneiform document inscribed in clay in 539BC by Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, to commemorate his conquest of Babylon. The reason for the delay is the discovery of two fragments from the cylinder that could greatly elucidate its purpose.

These exciting new pieces in a historical puzzle should be readily appreciated most of all by Iranians, whose pride in their long history and civilisation is legendary, and whose scholars are invited to a conference to discuss the find.

This is not an Elgin Marbles dispute, about the rightful ownership of great historical artefacts. The British Museum, under Neil MacGregor, has exchanged iconic pieces with Iran, notably for the acclaimed exhibition on Shah Abbas last year – one of a series of blockbusters that has put the museum in the vanguard of international cultural inclusiveness.

The spat is more about the petulance of the theocrats in Tehran who have lost legitimacy after brutally stealing last summer’s presidential elections and crushing dissenters who refuse to be cowed. The UK, as a mega-meddler in Iran over the past two centuries, is being used by the mullahs as a decoy target for nationalist dissent, and as a proxy “Little Satan” for the “Great Satan” of the US.

It is a bit rich that this affair involves Mr MacGregor, the most open of directors who pursues a democratic form of cultural globalisation and sees his institution as a museum for the world – an enduring achievement of the European Enlightenment in which everyone, from everywhere, has access to the history of humanity.

The Cyrus Cylinder is a milestone in that history, often described as the first charter of human rights: it prescribes the return of deported peoples (including the Jews) to their homelands, and declares that all should be free to practise their own religions. The new fragments apparently add to the sense that this was a liberating proclamation. Little wonder it unsettles the dictators in Tehran.

Scotsman [3]

Iran made to wait for loan of ancient treasure after ‘remarkable’ discovery
Published Date: 23 January 2010

THE “remarkable” discovery of two small fragments of inscribed clay at the British Museum will cast vital new light on a 2,500-year-old cylinder bearing what is often described as the world’s first charter of human rights, it has been claimed.
But the finds have angered Iran, as it means the British Museum will delay loaning the so-called Cyrus cylinder to Tehran for several months 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 British Museum said the decision to delay loaning the prized and priceless artefact had been agreed with Iranian cultural officials.

The cylinder was written in 539BC 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.

The 9in-long cylinder had been due to go on display at Tehran’s National Museum last week on a four-month loan. However,,at the beginning of this month, scholars at the British Museum discovered that two small pieces of clay from a cuneiform tablet were inscribed with the same text as the cylinder.

“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. Its Glasgow-born director, Neil MacGregor, has worked hard to establish cultural links with Iranian scholars in recent years, despite rising political tensions between London and Tehran. And the museum is now striving to smooth ruffled Iranian feathers. It has invited Iranian scholars to help study the new pieces at an international workshop that the British Museum will host in June.

“Thereafter, it is intended the two new pieces should be exhibited for the first time in Tehran, together with the (Cyrus] cylinder itself,” the British Museum said. The National Museum in Tehran would be the “ideal” place for the first public showing of the three pieces together, its London counterpart said soothingly.

Tehran was furious when the British Museum, which has housed the cylinder since 1880, failed to send over the artefact last September. Iranian officials claimed the museum 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 political events and insisted that its “firm intention” was to loan the cylinder “as soon as possible”, once a “number of practicalities” were resolved.

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 539BC. It was discovered in 1879 in the foundations of the main temple in Babylon – in today’s Iraq.