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Iran plans to sever cultural links with UK over Cyrus Cylinder

Iran’s renewed irritation with the UK [1] over the successive delays to the proposed loan of the Cyrus Cylinder is showing no sign of abating, as they continue to press ahead with plans to cease cooperation on other cultural issues. It is worth noting again, that Iran in the past has cooperated extensively with the British Museum – not least in the loan of artefacts to them for their recent Shah Abbas exhibition [2].

Daily Telegraph [3]

Iran threatens to sever links with UK in row over Cyrus Cylinder
By Heidi Blake
Published: 4:15PM GMT 21 Jan 2010

Iran has threatened to cut cultural ties with the UK after the British Museum refused to hand over a 23cm clay cylinder inscribed by Cyrus the Great, the Persian king.

The museum had promised to lend Iran the cylinder, thought to be inscribed with the first declaration of human rights, after borrowing several key works form Iranian museums for its exhibition on Shah Abbas, the Iranian emperor, last year.

But researchers are now insisting on keeping the Cyrus Cylinder in London to be studied alongside two small fragments of clay found in a drawer at the museum thought to contain clues to the meaning of the document.

The delay to the loan, due to take place this month despite fears over political instability in Iran, has prompted the Iranian foreign ministry to threaten to withdraw future co-operation with the British Museum.

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.”

The museum has insisted that the loan will go ahead once the clay fragments have been “properly studied” in London and has invited Iranian scholars to take part in the research.

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

The National (Abu Dhabi) [4]

Iran anxious after British Museum’s 2,500-year-old find
Michael Theodoulou, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: January 21. 2010 11:54PM UAE / January 21. 2010 7:54PM GMT

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.

Evening Standard (London) [5]

British Museum acts to ease Iran anger over delayed loan
Ross Lydall

The British Museum today moved to calm a diplomatic row after Iran claimed political motives were behind a delay in loaning it a prize artefact regarded as the first declaration of human rights.

The museum said the small clay piece, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, would be sent to the National Museum of Iran in Tehran this year and there was no question of the loan being scrapped.

It was due to be loaned within days but its transfer was halted when two new pieces of tablet, bearing the same script as the cylinder, were discovered in a drawer at the British Museum over Christmas.

The significance of the new pieces, which have been at the museum since 1881, has only just been understood — and the museum want its experts to study all three items together before the cylinder is loaned for three to four months.

This has angered the Iranian government, which believes Britain is trying to stoke unrest after the contested re-election last year of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Hamid Baqaei, Iran’s vice-president and head of its cultural heritage organisation, said: “We will cut off all our cultural relations with the museum if we realise later that it has been seeking excuses to shrug off our requests.”

A British Museum spokeswoman said today: “From the discussions we’ve had with the vice-president and the museum, they seem happy that we need to undertake this work. We are only talking about a postponement.”

The 23cm cylinder was discovered by a British Museum team in 1879 in Babylon. It is inscribed with an account by Cyrus, then King of Persia, of his conquest in 539BC. It is described as the first charter of human rights as it authorises the return of deported peoples to their homelands.

The British Museum said the two new pieces come from Dailem, near Babylon and proposed a workshop in June to assess them. “Scholars from Iran will also be involved,” it said.