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Iran breaks ties with the British Museum over Cyrus Cylinder

The dispute between Iran & the British Museum [1] over the Cyrus Cylinder continues to drag on. Iran is taking further steps to cut ties with the British Museum, in the hope that this will force an earlier resolution to the situation.

Museums Association [2]

Iran cuts ties with British Museum
Gareth Harris

Hamid Baghaei, head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organisation (ICHHTO), has cut ties with the British Museum (BM) after it delayed the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder. The sixth-century artefact was due to go on display at the Iran National Museum in Tehran last month.

The decision was announced during a press conference on Saturday according to the Tehran Times. But a spokeswoman for the British Museum said that the decision came as a “great surprise”, and added that the museum had finally agreed to loan the object to Iran only last week.

“At a special meeting on Tuesday 2 February, the trustees of the British Museum confirmed their intention to lend the Cyrus Cylinder, plus recently discovered associated fragments of clay tablet, to the National Museum in Tehran in the second half of July.

This decision was conveyed in a telephone conversation to the ICHHTO on the same day, and was confirmed in a letter to Hamid Baghaei, vice president of Iran, on Friday 5 February,” she said.

The BM was to have lent the cylinder to Iran in exchange for several Persian treasures that it displayed last year in its Shah Abbas show.

Lending negotiations began last autumn when BM director Neil MacGregor reassured Baghaei that the BM “is very much hoping to send the Cyrus Cylinder on loan… but as with all our international loans, details and practicalities will have to be discussed.”

But in January the loan was delayed when two pieces of cuneiform tablet in the BM collection were found to be inscribed with the same text as the Cyrus Cylinder.
According to the Tehran Times, Baghaei said the British Museum was not only a cultural place but is also a political centre. “We intend to send letters to museum officials around the world, suggesting that they take a lesson from our experience. If they want to collaborate with the BM, they must receive the approval of the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs beforehand in order to avoid any problems.”

The Cyrus Cylinder, created following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539BC, is regarded by many as the world’s first declaration of human rights.

The Times [3]

February 8, 2010
Iran cuts cultural links with British Museum over Cyrus Cylinder

Iran has severed all cultural ties with the British Museum over the institution’s failure to hand over an ancient Persian treasure.

At the centre of the diplomatic row is a 2,500-year-old cuneiform tablet, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, which most historians regard as the world’s first declaration of human rights.

Curators had been due to lend the artefact to Tehran last month, but announced that the handover would be delayed after the discovery of new tablets that they believe could help its research. The delay has provoked the anger of Iranian officials, who announced an end to dialogue yesterday in protest at a decision that they believe is politically motivated.

Hamid Baghaei, head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organisation, said that the move to keep the cylinder was unacceptable. “The Cultural Heritage Organisation has cut all its relations and co-operation with the British Museum,” he said.

Mr Baghaei added that his organisation would send a letter of complaint to Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural body, and threatened to write to all international museums warning them against working with the British Museum.

The museum expressed “great surprise” at Iran’s reaction, which now threatens to end a symbolic friendship that has survived despite decades of political turmoil.

The museum said in a statement last night that it had confirmed its intention to lend the artefact and associated fragments of clay tablet to the National Museum of Tehran in the second half of July in a phone call to Iranian officials last week. This was followed with an e-mail and faxed letter to Mr Baghaei a few days later.

“The new announcement from Mr Baghaei therefore comes as a great surprise. The British Museum has acted throughout in good faith, and values highly its hitherto good relations with Iran. It is to be hoped that this matter can be resolved as soon as possible.”

The statement added: “The British Museum has a longstanding policy of lending its unparalleled collection as widely as possible across the world. This cultural exchange is a vital part of the museum’s commitment to being a museum for the world … allowing valuable dialogues to develop independently of political considerations.”

The cultural row comes amid heightened tension between Britain and Iran over its nuclear activities.

When Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, and Mr Baghaei signed the loan agreement in January 2009, six months before the violence surrounding the presidential elections, their friendly encounter was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough. At the time even the British Ambassador in Tehran was struggling to maintain a dialogue.

The clay cylinder, which was acquired by the museum after its discovery in 1879, was written in Babylonian cuneiform on the orders of the Persian king Cyrus the Great after his conquest of Babylon in 539BC. It remains of huge significance in Iranian, Iraqi and Jewish history.

The Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, hailed the charter as “one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights”, and cited Cyrus as a leader who “guaranteed freedoms for all”. Last week she reiterated her support for lending it to Tehran. “Whatever happens inside Iran has nothing to do with sending the cylinder to Iran,” she said.

The Independent [4]

Tehran cuts ties with British Museum over Persian treasure
By Miranda Bryant
Monday, 8 February 2010

Iran has cut all its ties with the British Museum over its decision to delay the loan of a 2,500-year-old Persian treasure, the Cyrus Cylinder, in the latest sign of worsening relations between Tehran and London.

The clay tablet is believed to be the world’s first declaration of rights and the British Museum says it needs to keep it until the summer as experts have made a ground-breaking discovery that could lead to the decoding of missing text.

But Iran’s state-run Cultural Heritage Organisation said the museum’s decision was politically motivated. “[We have] cut all relations and co-operation with the British Museum,” said the group’s head, Hamid Baghaie, adding that Iran would incur considerable costs because of the delay. He said Iran would file a complaint to Unesco, the UN’s cultural agency, because the British Museum had missed yesterday’s deadline to hand back the cylinder.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said the move was “a big surprise”. “The British Museum has acted throughout in good faith, and values highly its hitherto good relations with Iran,” she added.

The museum had promised to lend the Persian treasure to Iran for two months starting in January. But it delayed the loan until the summer so its experts could continue research on the cylinder, which is linked to Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon. He is regarded as one of ancient Persia’s greatest historical figures. He captured Babylon, in modern Iraq, and freed Jews held captive there.

The row threatens to further deepen tensions between Britain and Iran, which are already at loggerheads over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear-energy programme and the disputed presidential election last June.