The British Museum lends the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran

The British Museum is lending the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran for an exhibition that will open for four months in Tehran on 12 September. Together with two fragments of contemporary cuneiform tablets, it will be the centrepiece of an exhibition that celebrates a great moment in the history of the Middle East. The loan reciprocates the generous loans made by the National Museum of Iran to the Forgotten Empire and Shah Abbas exhibitions in 2005 and 2009 at the British Museum.

The Cylinder was found during a British Museum excavation at Babylon in Iraq in 1879, and has been in the British Museum since that time. It was originally inscribed and buried in the foundations of a wall after Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, captured Babylon in 539 BC. The Cylinder is written in Babylonian cuneiform by a Babylonian scribe. It records that aided by the god Marduk Cyrus captured Babylon without a struggle, restored shrines dedicated to different gods, and repatriated deported peoples who had been brought to Babylon. It was this decree that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild The Temple. Because of these enlightened acts, which were rare in antiquity, the Cylinder has acquired a special resonance, and is valued by people all around the world as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and different faiths. These are the qualities for which Cyrus is revered in the Hebrew Bible. The two fragments of tablet were also found in nineteenth century British Museum excavations in or near Babylon. These fragments were identified by experts at the Museum earlier this year as being inscribed with parts of the same text as the Cylinder but do not belong to it. They show that the text of the Cylinder was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed across the Persian Empire.

As Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum has said:

“You could almost say that the Cyrus Cylinder is A History of the Middle East in one object and it is a link to a past which we all share and to a key moment in history that has shaped the world around us. Objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space and this object must be shared as widely as possible.”

In recognition of the fact that the Cyrus Cylinder is truly a part of the world’s cultural heritage, the Trustees of the British Museum are eager that as many people as possible should have an opportunity to see it, particularly in Iran where Cyrus the Great is held in special reverence. Although political relations between Iran and the UK are at the moment difficult, the Trustees take the view that it is all the more important to maintain the cultural links which have been so carefully built up over a period of years and which could in themselves lead to a better relationship based on dialogue, tolerance and understanding. Colleagues in Iran’s museums are part of a world-wide scholarly community in which the British Museum plays a
leading role.

Niall FitzGerald, Chairman of the British Museum, said:

“The British Museum has a long standing policy of lending its unparalleled collection as widely as possible across the world to benefit the greatest number of world publics. This cultural exchange is a vital part of the Museum’s commitment to being a Museum for the world. The British Museum has a positive and ongoing exchange of skills and objects with colleagues at the National Museum of Iran which has played a key part in recent exhibitions. The Trustees have reaffirmed their view that exchanges of this sort are an essential part of the Museum’s international role, allowing valuable dialogues to develop independently of political considerations.”

Baroness Helen Kennedy QC, human rights lawyer and Trustee of the British Museum, said:

“The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient artefact of great symbolism and it is absolutely right that the British Museum fulfils its promise to loan it to the Museum in Tehran. This is part of the reciprocity from which we in Britain have also benefited. Art and culture can sustain relationships between the people of nations even when diplomacy is strained. To present this particular temporary gift to the people of Iran at this particular time is an act of faith which will have profound meaning and value.”

“One of the chief tasks of our generation is to build a global community, where peoples of differing ideologies can live together in respect and harmony,” said Karen Armstrong, author and commentator on religious affairs and a British Museum Trustee. “At a time of political tension, it is essential to keep as many doors of communication open as possible. We all have much work to do to build a peaceful world. This cultural exchange may make a small but timely contribution towards the creation of better relations between the West and Iran.”

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