The Cyrus cylinder
A show that tests the limits of cultural politics
CYRUS THE GREAT, king of Persia and conqueror of Babylon in the sixth century BC, has been a personal hero to many people. These include Thomas Jefferson and Iran's last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and, perhaps more oddly, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first leader.
Xenophon, a Greek historian whose “Cyropaedia” has been read by statesmen down the ages, believed that Cyrus embodied all the qualities of a perfect king. Now the British Museum (BM) is sending an object closely associated with Cyrus on a tour of five American museums, beginning with the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The curators hope the show will highlight the Persian king's religious tolerance and his close relations with the Jews in particular, and that this may help improve ties between America and Iran.
The Cyrus cylinder, one of the BM's most important objects, is made of clay and covered in dense Babylonian cuneiform script. Unearthed in 1879, it is cracked and bits have fallen off it, but enough remains for the writing to have been deciphered.
Under Cyrus the Persian empire became the largest kingdom the world had ever seen, unifying many tribes, languages and cultures, and stretching across vast distances. The cylinder, which had been placed at the base of a building in ancient Babylon (now modern Iraq) proclaimed Cyrus's ambitions for his rapidly expanding domain: that those people who had been captured and enslaved by his predecessors should be allowed to go back to their homes and the statues of their different gods returned to their original shrines to be freely worshipped. The exiled Jews, who wept by the waters of Babylon when they remembered Zion, the Bible says, could return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.
No ruler before Cyrus had done anything like this, and many since have claimed a connection with him. After the 1917 Balfour declaration in favour of a Jewish homeland, Jews displayed photographs of King George V alongside images of Cyrus. In 1971 the shah prayed at his tomb during the celebrations of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy, and new coins were struck with the shah and Cyrus on one side and the cylinder on the other. The shah's sister gave a copy of it to the secretary-general of the United Nations. Some call it the first charter of human rights.
The leaders of revolutionary Iran at first turned away from everything that had been praised by the shah. But that began to change with the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980. Anxious to be regarded as superior to the Iraqis, Iran became more interested in its distant past. In 2010 the cylinder was sent to Tehran on loan. Nearly 500,000 people queued to see it, and its presence provoked a fierce national debate about Iranian values. Mr Ahmadinejad opened the exhibition at the National Museum of Iran, reminding visitors that Islam had a tradition of tolerance and that the Iranian constitution reserved seats in parliament for a Christian (Armenian), a Zoroastrian and a Jew.
The American exhibition takes up just two rooms at the Smithsonian's Freer/Sackler Gallery. The first shows the cylinder together with jewellery and seals from the same period; the second focuses on Cyrus's influence. A glass case contains Xenophon's “Cyropaedia”. Loaned by the Library of Congress, it is one of two copies that Jefferson owned. On the walls are a selection of laudatory phrases: from that student of power, Niccolò Machiavelli, Edmund Spenser, a 16th-century English poet, and Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human-rights activist and the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel peace prize.
American Iranians and Jews have been among the many early visitors to the show, which opened on March 9th. The BM's director, Neil MacGregor, hopes others will come too. But America's relationship with Iran is still toxic. The exhibition catalogue is subtitled: “A New Beginning for the Middle East”. But the Smithsonian posters for the show merely say: “A New Beginning”, as if the mere mention of the Middle East might put people off.
As for Mr Ahmadinejad's views on Cyrus, the Iranian leader's words of praise were expected to hang on the wall of the exhibition's second room, alongside those of Jefferson and Ms Ebadi. But they were not included. Exhibitions like this should help Iranians and Americans understand the past better. But such caution suggests that relations between the two countries will not improve fast.
The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning" will be at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, until April 28th. The show will be at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston from May 3rd until June 14th and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from June 20th until August 4th, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco from August 9th until September 22nd and at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from October 2nd until December 2nd. The tour is supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation.