Published on 18 Apr 2011

The Persian relic that divides Iran's leaders

Saturday morning and the British Charge d’Affaires breaks cover to issue a public condemnation of Iran’s human rights record, and urges Tehran to respect its obligations on this score. She does so at the very moment that the Government in Tehran is handing back the most precious artefact to reside beyond Iran’s border.

The Cyrus cylinder has been on loan to Iran – against Foreign Office advice, since September. Hundreds of thousands (Iran claims millions) of people have filed past it – a tiny 2,500-year-old fragment of Persian historic culture laid on a velvet cushion. The relic has cuniform lettering on it and is regarded as one of the very earliest statements of human rights known to mankind. Yesterday saw its return to the custody of the British Museum..where it has lain since it was dug up in babylon in the late 19th century. It will arrive back in its showcase this afternoon.

What better a moment for the Foreign Office to remind Iran of its obligations. It was after all the very same Foreign Office who advised that the cylinder would never be returned by the regime in Tehran.

In fact the entire cultural exchange has proved vastly important. Not least because the ‘non mullah’ establishment in Tehran has been able to get away with a ‘nationalist narrative’ of Iran which long predates Islam. Hence the dislike of the object in the highest echelons of the clergy. A more far sighted operative might have predicted that they wanted this pre-Islamic object like a hole in the head. They will have been only too pleased to see the back of it.

The Cyrus Cylinder has ignited a new debate in Iran about the country’s culture and history. the mullahs boycotted the exhibition. The President, the man who could well be his successor, and a current Vice President all embraced the Cyrus Cylinder. Has Britain accidentally witnessed the birth of a new secular movement in Iran that has secured backing from one of many key power quarters in this complex country?

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16 reader comments

  1. Tag says:

    Thoughtful and intriguing,from acorns do mighty oaks grow.I think the West get so many Countries wriong,because of a lack of Knowledge on the ground.We got Iraq and Iran wrong,and a lot of the tragedy in Libya may have been avoided if we knew these Coubtries and the dynamics that underpin their cultures better

  2. Meg Howarth says:

    Nice piece, Jon. The political establishment – Old and New (Labour) Tory – shows itself increasingly out of touch at both national and local level. Like the Cyrus cylinder, it appears more a C19 relic of a top-down version of democracy than one with accountability at its heart. To which end, Snowbloggers might like to ask their MP to sign the parliamentary Early Day Motion for the recall of our elected members:

    http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-11/1253

    and for a reason why not if they fail to do so. Democratic development requires active citizens, as we can see from across north Africa and the ME.

    1. Meg Howarth says:

      As if on queue, spotted this immediately after posting above:

      LibDem Hemming challenges ‘superinjunction’ threat to investigative journalism: http://bit.ly/i2mvN3

      Human rights, transparency? We have to become active citizens if they’re to have any meaning.

  3. Ciaran Rehill says:

    I would feel far better if the Foreign Office stopped lecturing Iran and Bahrain on permitting protest and considered how foolish it looks on a global stage when news coverage of “kettling” and the Tomlinson inquest are minimal. Such hypocrisy!

  4. Peter Stewert says:

    The secularism never went away, it just that when the US/UN/UK destroy the economy of your post-revolution captalist secular state a theocracy can seem like a good temparary measure to preserve law and order. What this might signal is that President AfterDinnerJoke may now switch to using nationalism as the hypocritical fig leaf to make any heinous state activity perfectly moral.

  5. wendy09 says:

    “Not least because the ‘non mullah’ establishment in Tehran has been able to get away with a ‘nationalist narrative’ of Iran which long predates Islam. Hence the dislike of the object in the highest echelons of the clergy. A more far sighted operative might have predicted that they wanted this pre-Islamic object like a hole in the head. They will have been only too pleased to see the back of it.”

    a bit over the top to make this claim . the iranians regardless of religiosity are proud of their history .

    1. cyrus says:

      @wendy, appreciate the sentiment, but it is true, there is a large percentage of the clergy, who if they had their way, would destroy all Iranian relics of pre-islam.

      To them, if it was before islam and if it isnt islam it is worthless…but dont take this as blanket zealotry…for a lot of these mullahs islam has been a cash cow.

  6. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    I don’t know why they changed the name from Persia, similarly why did Ceylon change?
    I remember comparing hiergoglyphics and cuniform in Religious Instruction at school and was impressed by all those little trumpets. What they all mean though…. well ? Marduk was easy to remember and Cyrus is much like Syrius and I paper macheed Babylon. Has the cylinder made any difference to Jewish / Islam relationships?…no not really .It is really like any human rights text : only academic when L’anima forces itself.

    1. hass says:

      They didn’t change the name from Persia. Iranians referred to their country as Iran for thousands of years. In 1935 the Shah simply told foreigners to start using Iran as well.

  7. adrian clarke says:

    Perhaps we should take a copy and return it to its rightful home.Would it make a difference. Doubtful.
    Will this country ever go back to its belief in marriage the family and respect.Doubtful,for each generation appears to be a little worse than the last.A little more disrespectful.Will there ever be a revolution in Iran , or for that matter in this country.Perhaps if we understood such past relics might enlighten us.

  8. Persia says:

    DOWN WITH THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN! HE IS A MURDER! This is shamefull for the people of Iran. Koorosh (Cyrus) was a great man, and Ahmedinejad is the opposite! Freedom and democracy in Iran! Free Iran!

  9. Barbara Robertson says:

    Let us hope that some awareness of the alternatives to the narrow ideology and authoritarianism of much of Islam has been brought to the consciousness of the Iranian people and their leaders.

    That so many visited the exhibition is indicative of an underlying if suppressed awareness and reawakening.

    Perhaps coupled with the nuclear disaster of Fukishima a new shift in thinking might be emerging.

  10. Lasher367 says:

    I got one thing to say. Crack open a cold Bud-Lite. Ya’ll going to fight the same s*** till the sun dies out, in about 4 billion years.

  11. hass says:

    the Foreign Office needs to come to terms with its own perfidy before lecturing Iran.

  12. Tomas says:

    I really don’t know why Iran returned Cyrus Cylinder to the UK. Its rightfully belongs to the people of Iran. Countries like UK and France have stolen artifacts from Iran and have have put them on display in their museums. Iran should go to the International Court to force UK and France to return all artifacts back to Iran which they have stolen from Iran.

  13. Polycarp Journals says:

    Polycarp Journals is disappointed regarding your reporting of the Return of the Cyrus Cylinder. Try some truth in this Century and let the peoples of the world reclaim their identity and their heritage. The Cylinder belongs to the Persian people, it always has and always will. It was not returned home to London but graciously returned to you notwithstanding the past.

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