British Museum is to lend Iran one of its most famous
antiquities, which is regarded as the first charter of human
rights, 30 years after its loan to the Imperial regime triggered
a fierce diplomatic row.
The inscriptions on the clay drum known as the Cyrus
Cylinder detail the conquest of the Babylon of Belshazzar
and Nebuchadnezzar by the 6th-century BC Iranian King of Kings,
Cyrus the Great.
The victory made Cyrus the Great the leader of the first world
empire, stretching from Egypt to China. Cyrus proved a model
ruler. He describes on the cylinder measures of relief for the
inhabitants of Babylon and the return to their homelands of
people held by the former kings, thought to have included the
The cylinder, which would have been used as a foundation stone
to a building, was found in Babylon, in modern Iraq, by a
British Museum dig in the 19th century.
It has only left once since, for the loan in 1971. Its return
visit to the National Museum of Tehran in 2006 will follow a
generous loan by the Iranians, who are to send 50 antiquities
for the British Museum's exhibition on the splendors of Ancient
Persia, planned for September next year.
In the past 30 years relations between British and foreign
museums have been transformed, with loans between countries now
commonplace. But research by The Art Newspaper has shown that in
the very different climate of 1971, the loan prompted a furious
The Shah had expressed his desire to "borrow" the cylinder through
the British ambassador, but the suggestion was rejected by the
"Foreign Office". Officials were furious when they found that the
British Museum, with the agreement of its trustees, had gone
One official, in recently released papers from the National
Archives, said the museum should not act this way to
"countries with ultra-nationalistic ambitions".
Another said: "If the [British] Museum find they have dug a
pit for themselves, it will be for them to climb out."
The Shah made the cylinder the star exhibit in a museum set up
to mark the 2,500th anniversary of Cyrus's establishment of the
Iranian monarchy in Persepolis. Facing criticism from Western
countries for creating an uneasy situation for them. The
celebration was a blow to the western image, since Iranians used it to prove that Iran
is the birthplace of human rights.
However, the British ambassador later suggested it should be
presented [returned] to Iran to gain diplomatic and military co-operation
from the imperial government. The museum refused under the
Foreign Office. Return of the Cyrus cylinder to Iran, could have
been a beginning of return of other civilizations' stolen relics
to their homelands, such as Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marble.