The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
By Golnaz Esfandiari*
LONDON, (CAIS) -- Islamic Republic President, Mahmud Ahmadinejad on Sunday attended the unveiling in Tehran of the Cyrus Cylinder, which is on loan from the British Museum. The cylinder dates from the 6th Century BCE and is believed by many to be the first charter of human rights. It will be on public display for four months.
The unveiling took place at a ceremony at Iran’s National Museum that was turned into a platform for Ahmadinejad and his controversial chief of staff Esfandiari Rahim Mashaei to promote their brand of religious nationalism. (Read here for more about the recent attempt by Ahmadinejad to promote new religious nationalism and hard-liners' reaction to it.)
The ceremony -- during which Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian Empire, was described by Ahmadinejad as the King of the World and Mashaei suggested that the ideas and status of the ancient Iranian king were like those of the prophets -- was highly unusual in the Islamic republic, where in the past 30 years there's been a decided lack of interest in the country’s pre-Islamic past.
At Sunday's ceremony, which was reportedly attended by a number of the Islamic Republic officials and foreign dignitaries, there was an obvious attempt to connect Iran's ancient past with some of its current history. Ahmadinejad was apparently trying to appeal to a new constituency among nonpolitical types and tap into discontent with the clerical establishment, while at the same time trying to keep his hard-line supporters happy.
During the event, the Islamic Republic president put a keffiyeh, which is part of the uniform of the pro-government Basij militia, around the neck of a man dressed as Cyrus the Great. In a dispatch titled "Cyrus The Great Becomes A Basij Member," the hard-line Fars news agency wrote that when Ahmadinejad decorated "Cyrus the Great" with the black-and-white keffiyeh, all the foreign ambassadors and other guests present at the ceremony stood up.
Two men, one dressed as an Achaemenid soldier and the other as a member of the Basij, were also honored by Ahmadinejad with keffiyehs, described by official news agencies as "the symbol of the resistance and honor of the Iranian people."
The move was criticized by many Iranians, who said it was ‘insulting," "humiliating," and "painful" to watch.
Blogger Enteghad (Criticism) questioned the move. "Why is Cyrus the Great, the symbol of Iran, being decorated with the symbol of another country -- Palestine?" asked the blogger.
Another blogger, Andishe, was also angered by the "insulting and unwise" move, saying, "How can one mix two very different symbols that go against each other? Keffiyeh is the symbol of bloodshed, war, and terrorism in Palestine and Lebanon. Keffiyeh is the symbol of the Arabs and Palestinians. Look at what Cyrus the Great and the Iranian civilization have to say and look at what Ahmadinejad and Velayat Faghih (the rule of the Supreme Jurist) have to say."
Others were outraged that Ahmadinejad, internationally criticized for human rights abuses in Iran, praised the cylinder as the embodiment of human values.
"The Cyrus Cylinder represents respect for human beings' greatness and basic rights," he said. The cylinder, he said, emphasizes that everyone is entitled to freedom of thought and choice and also underscores the necessity to fight oppression.
The opposition Jaras website reacted by calling the cylinder "a stranger in its own home" and writing that Cyrus the Great has the right to be shocked to hear Ahmadinejad saying that "Cyrus said that every nation is free to accept me as their leader or not." The opposition accuses Ahmadinejad of massive fraud in last year’s presidential vote.
The Cyrus Cylinder is on loan to Iran by the British Museum in London after a dispute in which Iran threatened to cut ties with the institution. The cylinder was last in Iran in October 1971.
Iran’s hard-line daily "Kayhan" suggested over the weekend that Iran should keep the cylinder and not return it to the "thieves."
"There is an important question: Doesn’t the cylinder belong to Iran? And hasn’t the British government stolen precious ancient artifacts from our country? If the answers to these questions are positive, then why should we return this stolen historical and valuable work to the thieves?!"
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