A nine-inch chunk of ancient clay bearing what is often described as the world's first charter of human rights is putting further pressure on Iran's fraught relations with Britain. Iran has accused the British Museum of breaking a promise to lend it the so-called Cyrus Cylinder. It is a prized and priceless 2,500-year-old artefact named after the founder of the Persian empire who, in BC539, conquered Babylon and freed the Jews held in captivity there.
Tehran has threatened reduced co-operation with Britain on archaeological and cultural matters unless it receives the cylinder for display in Iran's National Museum within two months. Iranian officials claim that the British Museum is reluctant to lend the cylinder because of the turmoil following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as president in June. "Unfortunately, the British party did not honour its pledge on illogical, illegal and unethical grounds allegedly due to political developments in Iran," Hassan Qashqavi, a foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday. "What does cultural heritage have to do with our domestic political developments?"
Such strong language is frequently used by Iranian officials when it comes to Britain, which Tehran has blamed for stirring its post-election unrest. The British Museum refuses to be drawn into an unseemly war of words: it has had good co-operation with its Iranian counterpart in recent years, despite tensions. Making no allusion to Iran's post-election crisis, the museum said in an e-mailed statement to The National: "As with all loans, there are a number of practicalities to be resolved, but the firm intention is to send it as soon as possible. We always have to discuss the security, transport, insurance and display arrangements."
An Iran expert from the museum is planning to visit Tehran "as soon as possible" to finalise "the detailed arrangements for the loan", the statement added. Tehran says it should have received the Cyrus cylinder in September. Iran in recent years has lent ancient treasures to the British Museum for two major exhibitions that were in part aimed at countering the perception of Iran as an adversarial country.
The cylinder is inscribed in cuneiform lettering with an account by Cyrus the Great of his conquest of Babylon in BC539. The text enshrined the king's belief in freedom of worship for the different peoples in his empire, which was the biggest known to the world at the time, stretching from Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean to the banks of the Indus River. The cylinder was discovered in 1879 in the foundations of the main temple in Babylon - in today's Iraq - where it had been deliberately placed.
The British Museum last lent the cylinder to Iran in 1971 when the autocratic, US-backed Shah adopted it as a symbol of his reign during celebrations to mark 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy. Identifying himself with Cyrus the Great, the Shah hailed the cylinder as "the first human rights charter in history", blithely ignoring the irony of the abuses faced by those who attempted to assert their human rights under his rule.
Those who protested against Mr Ahmadinejad's election might see a similar irony today in the regime's keenness to display it. It was at Persepolis, founded by Darius the Great near the modern city of Shiraz, that the Shah hosted his most lavish party in 1971, attended by kings, princes and presidents from 69 countries. The excessive bash - the food was provided by Maxim's of Paris and the best champagne flowed liberally - infuriated many Iranians and helped sow the seeds of the Shah's downfall eight years later.
For a decade after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran's new rulers shunned their country's imperial past, which they believed the Shah had resurrected to sideline Islam as the nation's core identity. But in April 1992, Iran's then president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, made a public visit to Persepolis, the first by an Islamic revolutionary leader. "Standing in the middle of these centuries-old ruins, I felt the nation's dignity was all-important and must be strengthened," he declared. "Our people must know that they are not without a history."
Today, many Iranians regard Cyrus as one of their greatest historical heroes. He has also been embraced by the official media. "The Cyrus Cylinder is - evidence of the peaceful way in which Iranians have always lived," the state-run Press TV said in 2007. firstname.lastname@example.org