TitleThe British Museum offends Iranian people

King Cyrus the Great turns in his grave

13 Sep 2010

■ Ann De Craemer
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When I saw the big smile on his face, I felt sick in the stomach. No, no, no, I thought, this cannot be happening.

I’m talking about the picture of ‘president’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looking at the Cyrus cylinder that has been loaned to Iran’s National Museum and was put on display on Saturday during a ceremony attended by Iranian experts. I could not lay eyes on Ahmadinejad’s self-satisfied grin for more than five seconds. Any longer would have made me so angry that both my computer screen and my right hand would have been the innocent victims of my indignation.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I saw another picture of Saturday’s ceremony. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad puts a chafieh, the scarf traditionally worn by Basiji members, on the shoulders of an actor who is performing the role of King Cyrus the Great.

I clenched my ten fingers to two fists and watched my knuckles getting red.

And I heard King Cyrus turn in his grave.

For the first time after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the British Museum has loaned the famous Cyrus the Great cylinder to Iran. It was brought to the National Museum in Tehran where it will remain for four months. The cylinder was scheduled to be given on loan in September 2009 but the British Museum refused, citing Iran’s post-election uprising. Tehran had earlier threatened it would cease cooperation with the British Museum until the cylinder would be loaned to the National Museum.

One year later, the British Museum has given in. How can one of the world’s greatest museums be so blind? Do they not realize that they offend Iranians all over the world in letting the Iranian regime touch the Cyrus cylinder with even one finger? The British Museum says in it press release that ‘although political relations between Iran and the UK are at the moment difficult, the Trustees take the view that it is all the more important to maintain the cultural links which have been so carefully built up over a period of years and which could in themselves lead to a better relationship based on dialogue, tolerance and understanding.’

Meaningless blah-blah. I think even the British Museum does not believe one word of what they are saying. Iran’s National Museum is in the hands of a regime that is utterly hostile to the country’s pre-Islamic history and especially to the historical figure of Cyrus the Great. The British Museum could have given a powerful sign of protest by refusing to loan this historical artifact to a regime that despises Cyrus the Great. They could have used this occasion to point their finger at the crimes the Iranian regime has committed against pre-Islamic history.

The British Museum could have given a powerful sign of protest

Just a look at the recent past gives us some striking examples of the regime’s disrespect for ancient Persian history. The construction of the Sivand Dam northwest of Shiraz caused great damage to archeologically rich areas. Besides the certain flooding of 130 archaeological sites, larger concern has been levied at the dam’s effect on nearby World Heritage Sites, particularly Pasargadae, an ancient capital of the Persian Empire built by Cyrus the Great and the site of his tomb. Archaeologists believe that the reservoir created by the dam will raise humidity, and as a result also place the Pasargadae complex at risk.
Another tragic example is that the tomb of Emperor Xerxes at ‘Naqsh-e Rostam’ historical site is at risk of breaking in two because of the construction of the Shiraz-Esfahan railway track, with trains passing at only 500 meters distance from the ancient site. In January 2010, an expert study showed that the level of the earth has sunk five centimeters at the foot of the ancient bas-reliefs at Naqsh-e Rostam. Some of the experts believe that the Shiraz-Esfahan railway line passing at a distance of one kilometer from Naqsh-e Rostam is the reason behind the problem, which might have been induced as a result of vibration caused by passing trains.

Need I say more? It is an offense to Persian history, which is also a very big part of our world history, that the British Museum is willing to loan the Cyrus cylinder to a regime that has no respect whatsoever for ancient Persia and Cyrus the Great. This fanatic Islamic regime even hates Cyrus, because he represents everything that they have no respect for. Take a look at the Cyrus cylinder itself. The object’s inscription describes how Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539BC and captured the last Babylonian king. It also tells of how he restored shrines dedicated to different gods, freed many people held captive by the Babylonians and arranged for them to return to their homelands. It does not mention the Jews brought to Babylon as slaves by Nebuchadnezzar, but their freedom was also part of that policy. The Cyrus cylinder is often called the world’s oldest human rights document. It is valued by as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and different faiths.

Tolerance. Respect. Human rights. These words are alien to the current Iranian regime. I do not believe, as many Iranians fear, that the regime might cause damage to the cylinder or even destroy it. That is not what worries me. What worries me is that a European country once again misses an opportunity to powerfully condemn the wrongdoings of the Islamic Republic. It makes the sanctions of the European Union look ridiculous. What worries me is that the British once again offend the Iranian people by giving the Cyrus cylinder to a regime that is trying to erase ancient Persian history, as this history proves that the country is now more backward than it was 2500 years ago.

© Pieter-Jan De Pue

When I visited the tomb of Cyrus the Great last year, I felt both happy and sad. I had the honor of greeting the father of the Iranian nation, but I saw how the site of his tomb sums up the tragedy of Iran today. The guard of the tomb sat smiling in a garden chair under a colorful and broken umbrella. The cobblestone ground surrounding the tomb was full of weeds. Sitting there, with his worn-out shoes and uniform, on a rusty chair under a faded umbrella in front of the tomb of King Cyrus, he united the past and present of this land in a single image. Persia, of the renowned, glorious past; Iran, of the battered, damaged present. I see the same tragedy in the picture of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad putting a Basiji scarf on the shoulders of an actor playing Cyrus the Great. It is a symbol of cruelty on the shoulders of a man who was known as an honest, generous and benevolent leader. It infuriates me that the present can cause so much damage to the past.

Nevertheless, there might be hope in this tragedy. The Cyrus cylinder played an important role in the imperial propaganda of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who in 1971 used it as symbol of the celebration the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. The shah’s megalomaniacal identification of himself with Cyrus caused him to speak the following words before his tomb, which were offensive to most Iranians: O Cyrus, great King, King of Kings, Achaemenian King, King of the land of Persia. I, the Shahanshah of Persia, offer these salutations from myself and from my nation. Cyrus! Great King, King of Kings, Noblest of the Noble, hero of the history of Iran and the world! Rest in peace, for we are awake, and we will always stay awake

As we know, the shah did remain awake for a very long time after these remarks. Let’s hope and believe that the short stay of the Cyrus cylinder in Iran heralds the death of a regime that is much more tyrannical than that of the man who dared to call himself shahanshah of Persia.

Tehran Review
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  1. World of Islam » Blog Archive » The Jews of Islam says:

    [...] King Cyrus a Great turns in his grave | TehranReview [...]

  2. Kheppel says:

    Sure, maybe the cilinder shouldn’t be there at this moment

    But the idea that it is a human rights document is obviously nonsense, actually
    promoted by the Shah, one of the worst violators of human rights in the world

    The author doesn’t say actually that the cilinder is de facto a human rights document, but a more critical approach to how people twist history is missing here

  3. Ann says:

    Dear Kheppel,
    thanks for your reaction. Of course, the cylinder has been used by the shah to promote his regime, but I do mention this in the last alinea, where I say that it played an important role in his propapanda. I know there is discussion about whether to see the cylinder as the first human rights document. But after having read about this, it is in my view indeed an important human rights document, and one of the first in recorded history. The respect for human rights of Cyrus is even mentioned in the Bible.

  4. Kheppel says:

    Salaam Ann,

    Well there is a big debate on whether there was anything that you could call “human rights” in that time. I think it is an anachronism to talk about human rights in this period of time. Also, what annoys me is how “Persians” deal with this document. The Bible does mention Cyrus as an anointed one (Messiah) but “human rights” is a very modern concept,.

    You could read it that way, but that would be like saying that there is no difference between the concept of free will in St. Augustine and the concept of willed movement in Aristotle.

    Or for example translating the Greek “sophrusune” with the Dutch Christian “matigheid”

    I guess I’m too much of a relativist :P

  5. British Museum beledigt Koning Cyrus de Grote « Ann De Craemer says:

    [...] kan hier mijn nieuwe column voor TehranReview lezen, over de schandelijke daad van het British Museum, dat [...]

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