Iranian and British national museums face off over artifact

Iran’s national museum has cut off ties with the British Museum because of a controversy over a 2,500 year-old cuneiform tablet called the Cyrus cylinder. One of the most important artifacts from Persian civilization, the cylinder was supposed to be loaned to Iran but the loan has been delayed. Iran says the delay is politically motivated, but the British Museum says they need to compare the artifact to two similar tablets that were discovered recently. This is a change from the reason they gave back in October, citing the insecure situation after Iran’s disputed national elections.

In anticipation of displaying the cylinder in Tehran, the National Museum of Iran has spent $200,000 to enhance its security systems, but now it has nothing to display. The UK now faces the possibility of having all its scientific and cultural missions to Iran canceled. The move is similar to what Egypt did to the Louvre a few months ago in protest over some artifacts stolen from the Valley of the Kings.

The Cyrus cylinder was made in 539 BC to commemorate Cyrus the Great’s conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The inscription is significant for several reasons. It mentions returning exiles to their homeland, which might refer to the end of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity. Some scholars have written that this passage and others about just rule make the cylinder is the world’s first declaration of human rights, although it is by no means comparable to a modern constitution. The text is online here.