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.

Two tours, two Jerusalems

BBC’s Tim Franks has written a fascinating article about taking two very different tours to the same place. His guides showed him the same sights and talked about the same things, but their interpretations were entirely different. It was like they weren’t talking about the same place at all.

That place, of course, is Jerusalem.

Franks went to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. He took tours with Al-Quds University, the only Arab university in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, run by the Israeli government.

Both took him along the Western Wall, built by King Herod about 2,000 years ago, and through a tunnel dug alongside it. The Jewish tour guide pointed out a mikveh, a room for Jewish ritual cleansing. The Palestinian guide said there was no evidence it was used as such. The Jewish guide said the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall for the anguished prayers of many of the faithful) is one of the walls of the ancient Jewish Temple. The Palestinian guide said there is no evidence for this. The Jewish guide compared this statement to Holocaust denial.

And so it goes, round and round.

Back in my archaeology days I did a field season in Israel and can attest to how quickly history gets turned into a political football. Start talking about archaeology, and sooner or later you’ll start talking religion and politics. Usually sooner. With so many religious sites piled literally on top of one another, there’s bound to be arguments. If you look at the picture of the Western Wall above, you can see the dome for Al-Aksa Mosque right above it, and the Dome of the Rock is just off the picture to the left. Both religions consider this same spot to be sacred.

While we read about this all the time in the news, it’s much more interesting to witness firsthand. So if you are headed to the Holy Land and want to see just how contentious history can be, why not try out both of these tours? Or if this whole thing is just making your head hurt, you can always go to the local Hooters.