The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most important historical documents in Iranian history. It also has special significance for humanity at large because it is one of the earliest declarations that recognizes certain human rights, such as religious freedom. I won’t go far as calling Cyrus a champion of human rights. He certainly was no freedom fighting democrat! Nevertheless, he was one of the more enlightened dictators of his time.
Now that the British Museum has indefinitely postponed loaning the cylinder to the Islamic Republic, the question being asked by many Iranians is: who really owns ancient objects? Foreign museums or the country of origin? Are they safer in London or in Tehran?
Last night I posted a poll asking whether the British Museum should go ahead and loan the Cyrus Cylinder. For most of the day some 60% of the votes were against the loan. Then suddenly, in a couple of hours, hundreds of new votes were registered and reversed the result. We looked at our database and sure enough the poll had been compromised and the results reversed. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty that agents of the Islamic Republic or its supporters are responsible, but who else would tamper with the votes?
It is embarrassing for the Islamic Republic when a clear majority of Iranians — at least among those living abroad — oppose the display of such an important historical object in Iran. They oppose it not because they prefer the British to protect their heritage, rather they simply don’t trust the current rulers in Iran.
The Islamic Republic does not have a distinguished record in protecting and preserving pre-Islamic monuments or objects. And with Cyrus turning into a symbol of a glorious era before the fall of the Persian Empire by the armies of Islam, it’s hard to believe that the Islamic Republic has any real love for the Cyrus Cylinder. Would it be destroyed if it is loaned? I don’t think so. But it could become the focus of another international showdown.
Relations between the two countries have never been great since the 1979 revolution and lately they have been deteriorating. Last June $1.6 billion of Iranian government assets in UK banks were frozen. Just a few days ago the British banned dealings with a major Iranian bank and Iran’s largest state-run shipping organization. And of course Britain is a leading member of the Western alliance trying to put pressure on Iran to stop its uranium enrichment activities. If the cylinder is loaned to Iran under these circumstances, there’s a good chance that the Islamic Republic would refuse to return it and take advantage of the people’s historic mistrust of the British, as well as the popularity of the cylinder, to shore up its dismal popularity following the rigged elections.
I was pretty excited when I saw the real thing during my visit to London this summer. There were numerous other spectacular objects on display and I wondered: why are they here and not in Iran? It’s only natural that almost every Iranian wants them permanently returned. But right now is not the best time.