CNN's Christiane Amanpour in conversation with Neil Macgregor.

WASHINGTON - There are lectures and then there are lectures. British Museum Director Neil Macgregor has perfected the art of lecturing and nowhere is this more apparent than in his speeches about the Cyrus Cylinder—one of the museum objects that defines our concept of democratic governance. On 6 March, His Excellency Sir Peter and Lady Westmacott hosted a select audience at the British Embassy in Washington DC to hear Neil speak about the relationship of this 2,500-yr old clay object to modern cultural and political issues. On loan to the Iranian government in 2009 (from its “trustees” in the UK, as Neil described it), a million Iranians flocked to see it, and even replicated a blimp-sized version complete with historical re-enactment. As with all great legacies, Cyrus’s decree has had an almost Biblical propensity for re-interpretation. The Founding Fathers in the US urged the Cyrus philosophy of religious plurality and tolerance; the Jews heralded its message of freedom for their people, and even President Ahmadinejad pointed to its advocacy of helping the oppressed, namely the Palestinians. The cylinder is on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery until 28 April.

For me, the key point of this seminal lecture was the fact that Cyrus’s archenemy Alexander saw fit to weep at the grave of perhaps one of the greatest rulers in history. Whoever has seized upon the extraordinary legacy of this “political prophet”, knows one thing above all: that his message was not just universal but timeless.

After the lecture, Lady Westmacott, herself an Iranian and ever the gracious hostess, pointed me to a superb Damien Hirst “Dot Painting” that had come from the Paris Embassy, some important Julian Opies, and a number of wonderful prints, which sadly there was no time to admire closely. It was
an exceptional privilege to be amongst the mainly American audience last night as the cultural diplomacy of the Cyrus Cylinder well and truly set sail.