LONDON - Most people associate Persia with cats, caviar, carpets and more recently, with alleged conspiracy. Few realize that nearly three thousand years ago a Persian ruler formulated the first bill of human rights. The British Museum, repository for some of the world’s most iconic historical objects, has, for over 130 years, been studying a 23 cm, barrel-shaped cylinder inscribed in cuneiform, which proclaimed freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and repatriated deported peoples, including the Jews. Cyrus was dubbed The Great and revered in the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect enshrined in the cylinder – a symbolic copy of which is today displayed in the UN building in New York.
The Cyrus Cylinder, 539-538 BC, Achaemenid, clay. Courtesy of the British Museum.
This small object, carrying the greatest message in civilization, will now tour to five major U.S. museums in 2013. Last year it was on loan to the National Museum of Iran where more than one million people went to see it. If an equal percentage of the American population were to view it too, perhaps the British Museum will achieve its own act of groundbreaking cultural diplomacy. For what better way is there to understand tolerance and respect for others but through cultural and historic precedent?
The tour will debut at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington DC in March 2013, before travelling to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; then to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and conclude at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Curator John Curtis and BM Director Neil MacGregor have achieved a veritable coup in arranging the participation of these world-class museums, and the Iran heritage Foundation should be applauded for supporting such an extraordinary initiative.
Speaking to the IHF Chairman, I asked what prompted the charity to undertake funding for such a major project in times of austerity. His response echoed the prayers of many Iranians throughout the world today: “Perhaps in the not too distant future, the collective memory will focus on the great contribution to modern civilization of Iranian history and civilization.”