British Museum will loan Cyrus Cylinder to Iran's National Museum

The British Museum pledged to send over the rare cuneiform cylinder in exchange for Iran's ample contributions to previous shows

The British Museum (BM) is to lend one of its most iconic antiquities to Iran. The Cyrus Cylinder, an inscribed clay drum, has been described as the “first charter of human rights”. Tehran’s National Museum director, Muhammad Riza Mehrandish, confirmed that it will come on loan later this year.

Dating to around 539 BC, the cuneiform text records an order by Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, calling for people who had been deported to Babylonia to be returned to their homelands. It was discovered in 1879 by archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam during a BM excavation at Babylon, in what is now Iraq. The legality of the acquisition has never been seriously questioned.

Discussions over lending the Cyrus Cylinder began in 2005, as a result of Tehran’s loan of antiquities for the BM’s “Splendours of Ancient Persia” exhibition that year. Tehran later agreed to lend generously for the current “Shah ‘Abbas” show (until 14 June).

BM director Neil MacGregor visited Tehran last June, when there were further talks. The Cyrus Cylinder was a key object in the BM’s “Babylon” exhibition (which closed on 15 March), although it had not been lent to the two earlier venues, the Louvre in Paris and the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin. While “Shah ‘Abbas” is on, the BM wants to keep the cylinder on show in its permanent Ancient Iran gallery (Room 52).

Last month a BM spokeswoman confirmed that the loan had been agreed in principle by its trustees: “The Cyrus Cylinder has been cleared by our conservation department to travel and there are no issues with conditions at the Tehran museum.”

Although the dates have not yet been fixed, the loan is likely to take place this autumn, for several months.

However, the political situation is complex. On 31 January, the British Council announced that it had been forced to withdraw from Iran, due to harassment of staff by the authorities. This has not affected the BM’s relations with Iran, possibly because it is more independent than the British Council (which is funded by the Foreign Office).

The internal situation in Iran is also in flux, with presidential elections due on 12 June.

The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is standing for re-election: relations with the west have deteriorated under his office. Former president Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), who is more open towards the west, had been expected to stand against him, but last month it was announced that instead he will back ex-prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

The Cyrus Cylinder has only once left the BM since its arrival in 1880, and this was in highly political circumstances (The Art Newspaper, September 2004, pp18-19). In 1971, towards the end of the Shah’s reign, the BM lent the antiquity for the celebrations marking the 2,500th anniversary of Cyrus’s establishment of the Persian monarchy, an event intended to bolster the Shah’s regime. The Cyrus Cylinder was displayed for one week in Tehran, in a monument-cum-museum that the Shah had established.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Rare cuneiform cylinder off to Iran'