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Iranian Angered as British Museum Delays Loan of Iconic Artifact

  • Henry Ridgwell

A 2,500-year-old engraved cylinder from the ancient city of Babylon is at the heart of a diplomatic dispute between Iran and Britain. The Cyrus cylinder is believed to be the first written charter of human rights. It's been held in the British Museum since its discovery in 1879 and was supposed to be loaned to Tehran earlier this year. But the museum says recent discoveries have shed new light on the artifact - and it's not clear whether the piece will be lent to Iran at all. Henry Ridgwell went to the British Museum to take a look at the small cylinder that's causing a big fuss.

Behind a fortified glass case in the heart of the British Museum sits the Cyrus cylinder - an icon of ancient Iranian history.

The intricate script carved into the clay, known as Cuneiform, details the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.

It was supposed to be loaned to Iran to go on display there but curators say significant new discoveries have postponed the loan. Over the past week scholars from across the world have attended a special conference to discuss the new findings, as museum curator Irving Finkel explains.

"The reason for it was that in the British Museum we've made a very interesting new discovery," he said. "Two little fragments which were previously unknown and unidentified turned out to be a duplicate of the famous Cyrus cylinder. But what is really wonderful is that despite their size they actually fill in gaps on our Cyrus cylinder because as you know it's got holes in it."

In addition fragments of fossilized bone have been identified thousands of miles away in China - also with Cuneiform inscriptions. Irving Finkel again. "To our amazement these inscriptions were words and lines quoted from the text that we know on the cylinder behind me," he said.

When the delay was announced earlier this year the Iranian authorities claimed it was politically motivated, because of deteriorating relations between Tehran and London following the post-election violence in Iran.

The keeper of the Middle East collections at the Museum John Curtis denied the loan was delayed because of fears that Iran might not give the cylinder back. "The situation at the moment is that talks are ongoing," he said. "We have a very good and ongoing relationship with the Iranian government and I don't see any reason to suppose that they would renege on any agreement."

The cylinder gets plenty of attention from tourists of Iranian descent. Some of them told VoA how they feel about Britain owning such an iconic artifact.

"I think the British Museum has done a great job looking after all these artifacts," said a tourist. "Being here, I don't see any problem with that. And if it's loaned to Iran, make sure it's a loan and will be returned in one piece."

"I'd rather it be in Iran, they know the value more, they know what it is, it's from Iran so it should go back there," said another one.

It may be small - but the unique window on Persian history shows it still has the power to ignite strong passions two and a half thousand years after it was made.