The Cyrus Cylinder: celebrating 2500 years of the Persian Empire

16 February 2016

In 1971, the Shah of Iran threw a party the likes of which the world had rarely before seen. It featured roasted peacocks, a city of silk, Italian son et lumiere amusements and dignitaries from every corner of the globe. You may have seen the recent BBC4 programme which examined this extraordinary event, which was a celebration of 2500 years of the Persian Empire, dating back to Cyrus the Great. In hindsight we know that this empire would soon come crashing down in the Iranian revolution of 1979, and it is this aspect which is so often analysed and studied nowadays.

Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

However, what is interesting to me is the role the British government played in the Shah’s opulent anniversary celebrations. Central to the mythos surrounding Cyrus the Great is the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay cylinder which the Iranian government claimed to be the world’s first charter of human rights. And yet it was housed in the British Museum. Eventually it was taken to Iran on loan; the British government then had to worry about whether or not it might ever be returned. One government official put it quite succinctly: “We shall, of course, know by the middle of next week whether the Iranians intend to make any difficulty about the return of the cylinder on this occasion… Either way I consider that, if the Museum find they have dug a pit for themselves, it will be for them to climb out. We should not risk our own relations with the Iranians by trying to mediate”.

This level of detachment perhaps isn’t so surprising, especially considering that the government seems to have felt left out at points where discussion of its loan was concerned. Having initially rejected the request which came from the ambassador, and believed to have originated from the Shah, the government was then perplexed to find the British Museum had agreed to loan it. What’s more, “the Shah who almost certainly was behind the request from the Ambassador, has persuaded Sir Clive Bossom and Lord Shawcross, who attended the celebrations, to write to the Prime Minister suggesting that the museum make the cylinder available on permanent loan”. Bossom did indeed write such a letter.

Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The Prime Minister wasted no time in responding, citing the British Museum Act of 1963 and making quite clear that “[he] cannot agree with you that there is no analogy with the Elgin Marbles”. In both cases, then, Prime Minister Heath was sure that the British Museum was where the items should remain.

Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The Cyrus cylinder remains at the British Museum to this day. Whether Bossom and Lord Shawcross were right or not in thinking that its permanent loan to Iran would have smoothed over UK-Iran relations, it is safe to say that it probably would have had very little effect on the revolution that was to end Cyrus’ imperial legacy.

To see this document in full in the collection, click here.

Available now, Middle East 1971-1974: The Arab-Israeli War and the 1973 Oil Crisis is the first module of the Archives Direct Resource, Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981. Full access to this resource is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a licence.

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About the Author

Sara Hussain

Sara Hussain

Since joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 I have worked across a variety of projects, including World's Fairs and African American Communities. I enjoy studying all types of history and dabbling in languages, and travelling in my spare time, a combination which is perfectly complemented by my day-to-day work.

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