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Neil MacGregor: 2600 years of history in one object

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The things we make have one supreme quality -- they live longer than us. We perish, they survive; we have one life, they have many lives, and in each life they can mean different things. Which means that, while we all have one biography, they have many.

I want this morning to talk about the story, the biography -- or rather the biographies -- of one particular object, one remarkable thing. It doesn't, I agree, look very much. It's about the size of a rugby ball. It's made of clay, and it's been fashioned into a cylinder shape, covered with close writing and then baked dry in the sun. And as you can see, it's been knocked about a bit, which is not surprising because it was made two and a half thousand years ago and was dug up in 1879. But today, this thing is, I believe, a major player in the politics of the Middle East. And it's an object with fascinating stories and stories that are by no means over yet.

The story begins in the Iran-Iraq war and that series of events that culminated in the invasion of Iraq by foreign forces, the removal of a despotic ruler and instant regime change. And I want to begin with one episode from that sequence of events that most of you would be very familiar with, Belshazzar's feast -- because we're talking about the Iran-Iraq war of 539 BC. And the parallels between the events of 539 BC and 2003 and in between are startling. What you're looking at is Rembrandt's painting, now in the National Gallery in London, illustrating the text from the prophet Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures. And you all know roughly the story.

Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar who'd conquered Israel, sacked Jerusalem and captured the people and taken the Jews back to Babylon. Not only the Jews, he'd taken the temple vessels. He'd ransacked, desecrated the temple. And the great gold vessels of the temple in Jerusalem had been taken to Babylon. Belshazzar, his son, decides to have a feast. And in order to make it even more exciting, he added a bit of sacrilege to the rest of the fun, and he brings out the temple vessels. He's already at war with the Iranians, with the king of Persia.

And that night, Daniel tells us, at the height of the festivities a hand appeared and wrote on the wall, "You are weighed in the balance and found wanting, and your kingdom is handed over to the Medes and the Persians." And that very night Cyrus, king of the Persians, entered Babylon and the whole regime of Belshazzar fell. It is, of course, a great moment in the history of the Jewish people. It's a great story. It's story we all know. "The writing on the wall" is part of our everyday language. What happened next was remarkable, and it's where our cylinder enters the story.

Cyrus, king of the Persians, has entered Babylon without a fight -- the great empire of Babylon, which ran from central southern Iraq to the Mediterranean, falls to Cyrus. And Cyrus makes a declaration. And that is what this cylinder is, the declaration made by the ruler guided by God who had toppled the Iraqi despot and was going to bring freedom to the people. In ringing Babylonian -- it was written in Babylonian -- he says, "I am Cyrus, king of all the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of the four quarters of the world." They're not shy of hyperbole as you can see. This is probably the first real press release by a victorious army that we've got. And it's written, as we'll see in due course, by very skilled P.R. consultants. So the hyperbole is not actually surprising.

And what is the great king, the powerful king, the king of the four quarters of the world going to do? He goes on to say that, having conquered Babylon, he will at once let all the peoples that the Babylonians -- Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar -- have captured and enslaved go free. He'll let them return to their countries. And more important, he will let them all recover the gods, the statues, the temple vessels that had been confiscated. All the peoples that the Babylonians had repressed and removed will go home, and they'll take with them their gods. And they'll be able to restore their altars and to worship their gods in their own way, in their own place. This is the decree, this object is the evidence for the fact that the Jews, after the exile in Babylon, the years they'd spent sitting by the waters of Babylon, weeping when they remembered Jerusalem, those Jews were allowed to go home. They were allowed to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.

It's a central document in Jewish history. And the Book of Chronicles, the Book of Ezra in the Hebrew scriptures reported in ringing terms. This is the Jewish version of the same story. "Thus said Cyrus, king of Persia, 'All the kingdoms of the earth have the Lord God of heaven given thee, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem. Who is there among you of his people? The Lord God be with him, and let him go up.'" "Go up" -- aaleh. The central element, still, of the notion of return, a central part of the life of Judaism. As you all know, that return from exile, the second temple, reshaped Judaism. And that change, that great historic moment, was made possible by Cyrus, the king of Persia, reported for us in Hebrew in scripture and in Babylonian in clay.

Two great texts, what about the politics? What was going on was the fundamental shift in Middle Eastern history. The empire of Iran, the Medes and the Persians, united under Cyrus, became the first great world empire. Cyrus begins in the 530s BC. And by the time of his son Darius, the whole of the eastern Mediterranean is under Persian control. This empire is, in fact, the Middle East as we now know it, and it's what shapes the Middle East as we now know it. It was the largest empire the world had known until then. Much more important, it was the first multicultural, multifaith state on a huge scale. And it had to be run in a quite new way. It had to be run in different languages. The fact that this decree is in Babylonian says one thing. And it had to recognize their different habits, different peoples, different religions, different faiths. All of those are respected by Cyrus.

Cyrus sets up a model of how you run a great multinational, multifaith, multicultural society. And the result of that was an empire that included the areas you see on the screen, and which survived for 200 years of stability until it was shattered by Alexander. It left a dream of the Middle East as a unit, and a unit where people of different faiths could live together. The Greek invasions ended that. And of course, Alexander couldn't sustain a government and it fragmented. But what Cyrus represented remained absolutely central.

The Greek historian Xenophon wrote his book "Cyropaedia" promoting Cyrus as the great ruler. And throughout European culture afterward, Cyrus remained the model. This is a 16th century image to show you how widespread his veneration actually was. And Xenophon's book on Cyrus on how you ran a diverse society was one of the great textbooks that inspired the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution. Jefferson was a great admirer -- the ideals of Cyrus obviously speaking to those 18th century ideals of how you create religious tolerance in a new state.

Meanwhile, back in Babylon, things had not been going well. After Alexander, the other empires, Babylon declines, falls into ruins, and all the traces of the great Babylonian empire are lost -- until 1879 when the cylinder is discovered by a British Museum exhibition digging in Babylon. And it enters now another story. It enters that great debate in the middle of the 19th century: Are the scriptures reliable? Can we trust them? We only knew about the return of the Jews and the decree of Cyrus from the Hebrew scriptures. No other evidence. Suddenly, this appeared. And great excitement to a world where those who believed in the scriptures had had their faith in creation shaken by evolution, by geology, here was evidence that the scriptures were historically true. It's a great 19th century moment.

But -- and this, of course, is where it becomes complicated -- the facts were true, hurrah for archeology, but the interpretation was rather more complicated. Because the cylinder account and the Hebrew Bible account differ in one key respect. The Babylonian cylinder is written by the priests of the great god of Bablyon, Marduk. And, not surprisingly, they tell you that all this was done by Marduk. "Marduk, we hold, called Cyrus by his name." Marduk takes Cyrus by the hand, calls him to shepherd his people and gives him the rule of Babylon. Marduk tells Cyrus that he will do these great, generous things of setting the people free. And this is why we should all be grateful to and worship Marduk.

The Hebrew writers in the Old Testament, you will not be surprised to learn, take a rather different view of this. For them, of course, it can't possibly by Marduk that made all this happen. It can only be Jehovah. And so in Isaiah, we have the wonderful texts giving all the credit of this, not to Marduk but to the Lord God of Israel -- the Lord God of Israel who also called Cyrus by name, also takes Cyrus by the hand and talks of him shepherding his people. It's a remarkable example of two different priestly appropriations of the same event, two different religious takeovers of a political fact.

God, we know, is usually on the side of the big battalions. The question is, which god was it? And the debate unsettles everybody in the 19th century to realize that the Hebrew scriptures are part of a much wider world of religion. And it's quite clear the cylinder is older than the text of Isaiah, and yet, Jehovah is speaking in words very similar to those used by Marduk. And there's a slight sense that Isaiah knows this, because he says, this is God speaking, of course, "I have called thee by thy name though thou hast not known me." I think it's recognized that Cyrus doesn't realize that he's acting under orders from Jehovah. And equally, he'd have been surprised that he was acting under orders from Marduk. Because interestingly, of course, Cyrus is a good Iranian with a totally different set of gods who are not mentioned in any of these texts.


That's 1879. 40 years on and we're in 1917, and the cylinder enters a different world. This time, the real politics of the contemporary world -- the year of the Balfour Declaration, the year when the new imperial power in the Middle East, Britain, decides that it will declare a Jewish national home, it will allow the Jews to return. And the response to this by the Jewish population in Eastern Europe is rhapsodic. And across Eastern Europe, Jews display pictures of Cyrus and of George V side by side -- the two great rulers who have allowed the return to Jerusalem. And the Cyrus cylinder comes back into public view and the text of this as a demonstration of why what is going to happen after the war is over in 1918 is part of a divine plan. You all know what happened. The state of Israel is setup, and 50 years later, in the late 60s, it's clear that Britain's role as the imperial power is over. And another story of the cylinder begins.

The region, the U.K. and the U.S. decide, has to be kept safe from communism, and the superpower that will be created to do this would be Iran, the Shah. And so the Shah invents an Iranian history, or a return to Iranian history, that puts him in the center of a great tradition and produces coins showing himself with the Cyrus cylinder. When he has his great celebrations in Persepolis, he summons the cylinder and the cylinder is lent by the British Museum, goes to Tehran, and is part of those great celebrations of the Pahlavi dynasty. Cyrus cylinder: guarantor of the Shah.

10 years later, another story: Iranian Revolution, 1979. Islamic revolution, no more Cyrus; we're not interested in that history, we're interested in Islamic Iran -- until Iraq, the new superpower that we've all decided should be in the region, attacks. Then another Iran-Iraq war. And it becomes critical for the Iranians to remember their great past, their great past when they fought Iraq and won. It becomes critical to find a symbol that will pull together all Iranians -- Muslims and non-Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews living in Iran, people who are devout, not devout. And the obvious emblem is Cyrus.

So when the British Museum and Tehran National Musuem cooperate and work together, as we've been doing, the Iranians ask for one thing only as a loan. It's the only object they want. They want to borrow the Cyrus cylinder. And last year, the Cyrus cylinder went to Tehran for the second time. It's shown being presented here, put into its case by the director of the National Museum of Tehran, one of the many women in Iran in very senior positions, Mrs. Ardakani. It was a huge event. This is the other side of that same picture. It's seen in Tehran by between one and two million people in the space of a few months. This is beyond any blockbuster exhibition in the West. And it's the subject of a huge debate about what this cylinder means, what Cyrus means, but above all, Cyrus as articulated through this cylinder -- Cyrus as the defender of the homeland, the champion, of course, of Iranian identity and of the Iranian peoples, tolerant of all faiths. And in the current Iran, Zoroastrians and Christians have guaranteed places in the Iranian parliament, something to be very, very proud of.

To see this object in Tehran, thousands of Jews living in Iran came to Tehran to see it. It became a great emblem, a great subject of debate about what Iran is at home and abroad. Is Iran still to be the defender of the oppressed? Will Iran set free the people that the tyrants have enslaved and expropriated? This is heady national rhetoric, and it was all put together in a great pageant launching the return. Here you see this out-sized Cyrus cylinder on the stage with great figures from Iranian history gathering to take their place in the heritage of Iran. It was a narrative presented by the president himself.

And for me, to take this object to Iran, to be allowed to take this object to Iran was to be allowed to be part of an extraordinary debate led at the highest levels about what Iran is, what different Irans there are and how the different histories of Iran might shape the world today. It's a debate that's still continuing, and it will continue to rumble, because this object is one of the great declarations of a human aspiration. It stands with the American constitution. It certainly says far more about real freedoms than Magna Carta. It is a document that can mean so many things, for Iran and for the region.

A replica of this is at the United Nations. In New York this autumn, it will be present when the great debates about the future of the Middle East take place. And I want to finish by asking you what the next story will be in which this object figures. It will appear, certainly, in many more Middle Eastern stories. And what story of the Middle East, what story of the world, do you want to see reflecting what is said, what is expressed in this cylinder? The right of peoples to live together in the same state, worshiping differently, freely -- a Middle East, a world, in which religion is not the subject of division or of debate.

In the world of the Middle East at the moment, the debates are, as you know, shrill. But I think it's possible that the most powerful and the wisest voice of all of them may well be the voice of this mute thing, the Cyrus cylinder.

Thank you.


Video Details

Duration: 19 minutes and 16 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 338
Posted by: tedtalks on Feb 17, 2012

A clay cylinder covered in Akkadian cuneiform script, damaged and broken, the Cyrus Cylinder is a powerful symbol of religious tolerance and multi-culturalism. In this enthralling talk Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, traces 2600 years of Middle Eastern history through this single object.

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