How Britain tried to use the Cyrus Cylinder for political gain

As The British Museum prepares to loan the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran, The Art Newspaper remembers the Persian antiquity's first visit to its home nation in 1971


The Art Newspaper can reveal that the British Museum (BM) is lending one of its famous antiquities to Iran. The Cyrus Cylinder, an inscribed clay drum, has been described as the “first charter of human rights”. Dating from 539 BC, it records Cyrus the Great’s order for the humane treatment of the Babylonians after their conquest by the Persians. As BM director Neil MacGregor points out, the text has “powerful modern resonances in the context of current conflicts in the region”.

The Cyrus Cylinder is to be lent to Tehran’s National Museum for several months in 2006. The Iranian museum has also promised to send more than 50 antiquities for the BM’s “Splendours of Ancient Persia” exhibition, which opens in September 2005.

The Cyrus Cylinder has only left the British Museum once before, when it was sent to Iran in 1971. Thanks to secret government papers, recently declassified at the National Archives, we are able to tell the story of this extraordinary loan. The BM decided to lend the antiquity without consulting the Foreign Office, and the UK government later feared that the Iranians would refuse to return it. Concerns also arose that the Duke of Edinburgh or the Queen might wish to give the Cyrus Cylinder to the Shah as a gift.

A feast fit for a Shah

In October 1971 the Shah marked the 2,500th anniversary of Cyrus’ establishment of the Persian monarchy with one of the grandest celebrations of modern times. There was a feast, flown in from Paris, for 52 heads of State or representatives. The menu included quails’ eggs stuffed with golden caviar, imperial peacock and Moët & Chandon 1911 sorbet, washed down by magnums of Chateau Lafite 1945. As British ambassador Sir Peter Ramsbotham recorded in a confidential dispatch, “the celebrations were somewhat marred by a lack of moderation, an inability to stop, a megalomania, from which the Shah himself, like so many of his predecessors, is now beginning to suffer”.

The centrepiece of this regal extravaganza was the Cyrus Cylinder, which was lent for a seven-day display in a monument-cum-museum. As the ambassador explained, it became “the official symbol of the celebrations which, like Cyrus’ declaration, were intended to win international recognition for the Shah’s achievements and internal acceptance in Iran”. The Shah even put the cylinder on Iranian stamps and coins.

Fear of a claim

The idea to borrow the Cyrus Cylinder had come from the Shah, with his request being relayed via the British ambassador to the Foreign Office in London on 20 August 1971. Ambassador Ramsbotham’s proposal was rejected in Whitehall, on the grounds that it might well lead to an Iranian claim on the antiquity.

An internal Foreign Office memo reveals a highly proprietorial attitude, considering that the object belonged to the BM. The Foreign Office “had considered the possibility of lending the cylinder to the celebrations and rejected the idea, but had not of course discussed it with the Museum since there seemed no reason to do so”. This lack of contact with the institution meant that the Foreign Office did not know that the BM trustees had already formally approved the loan.

The BM’s Keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities, Richard Barnett, had been invited to a conference of Iranologists in Shiraz and was also asked if he could bring the Cyrus Cylinder. On 24 July the loan was approved by the trustees, with its insurance valuation given as £5,000 (its present financial value would presumably be millions of pounds).

The first that Foreign Office Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Denis Greenhill heard about the loan was when he read The Times over breakfast on the morning of 15 October. It was reported that the Cyrus Cylinder had arrived in Tehran, and that Iranians felt much the same about it “as the Greeks feel about the Elgin marbles”. The Foreign Office was scrambled into action, with one official warning that “if the [British] Museum find they have dug a pit for themselves, it will be for them to climb out”. Another official said the BM should be warned that “it would be better to discuss [with the Foreign Office] the loan of priceless objects like this to countries with ultra-nationalistic ambitions”.

BM secretary Bentley Bridgewater found himself at the receiving end of an angry phone call from the Foreign Office. According to a Foreign Office note, “Mr Bridgewater said he had not known of the loan, which appeared to be Dr Barnett’s proposal”. This is curious, since the loan had been formally approved by the trustees three months earlier.


Dr Barnett had flown into Tehran on 9 October with the Cyrus Cylinder in his holdall, and it then became the star exhibit in an unusual museum. The Shah had ordered the construction of an enormous arch-like monument near Tehran’s airport, known as the Shahyad, to glorify royal rule. A small museum was hastily set up in a basement beneath the arch.

The Shah used the presence of the Cyrus Cylinder to argue that Persia had been the birthplace of human rights. This claim was being made at a time when he himself was becoming increasingly autocratic, brutally crushing political opposition. There were widespread allegations of torture by his secret police. Foreign Office papers also reveal that Princess Ashraf, sister of the Shah, used the arrival of the cylinder to lobby for the establishment of an “Asian Centre for Human Rights” in Tehran. Despite the Shah’s despotic rule, Britain continued to support him, regarding Iran as a bastion of anti-communism on the Soviet Union’s doorstep.

Ambassador Ramsbotham reported on what happened to the Cyrus Cylinder: “The Iranians took the tablet and displayed it prominently in the Shahyad monument-cum-museum which the Shah was to open—in the presence of all his royal guests—on 16 October. Alone in its case in the central position, it lay there as the symbol of everything that the celebrations were about, and my fears that it would lie there for all time were increased when one of the local papers suggested that it should now be kept in Iran”.

He then alluded to another potential problem: “I thought it right to warn Prince Philip that, when the opening ceremony for the Shahyad museum took place, the Shah might ask him to arrange for the tablet to stay here, now that it had found its way ‘home’. With the tablet on prominent display, I thought the best course might be for Prince Philip to reply that he would look into the question of a long loan. In the event, the Shah said nothing, perhaps because on 16 October Prince Philip prudently went to the furthest corner away from the display cabinet!”

The Iranians wanted an extension of the loan, but Barnett responded that it was necessary to return the cylinder, because on 29 October it would be the star object in the BM’s own exhibition on “Royal Persia”. Sir Peter Ramsbotham reported back to the Foreign Office that the BM Keeper had only been able to take possession of the cylinder at midnight, en route to the airport: “When Barnett was due to leave Tehran, in the night hours of 19 October, he and the director of the Iran Bastan (National) Museum discreetly visited the Shahyad monument, extracted the tablet, popped it back in his holdall and Dr Barnett departed”. Courier procedures were more relaxed in those days: Dr Barnett stopped off in Israel to see his son, before returning to London two days later with the precious holdall.

Military considerations

Although the cylinder was safely home, the diplomatic tussle continued, involving the Prime Minister. The Foreign Secretary’s officials contacted Edward Heath’s office, passing on the ambassador’s suggestion that, following the successful week-long display, the cylinder should either be presented to Iran or offered on permanent loan.

The diplomatic and military advantages were spelt out by Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s private secretary: it would “offset in advance, as it were, any disappointment the Shah might feel in securing his aims over the disputed Gulf islands, and to encourage him to cooperate with us militarily in 1972”. Iran was then pursuing territorial claims over two small islands, Tumb and Abu Musa, which were part of the Trucial States, then still under British protection.

Pressure to return the cylinder also came from a small group of influential Britons who were strong supporters of the Shah, including former attorney general Lord Shawcross and Conservative MP Sir Clive Bossum. The British Museum made it quite clear it did not want to hand over the antiquity, and Mr Heath then personally intervened to discourage the Shah’s friends from launching a public campaign for the return of the antiquity to Iran.

Royal request

There even appeared to be pressure from Buckingham Palace to hand over the Cyrus Cylinder. As Sir Peter Ramsbotham explained to the Foreign Office: “Prince Philip may initiate a proposal that the Tablet should be offered to the Shah at some convenient date in 1972, either by himself (if he responds to the Shah’s invitation to come and stay) or even by The Queen stopping off for a few hours on her way to South-east Asia”. No further explanation was given, but possibly the Duke of Edinburgh wished to thank the Shah for the gift he had received, a Caspian miniature stallion and mare, flown to Britain by the Iranian air force.

The British Museum continued to resist proposals to dispose of its antiquity, stressing that it was legally unable to deaccession. The Foreign Office therefore came up with an alternative suggestion. On 29 October an official recorded: “The Secretary of State has asked why shouldn’t the museum put the Tablet on display in Iran every third year”.

BM chairman Lord Trevelyan, a former diplomat (and once ambassador in Iraq), responded that a 12-month loan every three years on an indefinite basis “would be extremely difficult for the British Museum to accept”. He explained: “The BM held so many historic relics from foreign countries that, if they agreed to the principle of permanent sharing in respect of the Cyrus Tablet, they would undoubtedly be flooded with similar requests...Furthermore, it was incredibly unlikely that the Iranians would ever return the Tablet to the BM at the end of the first year’s loan”.

Meanwhile, the Shah soon found that he had more pressing problems. Protests intensified during the next few years, and in 1979 he was forced to flee, with power passing to Ayatollah Khomeini. In retrospect, the megalomania surrounding the 2,500th anniversary celebrations can be seen as marking the beginning of the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Last month The Art Newspaper spoke with Sir Peter Ramsbotham, now 84. He still remembers Dr Barnett’s arrival with the cylinder in his holdall. “I was very concerned that once the tablet was in Iran it might not go out again”.

The following year, the Duke of Edinburgh did revisit Iran, for a birdwatching tour. Sir Peter was invited along, flying on the Shah’s helicopter alongside thousands of flamingoes on their annual migration from Russia to Egypt. Fortunately, on that occasion, Prince Philip found another gift to present to the Shah.

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What is the Cyrus Cylinder?

The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered in 1879 in ancient Babylon, in what was then part of the Ottoman empire and is now modern Iraq. It was found by Hormuzd Rassam during an excavation undertaken by the British Museum, and he had authorisation from the Ottoman authorities to export the finds. Ownership of the cylinder therefore passed to the BM and title to it has never been seriously questioned.

The 23-centimetre long baked clay cylinder, inscribed in cuneiform, is an order by Cyrus the Great following his conquest of Babylon. This ended an earlier “Iran-Iraq” war, with the expansion of the Persian empire. The text records how Cyrus ordered the restitution of images of gods, which had been taken to Babylon, and these were to be brought back to temples in Mesopotamia and western Iran. The king also called for the return to their homelands of people who had been deported to Babylonia. The message is therefore archaeological evidence to support Biblical texts that Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Palestine and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Although the cylinder has been described as the first “charter of human rights”, it reflects a Mesopotamian tradition that kings began their reigns with reforms. According to BM director Neil MacGregor: “The cylinder may indeed be a document of human rights and is clearly linked with the history of Iran, but it is in no real sense an Iranian document: it is part of a much larger history of the ancient Near East, of Mesopotamian kingship, and of the Jewish diaspora. It is one of the museum’s tasks to resist the narrowing of the object’s meaning and its appropriation to one political agenda”.


How things have changed

British Museum director Neil MacGregor is astonished at the revelations in the Foreign Office file and is keen to stress that relations between British and foreign museums have changed profoundly since 1971. “In the space of a generation there has been an unprecedented sharing of cultural heritage on the international exhibition circuit. The idea of objects going out and coming back is now completely normal; in those days it was more of a big deal. Today it is done on a museum-to-museum basis, not at governmental level. I have informed the Foreign Office about our plans to lend the Cyrus Cylinder and told our ambassador in Tehran, but that is all”. Looking back, Mr MacGregor is horrified at suggestions that the Cyrus Cylinder might have been given to the Shah for short-term political and military gains. The BM’s current Keeper of the Ancient Near East, John Curtis, is convinced that it is right to lend the cylinder again to Tehran. He also points out that the cylinder was inscribed by a Babylonian scribe and discovered in Babylon, now part of modern Iraq. “The Cyrus Cylinder is just as much part of the cultural heritage of Iraq as Iran. In due course, we might consider lending it to the National Museum in Baghdad”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How Britain tried to use a Persian antiquity for political gain'