The voice of a mute thing

“…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.”

Recently I’ve been on a bit of a TED Talk roll, and when I saw Neil MacGregor pop up as a contributor, I had a feeling the talk would be a good one… MacGregor is the current director of the British Museum, responsible for overseeing its vast collections made up of more than 8 million objects. He has consistently and effectively worked to raise public awareness about the museum and its collections, most recently through his presentation of the BBC series, “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” At the same time, the period of his directorship has seen its fair share of controversy, with debates over the rightful ownership (legally- and ethically-speaking) of the Elgin Marbles at the forefront. The TED Talk that I stumbled upon just last week was related to another issue of repatriation that I was unfamiliar with. Yet at this time of year, at the end of a holiday season sacred to a diverse range of people, cultures, and religions, and in the midst of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, this particularly subject holds special significance.

MacGregor’s talk is entitled “2600 years of history in one object.” That one object is the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact which, when compared to other glittering treasures of the British Museum, could easily be overlooked. At first glance, the Cyrus Cylinder seems to be nothing special – a clay cylinder covered in small indentations. They may not look anything like our modern alphabet, but those indentations form the words of the Akkadian cuneiform script, and they tell a story which holds great significance, not only for the history of the Middle East, but for human history at large. This object, this hunk of two and a half millennia old clay, is in fact largely regarded as the “first charter of human rights.”

The cylinder dates to 539-530 BCE and is covered in Babylonian cuneiform. It was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in 1879, but had already accumulated a long and important history. The cylinder’s inscription gives an account of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, king of Persia, in 539 BCE, and his capture of Nabonidus, the last of the Babylonian kings. I know, I know…so far this isn’t sounding very humanitarian… However the remarkable part of this account is found in Cyrus’ description of the aid afforded to the inhabitants of Babylon and the respect he showed to multiple cultures and religions. As MacGregor explains, “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.” Cyrus returned sacred sculptures to their original temples, restored temples, and facilitated the return of the Jews to their homelands, for they had been deported by earlier Babylonian kings.

Obviously, this document was vitally important for the 6th century BCE world of the ancient Near East. But what makes this artifact particularly remarkable is its continued significance in the modern world. I won’t spoil the entire talk for you, but MacGregor skillfully details the cylinder’s more modern history, from World War I to the Iranian Revolution to its recent loan to the National Museum of Tehran. There it was admired by millions of people for whom it was much more than a lump of clay. For Iranians, the Cyrus Cylinder remains an integral piece of their history and heritage. It is part of where they come from, but also represents where they are going, where humanity is going. Indeed, a replica of the Cylinder is housed at the United Nations in New York, a powerful reminder that sometimes “the most powerful and the wisest voice of all of them may well be the voice of [a] mute thing.”

That is the power of archaeology.

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