Iranian officials are calling to halt the planned transfer of a significant Babylonian artifact from the British Museum to Jerusalem, raising concern that relocating the 6th century artifact to the city amid the ongoing Israel-Gaza war poses “risk” to it.
The artifact, a fragment of a 2,600-year-old object from ancient Babylonian territory (now modern-day Iraq), bears an inscription in cuneiform on its clay surface. It’s considered a key document of one of the first establishments of Persian rule and a record of the Persian King Cyrus’s edict allowing formerly enslaved people to return to their countries.
In letters, Hadi Mirzaei, Iran’s director-general of the General Office of Museums, raised concerns about the planned transfer to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, arranged tentatively to take place in October. Mirzaei addressed the dispute in separate correspondences with Amir-Hossein Gharibnejad, the vice president for cultural cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ali-Akbar Mottakan, the secretary-general of the National Commission for UNESCO-Iran, the Tehran Times reported in mid-January.
Mirzaei stated in a letter published by Iranian news agency Mehr, that the pending transfer of the cylinder “will undoubtedly be inappropriate due to potential risks associated with it.” The British Museum, in a statement to the Art Newspaper, said that the cylinder, currently on loan in the U.S. at Yale’s Peabody Museum, will be “announced in due course.”
A representative for the British Museum did not immediately respond to ARTnews’s request for comment.
Controversy surrounding the British Museum’s loaning of the artifact has persisted for more than a decade. In 2010, when the British Museum loaned it to the National Museum of Iran in Terhan, Iranian officials criticized the temporary nature of the agreement, arguing that the cylinder’s excavation in 1879 from its original location in Iraq justified Tehran’s request for the object to be shown for a longer period in the Middle East.
Historians consider the artifact a key document to the region. In 2013, it was part of the traveling exhibition “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A year earlier in an interview with The Economist, former British Museum director Neil MacGregor described the fragment as one of the first documents to reflect a state’s consideration of how to “govern diversity.”
In their letter, Iranian officials underscored the cylinder’s ties to the region. The culture ministry based their opposition to the potential transfer of the object to Jerusalem on the 1945 Hague Convention, a standard meant to allow governments to safeguard objects with national roots, especially in areas undergoing armed conflict.