For the next two months, the Asian Art Museum is hosting the Cyrus Cylinder above, along with a dozen rare treasures from the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE) that was centered in ancient Babylon.
Cyrus the Great conquered the ancient city without bloodshed in 539 BCE and instituted religious freedoms and humanistic reforms which were inscribed into Babylon cuneiform writing and distributed on plaques, tablets, parchment, and sealed cylinders. The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered during a British Museum excavation of Babylon in 1879 and has become a much-studied and revered artifact. (Guest hand model in the above photo is Axel Feldheim.)
In 2010-2011, the cylinder went on tour to Tehran, where half a million people saw the exhibit, which brings up the question of why the cylinder resides in London rather than in Iraq, home of ancient Babylon, or Iran.
As usual, Britain's centuries-old history of worldwide colonial exploitation, theft, torture and murder goes unexamined while we wallow in Downton Abbey worship instead.
The cylinder and accompanying objects are in a small room on the second floor of the Asian Art Museum, between the Japanese and Korean wings, and are beautifully presented.
Strangely, the exhibit transported me to the imagined ancient world conjured by sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany in his Return to Nevèrÿon series. According to a quote from the author on Wikipedia:
In discussing the relation between sword and sorcery and science fiction, Delany notes: “sword and sorcery represents what can still be imagined about the transition between a barter economy and a money economy,” while “science fiction represents what can be most safely imagined about the transition from a money economy to a credit economy”. He goes on to redescribe this relationship in terms of a mathematical theory, put forward by G. Spencer-Brown, having to do with content, image, and reflection, which basically holds that when one moves from a content to an image to a reflection, one reverses the form of the content.