Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Cyrus Cylinder at the Asian

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.


CeramicsAnnual said...

Great article. Why is it that Britain even today hogs all the glory? Iraq and Iran deserve to showcase their heritage, no matter what is going on over there. Shame!

Nancy Ewart said...

About the cylinder being a declaration of human rights - the chief translator of Sumerian and Babylonian inscriptions does not agree: The British Museum's C.B.F. Walker comments that the "essential character of the Cyrus Cylinder [is not] a general declaration of human rights or religious toleration but simply a building inscription, in the Babylonian and Assyrian tradition, commemorating Cyrus's restoration of the city of Babylon and the worship of Marduk previously neglected by Nabonidus (the last king of the neo-Babylonian empire).

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy: Thanks for the clarification. As you probably remember, that's not what the British Museum's spokesman was saying at the Asian Art presser. Interesting.

Nancy Ewart said...

I was out of town so didn't catch the preview - I took that info from my reading and the BM website. But when I read that this was all about human rights, I just didn't buy it - one of the downsides of having a degree in Classics (low many eons ago). That kind of thinking wasn't around in the 5th Century BC. Now, being a good ruler and respecting the gods of the various cities that you ruled - that I can believe. The Persians must have done something right because their dynasty lasted about 200 years, until overthrown by Alexander the Great. Then when I found the info about the two previous rulers (whose names I could not possibly pronounce), that cinched it for me. But I did realize that the "human rights" tag is being used to sell the cylinder on this tour of the US. Too bad because the reality of the history of that region - which we still know very little about - is so much more fascinating. Can you imagine trying to read cuneiform - and in a broken piece of clay no less? I am reading a book called "Babylon" by Paul Kriwaczek. It's popular history so you won't have to wade through long lists of kings with unpronounceable names but quite well written and fascinating. He also wrote a book on Zarathustra for which he received an award -it's now on my list of books to read.