Why the Cyrus Cylinder matters to Mumbai
The Cyrus Cylinder, often regarded as the precursor to the Charter of Human Rights, will be displayed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya from December 21. Dr John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects, The British Museum and Curator of the exhibition, The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning tells Fiona Fernandez why Mumbaiites should grab this chance to view the 32-object spectacle
Could you tell us about the Cyrus Cylinder’s historic significance and its importance since its discovery in 1879?
It was found during an excavation. Cyrus the Great deposited it in 539 BC. At times, it is even regarded as the first bill on Human Rights -- which is misleading, because such an idea didn’t exist then. The concept of Human Rights is modern. Personal liberty hadn’t taken root then. There are five reasons why it remains significant today:
>> Cyrus occupied Babylon peacefully, unlike others who would destroy areas and burn them to the ground.
>> He absolved Babylon’s inhabitants from forced labour, which was unheard of in those times. Instead, they worked probably for the government or the temple.
>> He exercised freedom of worship on Babylonians because statues and religious objects were returned to their shrines.
>> People who were deported were allowed to return to places
>> We now know that this inscription was more a proclamation than the foundation, as two recent tablets of the same cuneiform text were found. I doubt this is a unique document; there might be more cylinders, especially if the clay has been baked in antiquity. It’s a matter of chance that only one has been discovered so far.
Tell us about the significance of this tablet for Asia, and India in particular.
It remains an important icon from Asian history, and for students. Besides, the tablet has immense importance here, in Mumbai, among Parsis, as Cyrus was a Persian king. As part of this exhibition, we’ll get to witness the first Indian evidence of proclamation of human values (Ashokan Edict — 300 BCE) promoted by Ashoka the Great. This comparison should be most insightful.
How does the British Museum ensure that this unique relic of ancient history stands the rigour of travel across the world?
This travelling exhibition includes 32 objects from Persian history, each of which is in good condition. We wouldn’t have sent them otherwise. We are completely confident that the pre-requisite conditions, including humidity and temperature control, packing and unpacking, and mounting of the object at the CSMVS is world-class. Mr Sabyasachi Mukherjee and his staff have done a splendid job as our partners in this venture to showcase this exhibition.
How did the exhibition come to Mumbai?
Last year, the British Museum had brought down the successful exhibition, Mummy -- The Inside Story. We regard CSMVS as our partner institution, and hence felt it was very important to further this, by bringing down the Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia exhibition to Mumbai. Besides, it would also give an opportunity for the city’s Parsi population to view these intrinsic parts of their religious history. You played an active role to protect the Iraqi cultural heritage, co-editing the UNESCO report on damage to Babylon. Tell us about this experience. I’ve done my best to protect Iraqi heritage. The damage was huge. 18,000 objects were looted from Baghdad’s Iraq Museum. This grave loss occurred during the 2nd Gulf War (April-May 2003). The administration was swept away and due to a total lack of law and order, thievery was rampant. Babylon was different as it was converted into a military camp, and until 2004, its heritage was damaged — not due to insurgency but because it was a military camp. Some of this loss is irreversible because many treasures lie in private collections across the world. Now, after 10 years, a few have have been returned, but we can’t be sure of the rest.
Must see at CSMVS
>> The 32 objects include inscriptions in old Persian cuneiform, jewellery and tableware, a gold plaque from the Oxus Treasure associated with Zoroastrianism, coins and seals.
>> The first documentary evidence of Indian proclamation of human values (Ashokan Edict -- 300 BCE) propagated by the ancient Indian Emperor, Ashoka the Great along with a relief panel from Persepolis to be displayed.
>> Guided tours, slide-illustrated shows, puppet workshops, Animation workshop on human rights, cuneiform script workshop, relief sculpture and numismatics workshops will be conducted for school and college students.
>> Tactile tours for the visually impaired for a multisensory experience.