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The Cyrus Cylinder, Wikipedia and Iran conspiracies

The Cyrus CylinderBy Teymoor Nabili

The British Museum has finally lived up to its promise to lend the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran for display.

An artifact documenting the conquest of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, the cylinder has been in the possession of the British Museum since its discovery in 1879.

Presumably because they feared another Elgin Marbles scenario, the museum board last year reneged on the promise of a loan, even though Iran made no demands for permanent ownership of the piece. It seems those worries have now been laid to rest.

Now to my mind, this particular dispute pales in comparison to the story of the Persepolis Tablets. Those are artifacts that truly do belong to Iran but which are being held hostage at (not by) the University of Chicago, where they were supposed to be analysed and preserved. Instead they have become one of the more egregious examples of American litigation culture gone mad. 

But that's a different story for another day. (Meanwhile, learn more about it ">here). 

The Cyrus Cylinder story has thrown up a much more interesting scenario - an apparent tussle of opinions in the shadowy world of  hard drives and "independent" editors that comprise the Wikipedia industry.

Here's the background:

For many years the Cyrus Cylinder has been referred to as "the world's first human rights charter".  The British Museum describes the relic thus:

"It records that, aided by the god Marduk, Cyrus captured Babylon without a struggle, restored shrines dedicated to different gods, and repatriated deported peoples who had been brought to Babylon. It was this decree that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild The Temple. Because of these enlightened acts, which were rare in antiquity, the Cylinder has acquired a special resonance, and is valued by people all around the world as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and different faiths."

In May 2007, Wikipedia's own description of the cylinder said

"The Cyrus Cylinder has been described as the world’s first charter of human rights, and it was translated into all official U.N. languages in 1971. A replica of the cylinder is kept at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City"

But that was before Iran's presidential election last year, and the subsequent ratcheting-up of anti-Iranian activities.

Wikipedia's current entry tells an entirely different story.

Now we see a strenuous attempt to portray the cylinder as nothing more than the propaganda tool of an aggressive invader, and a complete dismissal of the suggestion that the cylinder, or Cyrus' actions, represent concern for human rights or any kind of enlightened intent.  

Gone also are the eariler references to Cyrus' immense reputation throughout the ancient world, as documented in the Old Testament and by the people of Babylon themselves. 

And if you take a look at the page detailing the history of edits made to the page, you'll see a large number of re-writes during 2009/2010. 

Of course, it's perfectly possible that I'm seeing a conspiracy where there really is none. The language and actions of people who lived two and a half thousand years ago are always going to be open to differing interpretations, and every Wikipedia page is a haphazard jumble of diverse thoughts from unconnected people, isn't it? But how to explain the sudden and radical reversal in the consensus of Wikipedia editors? 

 I can't help but wonder whether, just maybe, this could be the much more deliberate product of a specific interest group attempting to denigrate all things Iranian, however tangential their relationship to the present Islamic Republic.

Teymoor Nabili is an award-winning presenter and correspondent based in Kuala Lumpur.

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