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2600 years of history in one object

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    The things we make
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    have one supreme quality --
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    they live longer than us.
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    We perish, they survive;
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    we have one life, they have many lives,
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    and in each life they can mean different things.
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    Which means that, while we all have one biography,
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    they have many.
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    I want this morning to talk
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    about the story, the biography -- or rather the biographies --
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    of one particular object,
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    one remarkable thing.
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    It doesn't, I agree,
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    look very much.
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    It's about the size of a rugby ball.
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    It's made of clay,
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    and it's been fashioned
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    into a cylinder shape,
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    covered with close writing
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    and then baked dry in the sun.
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    And as you can see,
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    it's been knocked about a bit,
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    which is not surprising
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    because it was made two and a half thousand years ago
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    and was dug up
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    in 1879.
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    But today,
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    this thing is, I believe,
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    a major player
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    in the politics of the Middle East.
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    And it's an object
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    with fascinating stories
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    and stories that are by no means over yet.
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    The story begins
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    in the Iran-Iraq war
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    and that series of events
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    that culminated
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    in the invasion of Iraq
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    by foreign forces,
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    the removal of a despotic ruler
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    and instant regime change.
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    And I want to begin
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    with one episode from that sequence of events
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    that most of you would be very familiar with,
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    Belshazzar's feast --
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    because we're talking about the Iran-Iraq war
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    of 539 BC.
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    And the parallels
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    between the events
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    of 539 BC and 2003 and in between
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    are startling.
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    What you're looking at is Rembrandt's painting,
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    now in the National Gallery in London,
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    illustrating the text from the prophet Daniel
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    in the Hebrew scriptures.
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    And you all know roughly the story.
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    Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar,
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    Nebuchadnezzar who'd conquered Israel, sacked Jerusalem
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    and captured the people
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    and taken the Jews back to Babylon.
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    Not only the Jews, he'd taken the temple vessels.
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    He'd ransacked, desecrated the temple.
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    And the great gold vessels of the temple in Jerusalem
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    had been taken to Babylon.
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    Belshazzar, his son,
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    decides to have a feast.
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    And in order to make it even more exciting,
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    he added a bit of sacrilege to the rest of the fun,
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    and he brings out the temple vessels.
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    He's already at war with the Iranians,
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    with the king of Persia.
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    And that night, Daniel tells us,
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    at the height of the festivities
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    a hand appeared and wrote on the wall,
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    "You are weighed in the balance and found wanting,
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    and your kingdom is handed over
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    to the Medes and the Persians."
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    And that very night
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    Cyrus, king of the Persians, entered Babylon
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    and the whole regime of Belshazzar fell.
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    It is, of course, a great moment
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    in the history
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    of the Jewish people.
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    It's a great story. It's story we all know.
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    "The writing on the wall"
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    is part of our everyday language.
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    What happened next
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    was remarkable,
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    and it's where our cylinder
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    enters the story.
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    Cyrus, king of the Persians,
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    has entered Babylon without a fight --
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    the great empire of Babylon,
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    which ran from central southern Iraq
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    to the Mediterranean,
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    falls to Cyrus.
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    And Cyrus makes a declaration.
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    And that is what this cylinder is,
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    the declaration made by the ruler guided by God
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    who had toppled the Iraqi despot
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    and was going to bring freedom to the people.
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    In ringing Babylonian --
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    it was written in Babylonian --
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    he says, "I am Cyrus, king of all the universe,
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    the great king, the powerful king,
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    king of Babylon, king of the four quarters of the world."
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    They're not shy of hyperbole as you can see.
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    This is probably
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    the first real press release
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    by a victorious army
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    that we've got.
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    And it's written, as we'll see in due course,
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    by very skilled P.R. consultants.
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    So the hyperbole is not actually surprising.
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    And what is the great king, the powerful king,
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    the king of the four quarters of the world going to do?
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    He goes on to say that, having conquered Babylon,
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    he will at once let all the peoples
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    that the Babylonians -- Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar --
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    have captured and enslaved
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    go free.
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    He'll let them return to their countries.
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    And more important,
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    he will let them all recover
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    the gods, the statues,
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    the temple vessels
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    that had been confiscated.
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    All the peoples that the Babylonians had repressed and removed
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    will go home,
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    and they'll take with them their gods.
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    And they'll be able to restore their altars
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    and to worship their gods
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    in their own way, in their own place.
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    This is the decree,
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    this object is the evidence
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    for the fact that the Jews,
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    after the exile in Babylon,
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    the years they'd spent sitting by the waters of Babylon,
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    weeping when they remembered Jerusalem,
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    those Jews were allowed to go home.
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    They were allowed to return to Jerusalem
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    and to rebuild the temple.
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    It's a central document
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    in Jewish history.
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    And the Book of Chronicles, the Book of Ezra in the Hebrew scriptures
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    reported in ringing terms.
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    This is the Jewish version
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    of the same story.
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    "Thus said Cyrus, king of Persia,
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    'All the kingdoms of the earth have the Lord God of heaven given thee,
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    and he has charged me
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    to build him a house in Jerusalem.
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    Who is there among you of his people?
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    The Lord God be with him,
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    and let him go up.'"
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    "Go up" -- aaleh.
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    The central element, still,
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    of the notion of return,
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    a central part
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    of the life of Judaism.
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    As you all know, that return from exile,
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    the second temple,
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    reshaped Judaism.
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    And that change,
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    that great historic moment,
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    was made possible by Cyrus, the king of Persia,
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    reported for us in Hebrew in scripture
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    and in Babylonian in clay.
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    Two great texts,
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    what about the politics?
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    What was going on
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    was the fundamental shift in Middle Eastern history.
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    The empire of Iran, the Medes and the Persians,
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    united under Cyrus,
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    became the first great world empire.
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    Cyrus begins in the 530s BC.
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    And by the time of his son Darius,
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    the whole of the eastern Mediterranean
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    is under Persian control.
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    This empire is, in fact,
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    the Middle East as we now know it,
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    and it's what shapes the Middle East as we now know it.
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    It was the largest empire the world had known until then.
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    Much more important,
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    it was the first
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    multicultural, multifaith state
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    on a huge scale.
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    And it had to be run in a quite new way.
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    It had to be run in different languages.
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    The fact that this decree is in Babylonian says one thing.
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    And it had to recognize their different habits,
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    different peoples, different religions, different faiths.
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    All of those are respected by Cyrus.
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    Cyrus sets up a model
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    of how you run
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    a great multinational, multifaith, multicultural society.
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    And the result of that
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    was an empire that included the areas you see on the screen,
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    and which survived for 200 years of stability
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    until it was shattered by Alexander.
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    It left a dream of the Middle East as a unit,
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    and a unit where people of different faiths
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    could live together.
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    The Greek invasions ended that.
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    And of course, Alexander couldn't sustain a government
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    and it fragmented.
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    But what Cyrus represented
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    remained absolutely central.
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    The Greek historian Xenophon
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    wrote his book "Cyropaedia"
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    promoting Cyrus as the great ruler.
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    And throughout European culture afterward,
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    Cyrus remained the model.
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    This is a 16th century image
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    to show you how widespread
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    his veneration actually was.
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    And Xenophon's book on Cyrus
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    on how you ran a diverse society
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    was one of the great textbooks
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    that inspired the Founding Fathers
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    of the American Revolution.
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    Jefferson was a great admirer --
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    the ideals of Cyrus
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    obviously speaking to those 18th century ideals
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    of how you create religious tolerance
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    in a new state.
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    Meanwhile, back in Babylon,
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    things had not been going well.
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    After Alexander, the other empires,
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    Babylon declines, falls into ruins,
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    and all the traces of the great Babylonian empire are lost --
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    until 1879
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    when the cylinder is discovered
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    by a British Museum exhibition digging in Babylon.
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    And it enters now another story.
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    It enters that great debate
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    in the middle of the 19th century:
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    Are the scriptures reliable? Can we trust them?
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    We only knew
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    about the return of the Jews and the decree of Cyrus
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    from the Hebrew scriptures.
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    No other evidence.
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    Suddenly, this appeared.
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    And great excitement
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    to a world where those who believed in the scriptures
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    had had their faith in creation shaken
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    by evolution, by geology,
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    here was evidence
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    that the scriptures were historically true.
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    It's a great 19th century moment.
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    But -- and this, of course, is where it becomes complicated --
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    the facts were true,
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    hurrah for archeology,
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    but the interpretation was rather more complicated.
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    Because the cylinder account and the Hebrew Bible account
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    differ in one key respect.
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    The Babylonian cylinder
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    is written by the priests
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    of the great god of Bablyon, Marduk.
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    And, not surprisingly,
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    they tell you that all this was done by Marduk.
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    "Marduk, we hold, called Cyrus by his name."
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    Marduk takes Cyrus by the hand,
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    calls him to shepherd his people
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    and gives him the rule of Babylon.
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    Marduk tells Cyrus
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    that he will do these great, generous things
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    of setting the people free.
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    And this is why we should all be grateful to
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    and worship Marduk.
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    The Hebrew writers
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    in the Old Testament,
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    you will not be surprised to learn,
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    take a rather different view of this.
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    For them, of course, it can't possibly by Marduk
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    that made all this happen.
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    It can only be Jehovah.
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    And so in Isaiah,
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    we have the wonderful texts
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    giving all the credit of this,
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    not to Marduk
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    but to the Lord God of Israel --
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    the Lord God of Israel
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    who also called Cyrus by name,
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    also takes Cyrus by the hand
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    and talks of him shepherding his people.
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    It's a remarkable example
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    of two different priestly appropriations of the same event,
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    two different religious takeovers
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    of a political fact.
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    God, we know,
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    is usually on the side of the big battalions.
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    The question is, which god was it?
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    And the debate unsettles
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    everybody in the 19th century
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    to realize that the Hebrew scriptures
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    are part of a much wider world of religion.
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    And it's quite clear
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    the cylinder is older than the text of Isaiah,
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    and yet, Jehovah is speaking
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    in words very similar
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    to those used by Marduk.
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    And there's a slight sense that Isaiah knows this,
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    because he says,
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    this is God speaking, of course,
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    "I have called thee by thy name
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    though thou hast not known me."
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    I think it's recognized
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    that Cyrus doesn't realize
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    that he's acting under orders from Jehovah.
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    And equally, he'd have been surprised that he was acting under orders from Marduk.
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    Because interestingly, of course,
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    Cyrus is a good Iranian
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    with a totally different set of gods
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    who are not mentioned in any of these texts.
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    (Laughter)
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    That's 1879.
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    40 years on
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    and we're in 1917,
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    and the cylinder enters a different world.
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    This time, the real politics
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    of the contemporary world --
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    the year of the Balfour Declaration,
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    the year when the new imperial power in the Middle East, Britain,
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    decides that it will declare
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    a Jewish national home,
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    it will allow
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    the Jews to return.
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    And the response to this
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    by the Jewish population in Eastern Europe is rhapsodic.
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    And across Eastern Europe,
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    Jews display pictures of Cyrus
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    and of George V
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    side by side --
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    the two great rulers
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    who have allowed the return to Jerusalem.
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    And the Cyrus cylinder comes back into public view
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    and the text of this
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    as a demonstration of why what is going to happen
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    after the war is over in 1918
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    is part of a divine plan.
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    You all know what happened.
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    The state of Israel is setup,
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    and 50 years later, in the late 60s,
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    it's clear that Britain's role as the imperial power is over.
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    And another story of the cylinder begins.
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    The region, the U.K. and the U.S. decide,
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    has to be kept safe from communism,
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    and the superpower that will be created to do this
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    would be Iran, the Shah.
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    And so the Shah invents an Iranian history,
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    or a return to Iranian history,
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    that puts him in the center of a great tradition
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    and produces coins
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    showing himself
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    with the Cyrus cylinder.
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    When he has his great celebrations in Persepolis,
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    he summons the cylinder
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    and the cylinder is lent by the British Museum, goes to Tehran,
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    and is part of those great celebrations
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    of the Pahlavi dynasty.
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    Cyrus cylinder: guarantor of the Shah.
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    10 years later, another story:
  • 14:33 - 14:35
    Iranian Revolution, 1979.
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    Islamic revolution, no more Cyrus;
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    we're not interested in that history,
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    we're interested in Islamic Iran --
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    until Iraq,
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    the new superpower that we've all decided should be in the region,
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    attacks.
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    Then another Iran-Iraq war.
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    And it becomes critical for the Iranians
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    to remember their great past,
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    their great past
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    when they fought Iraq and won.
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    It becomes critical to find a symbol
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    that will pull together all Iranians --
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    Muslims and non-Muslims,
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    Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews living in Iran,
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    people who are devout, not devout.
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    And the obvious emblem is Cyrus.
  • 15:16 - 15:19
    So when the British Museum and Tehran National Musuem
  • 15:19 - 15:21
    cooperate and work together, as we've been doing,
  • 15:21 - 15:23
    the Iranians ask for one thing only
  • 15:23 - 15:25
    as a loan.
  • 15:25 - 15:27
    It's the only object they want.
  • 15:27 - 15:29
    They want to borrow the Cyrus cylinder.
  • 15:29 - 15:31
    And last year,
  • 15:31 - 15:35
    the Cyrus cylinder went to Tehran
  • 15:35 - 15:38
    for the second time.
  • 15:38 - 15:41
    It's shown being presented here, put into its case
  • 15:41 - 15:44
    by the director of the National Museum of Tehran,
  • 15:44 - 15:47
    one of the many women in Iran in very senior positions,
  • 15:47 - 15:49
    Mrs. Ardakani.
  • 15:49 - 15:51
    It was a huge event.
  • 15:51 - 15:54
    This is the other side of that same picture.
  • 15:54 - 15:57
    It's seen in Tehran
  • 15:57 - 15:59
    by between one and two million people
  • 15:59 - 16:01
    in the space of a few months.
  • 16:01 - 16:03
    This is beyond any blockbuster exhibition
  • 16:03 - 16:05
    in the West.
  • 16:05 - 16:08
    And it's the subject of a huge debate
  • 16:08 - 16:11
    about what this cylinder means, what Cyrus means,
  • 16:11 - 16:14
    but above all, Cyrus as articulated through this cylinder --
  • 16:14 - 16:17
    Cyrus as the defender of the homeland,
  • 16:17 - 16:19
    the champion, of course, of Iranian identity
  • 16:19 - 16:21
    and of the Iranian peoples,
  • 16:21 - 16:23
    tolerant of all faiths.
  • 16:23 - 16:25
    And in the current Iran,
  • 16:25 - 16:28
    Zoroastrians and Christians have guaranteed places
  • 16:28 - 16:31
    in the Iranian parliament, something to be very, very proud of.
  • 16:31 - 16:34
    To see this object in Tehran,
  • 16:34 - 16:36
    thousands of Jews living in Iran
  • 16:36 - 16:38
    came to Tehran to see it.
  • 16:38 - 16:40
    It became a great emblem,
  • 16:40 - 16:42
    a great subject of debate
  • 16:42 - 16:45
    about what Iran is at home and abroad.
  • 16:45 - 16:48
    Is Iran still to be the defender of the oppressed?
  • 16:48 - 16:50
    Will Iran set free the people
  • 16:50 - 16:53
    that the tyrants have enslaved and expropriated?
  • 16:53 - 16:56
    This is heady national rhetoric,
  • 16:56 - 16:58
    and it was all put together
  • 16:58 - 17:00
    in a great pageant
  • 17:00 - 17:02
    launching the return.
  • 17:02 - 17:05
    Here you see this out-sized Cyrus cylinder on the stage
  • 17:05 - 17:08
    with great figures from Iranian history
  • 17:08 - 17:10
    gathering to take their place
  • 17:10 - 17:13
    in the heritage of Iran.
  • 17:13 - 17:15
    It was a narrative presented
  • 17:15 - 17:18
    by the president himself.
  • 17:18 - 17:20
    And for me,
  • 17:20 - 17:22
    to take this object to Iran,
  • 17:22 - 17:24
    to be allowed to take this object to Iran
  • 17:24 - 17:26
    was to be allowed to be part
  • 17:26 - 17:28
    of an extraordinary debate
  • 17:28 - 17:30
    led at the highest levels
  • 17:30 - 17:32
    about what Iran is,
  • 17:32 - 17:35
    what different Irans there are
  • 17:35 - 17:37
    and how the different histories of Iran
  • 17:37 - 17:40
    might shape the world today.
  • 17:40 - 17:43
    It's a debate that's still continuing,
  • 17:43 - 17:45
    and it will continue to rumble,
  • 17:45 - 17:47
    because this object
  • 17:47 - 17:49
    is one of the great declarations
  • 17:49 - 17:51
    of a human aspiration.
  • 17:51 - 17:55
    It stands with the American constitution.
  • 17:55 - 17:58
    It certainly says far more about real freedoms
  • 17:58 - 18:00
    than Magna Carta.
  • 18:00 - 18:03
    It is a document that can mean so many things,
  • 18:03 - 18:06
    for Iran and for the region.
  • 18:06 - 18:08
    A replica of this
  • 18:08 - 18:10
    is at the United Nations.
  • 18:10 - 18:13
    In New York this autumn, it will be present
  • 18:13 - 18:15
    when the great debates
  • 18:15 - 18:18
    about the future of the Middle East take place.
  • 18:18 - 18:20
    And I want to finish by asking you
  • 18:20 - 18:22
    what the next story will be
  • 18:22 - 18:24
    in which this object figures.
  • 18:24 - 18:26
    It will appear, certainly,
  • 18:26 - 18:28
    in many more Middle Eastern stories.
  • 18:28 - 18:30
    And what story of the Middle East,
  • 18:30 - 18:32
    what story of the world,
  • 18:32 - 18:34
    do you want to see
  • 18:34 - 18:36
    reflecting what is said,
  • 18:36 - 18:38
    what is expressed in this cylinder?
  • 18:38 - 18:40
    The right of peoples
  • 18:40 - 18:42
    to live together in the same state,
  • 18:42 - 18:44
    worshiping differently, freely --
  • 18:44 - 18:46
    a Middle East, a world,
  • 18:46 - 18:48
    in which religion is not the subject of division
  • 18:48 - 18:51
    or of debate.
  • 18:51 - 18:54
    In the world of the Middle East at the moment,
  • 18:54 - 18:57
    the debates are, as you know, shrill.
  • 18:57 - 18:59
    But I think it's possible
  • 18:59 - 19:03
    that the most powerful and the wisest voice of all of them
  • 19:03 - 19:05
    may well be the voice
  • 19:05 - 19:07
    of this mute thing,
  • 19:07 - 19:09
    the Cyrus cylinder.
  • 19:09 - 19:11
    Thank you.
  • 19:11 - 19:15
    (Applause)
Title:
2600 years of history in one object
Speaker:
Neil MacGregor
Description:

A clay cylinder covered in Akkadian cuneiform script, damaged and broken, the Cyrus Cylinder is a powerful symbol of religious tolerance and multi-culturalism. In this enthralling talk Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, traces 2600 years of Middle Eastern history through this single object.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
19:16
TED edited English subtitles for 2600 years of history in one object
TED added a translation

English subtitles

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