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← 2600 years of history in one object

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Showing Revision 2 created 07/31/2013 by TED.

  1. The things we make

  2. have one supreme quality --
  3. they live longer than us.
  4. We perish, they survive;
  5. we have one life, they have many lives,
  6. and in each life they can mean different things.
  7. Which means that, while we all have one biography,
  8. they have many.
  9. I want this morning to talk

  10. about the story, the biography -- or rather the biographies --
  11. of one particular object,
  12. one remarkable thing.
  13. It doesn't, I agree,
  14. look very much.
  15. It's about the size of a rugby ball.
  16. It's made of clay,
  17. and it's been fashioned
  18. into a cylinder shape,
  19. covered with close writing
  20. and then baked dry in the sun.
  21. And as you can see,
  22. it's been knocked about a bit,
  23. which is not surprising
  24. because it was made two and a half thousand years ago
  25. and was dug up
  26. in 1879.
  27. But today,
  28. this thing is, I believe,
  29. a major player
  30. in the politics of the Middle East.
  31. And it's an object
  32. with fascinating stories
  33. and stories that are by no means over yet.
  34. The story begins

  35. in the Iran-Iraq war
  36. and that series of events
  37. that culminated
  38. in the invasion of Iraq
  39. by foreign forces,
  40. the removal of a despotic ruler
  41. and instant regime change.
  42. And I want to begin
  43. with one episode from that sequence of events
  44. that most of you would be very familiar with,
  45. Belshazzar's feast --
  46. because we're talking about the Iran-Iraq war
  47. of 539 BC.
  48. And the parallels
  49. between the events
  50. of 539 BC and 2003 and in between
  51. are startling.
  52. What you're looking at is Rembrandt's painting,
  53. now in the National Gallery in London,
  54. illustrating the text from the prophet Daniel
  55. in the Hebrew scriptures.
  56. And you all know roughly the story.
  57. Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar,

  58. Nebuchadnezzar who'd conquered Israel, sacked Jerusalem
  59. and captured the people
  60. and taken the Jews back to Babylon.
  61. Not only the Jews, he'd taken the temple vessels.
  62. He'd ransacked, desecrated the temple.
  63. And the great gold vessels of the temple in Jerusalem
  64. had been taken to Babylon.
  65. Belshazzar, his son,
  66. decides to have a feast.
  67. And in order to make it even more exciting,
  68. he added a bit of sacrilege to the rest of the fun,
  69. and he brings out the temple vessels.
  70. He's already at war with the Iranians,
  71. with the king of Persia.
  72. And that night, Daniel tells us,

  73. at the height of the festivities
  74. a hand appeared and wrote on the wall,
  75. "You are weighed in the balance and found wanting,
  76. and your kingdom is handed over
  77. to the Medes and the Persians."
  78. And that very night
  79. Cyrus, king of the Persians, entered Babylon
  80. and the whole regime of Belshazzar fell.
  81. It is, of course, a great moment
  82. in the history
  83. of the Jewish people.
  84. It's a great story. It's story we all know.
  85. "The writing on the wall"
  86. is part of our everyday language.
  87. What happened next
  88. was remarkable,
  89. and it's where our cylinder
  90. enters the story.
  91. Cyrus, king of the Persians,

  92. has entered Babylon without a fight --
  93. the great empire of Babylon,
  94. which ran from central southern Iraq
  95. to the Mediterranean,
  96. falls to Cyrus.
  97. And Cyrus makes a declaration.
  98. And that is what this cylinder is,
  99. the declaration made by the ruler guided by God
  100. who had toppled the Iraqi despot
  101. and was going to bring freedom to the people.
  102. In ringing Babylonian --
  103. it was written in Babylonian --
  104. he says, "I am Cyrus, king of all the universe,
  105. the great king, the powerful king,
  106. king of Babylon, king of the four quarters of the world."
  107. They're not shy of hyperbole as you can see.
  108. This is probably
  109. the first real press release
  110. by a victorious army
  111. that we've got.
  112. And it's written, as we'll see in due course,
  113. by very skilled P.R. consultants.
  114. So the hyperbole is not actually surprising.
  115. And what is the great king, the powerful king,

  116. the king of the four quarters of the world going to do?
  117. He goes on to say that, having conquered Babylon,
  118. he will at once let all the peoples
  119. that the Babylonians -- Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar --
  120. have captured and enslaved
  121. go free.
  122. He'll let them return to their countries.
  123. And more important,
  124. he will let them all recover
  125. the gods, the statues,
  126. the temple vessels
  127. that had been confiscated.
  128. All the peoples that the Babylonians had repressed and removed
  129. will go home,
  130. and they'll take with them their gods.
  131. And they'll be able to restore their altars
  132. and to worship their gods
  133. in their own way, in their own place.
  134. This is the decree,
  135. this object is the evidence
  136. for the fact that the Jews,
  137. after the exile in Babylon,
  138. the years they'd spent sitting by the waters of Babylon,
  139. weeping when they remembered Jerusalem,
  140. those Jews were allowed to go home.
  141. They were allowed to return to Jerusalem
  142. and to rebuild the temple.
  143. It's a central document

  144. in Jewish history.
  145. And the Book of Chronicles, the Book of Ezra in the Hebrew scriptures
  146. reported in ringing terms.
  147. This is the Jewish version
  148. of the same story.
  149. "Thus said Cyrus, king of Persia,
  150. 'All the kingdoms of the earth have the Lord God of heaven given thee,
  151. and he has charged me
  152. to build him a house in Jerusalem.
  153. Who is there among you of his people?
  154. The Lord God be with him,
  155. and let him go up.'"
  156. "Go up" -- aaleh.
  157. The central element, still,
  158. of the notion of return,
  159. a central part
  160. of the life of Judaism.
  161. As you all know, that return from exile,
  162. the second temple,
  163. reshaped Judaism.
  164. And that change,
  165. that great historic moment,
  166. was made possible by Cyrus, the king of Persia,
  167. reported for us in Hebrew in scripture
  168. and in Babylonian in clay.
  169. Two great texts,

  170. what about the politics?
  171. What was going on
  172. was the fundamental shift in Middle Eastern history.
  173. The empire of Iran, the Medes and the Persians,
  174. united under Cyrus,
  175. became the first great world empire.
  176. Cyrus begins in the 530s BC.
  177. And by the time of his son Darius,
  178. the whole of the eastern Mediterranean
  179. is under Persian control.
  180. This empire is, in fact,
  181. the Middle East as we now know it,
  182. and it's what shapes the Middle East as we now know it.
  183. It was the largest empire the world had known until then.
  184. Much more important,
  185. it was the first
  186. multicultural, multifaith state
  187. on a huge scale.
  188. And it had to be run in a quite new way.
  189. It had to be run in different languages.
  190. The fact that this decree is in Babylonian says one thing.
  191. And it had to recognize their different habits,
  192. different peoples, different religions, different faiths.
  193. All of those are respected by Cyrus.
  194. Cyrus sets up a model

  195. of how you run
  196. a great multinational, multifaith, multicultural society.
  197. And the result of that
  198. was an empire that included the areas you see on the screen,
  199. and which survived for 200 years of stability
  200. until it was shattered by Alexander.
  201. It left a dream of the Middle East as a unit,
  202. and a unit where people of different faiths
  203. could live together.
  204. The Greek invasions ended that.
  205. And of course, Alexander couldn't sustain a government
  206. and it fragmented.
  207. But what Cyrus represented
  208. remained absolutely central.
  209. The Greek historian Xenophon

  210. wrote his book "Cyropaedia"
  211. promoting Cyrus as the great ruler.
  212. And throughout European culture afterward,
  213. Cyrus remained the model.
  214. This is a 16th century image
  215. to show you how widespread
  216. his veneration actually was.
  217. And Xenophon's book on Cyrus
  218. on how you ran a diverse society
  219. was one of the great textbooks
  220. that inspired the Founding Fathers
  221. of the American Revolution.
  222. Jefferson was a great admirer --
  223. the ideals of Cyrus
  224. obviously speaking to those 18th century ideals
  225. of how you create religious tolerance
  226. in a new state.
  227. Meanwhile, back in Babylon,

  228. things had not been going well.
  229. After Alexander, the other empires,
  230. Babylon declines, falls into ruins,
  231. and all the traces of the great Babylonian empire are lost --
  232. until 1879
  233. when the cylinder is discovered
  234. by a British Museum exhibition digging in Babylon.
  235. And it enters now another story.
  236. It enters that great debate
  237. in the middle of the 19th century:
  238. Are the scriptures reliable? Can we trust them?
  239. We only knew
  240. about the return of the Jews and the decree of Cyrus
  241. from the Hebrew scriptures.
  242. No other evidence.
  243. Suddenly, this appeared.
  244. And great excitement
  245. to a world where those who believed in the scriptures
  246. had had their faith in creation shaken
  247. by evolution, by geology,
  248. here was evidence
  249. that the scriptures were historically true.
  250. It's a great 19th century moment.
  251. But -- and this, of course, is where it becomes complicated --

  252. the facts were true,
  253. hurrah for archeology,
  254. but the interpretation was rather more complicated.
  255. Because the cylinder account and the Hebrew Bible account
  256. differ in one key respect.
  257. The Babylonian cylinder
  258. is written by the priests
  259. of the great god of Bablyon, Marduk.
  260. And, not surprisingly,
  261. they tell you that all this was done by Marduk.
  262. "Marduk, we hold, called Cyrus by his name."
  263. Marduk takes Cyrus by the hand,
  264. calls him to shepherd his people
  265. and gives him the rule of Babylon.
  266. Marduk tells Cyrus
  267. that he will do these great, generous things
  268. of setting the people free.
  269. And this is why we should all be grateful to
  270. and worship Marduk.
  271. The Hebrew writers

  272. in the Old Testament,
  273. you will not be surprised to learn,
  274. take a rather different view of this.
  275. For them, of course, it can't possibly by Marduk
  276. that made all this happen.
  277. It can only be Jehovah.
  278. And so in Isaiah,
  279. we have the wonderful texts
  280. giving all the credit of this,
  281. not to Marduk
  282. but to the Lord God of Israel --
  283. the Lord God of Israel
  284. who also called Cyrus by name,
  285. also takes Cyrus by the hand
  286. and talks of him shepherding his people.
  287. It's a remarkable example
  288. of two different priestly appropriations of the same event,
  289. two different religious takeovers
  290. of a political fact.
  291. God, we know,

  292. is usually on the side of the big battalions.
  293. The question is, which god was it?
  294. And the debate unsettles
  295. everybody in the 19th century
  296. to realize that the Hebrew scriptures
  297. are part of a much wider world of religion.
  298. And it's quite clear
  299. the cylinder is older than the text of Isaiah,
  300. and yet, Jehovah is speaking
  301. in words very similar
  302. to those used by Marduk.
  303. And there's a slight sense that Isaiah knows this,
  304. because he says,
  305. this is God speaking, of course,
  306. "I have called thee by thy name
  307. though thou hast not known me."
  308. I think it's recognized
  309. that Cyrus doesn't realize
  310. that he's acting under orders from Jehovah.
  311. And equally, he'd have been surprised that he was acting under orders from Marduk.
  312. Because interestingly, of course,
  313. Cyrus is a good Iranian
  314. with a totally different set of gods
  315. who are not mentioned in any of these texts.
  316. (Laughter)

  317. That's 1879.

  318. 40 years on
  319. and we're in 1917,
  320. and the cylinder enters a different world.
  321. This time, the real politics
  322. of the contemporary world --
  323. the year of the Balfour Declaration,
  324. the year when the new imperial power in the Middle East, Britain,
  325. decides that it will declare
  326. a Jewish national home,
  327. it will allow
  328. the Jews to return.
  329. And the response to this
  330. by the Jewish population in Eastern Europe is rhapsodic.
  331. And across Eastern Europe,
  332. Jews display pictures of Cyrus
  333. and of George V
  334. side by side --
  335. the two great rulers
  336. who have allowed the return to Jerusalem.
  337. And the Cyrus cylinder comes back into public view
  338. and the text of this
  339. as a demonstration of why what is going to happen
  340. after the war is over in 1918
  341. is part of a divine plan.
  342. You all know what happened.
  343. The state of Israel is setup,
  344. and 50 years later, in the late 60s,
  345. it's clear that Britain's role as the imperial power is over.
  346. And another story of the cylinder begins.
  347. The region, the U.K. and the U.S. decide,

  348. has to be kept safe from communism,
  349. and the superpower that will be created to do this
  350. would be Iran, the Shah.
  351. And so the Shah invents an Iranian history,
  352. or a return to Iranian history,
  353. that puts him in the center of a great tradition
  354. and produces coins
  355. showing himself
  356. with the Cyrus cylinder.
  357. When he has his great celebrations in Persepolis,
  358. he summons the cylinder
  359. and the cylinder is lent by the British Museum, goes to Tehran,
  360. and is part of those great celebrations
  361. of the Pahlavi dynasty.
  362. Cyrus cylinder: guarantor of the Shah.
  363. 10 years later, another story:

  364. Iranian Revolution, 1979.
  365. Islamic revolution, no more Cyrus;
  366. we're not interested in that history,
  367. we're interested in Islamic Iran --
  368. until Iraq,
  369. the new superpower that we've all decided should be in the region,
  370. attacks.
  371. Then another Iran-Iraq war.
  372. And it becomes critical for the Iranians
  373. to remember their great past,
  374. their great past
  375. when they fought Iraq and won.
  376. It becomes critical to find a symbol
  377. that will pull together all Iranians --
  378. Muslims and non-Muslims,
  379. Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews living in Iran,
  380. people who are devout, not devout.
  381. And the obvious emblem is Cyrus.
  382. So when the British Museum and Tehran National Musuem

  383. cooperate and work together, as we've been doing,
  384. the Iranians ask for one thing only
  385. as a loan.
  386. It's the only object they want.
  387. They want to borrow the Cyrus cylinder.
  388. And last year,
  389. the Cyrus cylinder went to Tehran
  390. for the second time.
  391. It's shown being presented here, put into its case
  392. by the director of the National Museum of Tehran,
  393. one of the many women in Iran in very senior positions,
  394. Mrs. Ardakani.
  395. It was a huge event.
  396. This is the other side of that same picture.
  397. It's seen in Tehran
  398. by between one and two million people
  399. in the space of a few months.
  400. This is beyond any blockbuster exhibition
  401. in the West.
  402. And it's the subject of a huge debate
  403. about what this cylinder means, what Cyrus means,
  404. but above all, Cyrus as articulated through this cylinder --
  405. Cyrus as the defender of the homeland,
  406. the champion, of course, of Iranian identity
  407. and of the Iranian peoples,
  408. tolerant of all faiths.
  409. And in the current Iran,
  410. Zoroastrians and Christians have guaranteed places
  411. in the Iranian parliament, something to be very, very proud of.
  412. To see this object in Tehran,

  413. thousands of Jews living in Iran
  414. came to Tehran to see it.
  415. It became a great emblem,
  416. a great subject of debate
  417. about what Iran is at home and abroad.
  418. Is Iran still to be the defender of the oppressed?
  419. Will Iran set free the people
  420. that the tyrants have enslaved and expropriated?
  421. This is heady national rhetoric,
  422. and it was all put together
  423. in a great pageant
  424. launching the return.
  425. Here you see this out-sized Cyrus cylinder on the stage
  426. with great figures from Iranian history
  427. gathering to take their place
  428. in the heritage of Iran.
  429. It was a narrative presented
  430. by the president himself.
  431. And for me,

  432. to take this object to Iran,
  433. to be allowed to take this object to Iran
  434. was to be allowed to be part
  435. of an extraordinary debate
  436. led at the highest levels
  437. about what Iran is,
  438. what different Irans there are
  439. and how the different histories of Iran
  440. might shape the world today.
  441. It's a debate that's still continuing,
  442. and it will continue to rumble,
  443. because this object
  444. is one of the great declarations
  445. of a human aspiration.
  446. It stands with the American constitution.
  447. It certainly says far more about real freedoms
  448. than Magna Carta.
  449. It is a document that can mean so many things,
  450. for Iran and for the region.
  451. A replica of this

  452. is at the United Nations.
  453. In New York this autumn, it will be present
  454. when the great debates
  455. about the future of the Middle East take place.
  456. And I want to finish by asking you
  457. what the next story will be
  458. in which this object figures.
  459. It will appear, certainly,
  460. in many more Middle Eastern stories.
  461. And what story of the Middle East,
  462. what story of the world,
  463. do you want to see
  464. reflecting what is said,
  465. what is expressed in this cylinder?
  466. The right of peoples
  467. to live together in the same state,
  468. worshiping differently, freely --
  469. a Middle East, a world,
  470. in which religion is not the subject of division
  471. or of debate.
  472. In the world of the Middle East at the moment,

  473. the debates are, as you know, shrill.
  474. But I think it's possible
  475. that the most powerful and the wisest voice of all of them
  476. may well be the voice
  477. of this mute thing,
  478. the Cyrus cylinder.
  479. Thank you.

  480. (Applause)