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TEDGlobal 2011

Neil MacGregor: 2600 years of history in one object

July 13, 2011

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.

Neil MacGregor - Director of The British Museum
The writer and presenter of the BBC Radio 4 series "A History of the World in 100 Objects" and the accompanying book. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
The things we make
00:15
have one supreme quality --
00:17
they live longer than us.
00:20
We perish, they survive;
00:22
we have one life, they have many lives,
00:24
and in each life they can mean different things.
00:27
Which means that, while we all have one biography,
00:30
they have many.
00:33
I want this morning to talk
00:35
about the story, the biography -- or rather the biographies --
00:37
of one particular object,
00:40
one remarkable thing.
00:43
It doesn't, I agree,
00:45
look very much.
00:47
It's about the size of a rugby ball.
00:49
It's made of clay,
00:52
and it's been fashioned
00:54
into a cylinder shape,
00:56
covered with close writing
00:59
and then baked dry in the sun.
01:01
And as you can see,
01:04
it's been knocked about a bit,
01:06
which is not surprising
01:08
because it was made two and a half thousand years ago
01:10
and was dug up
01:13
in 1879.
01:15
But today,
01:17
this thing is, I believe,
01:19
a major player
01:21
in the politics of the Middle East.
01:23
And it's an object
01:25
with fascinating stories
01:27
and stories that are by no means over yet.
01:29
The story begins
01:33
in the Iran-Iraq war
01:35
and that series of events
01:39
that culminated
01:41
in the invasion of Iraq
01:43
by foreign forces,
01:45
the removal of a despotic ruler
01:47
and instant regime change.
01:49
And I want to begin
01:52
with one episode from that sequence of events
01:54
that most of you would be very familiar with,
01:56
Belshazzar's feast --
01:59
because we're talking about the Iran-Iraq war
02:01
of 539 BC.
02:03
And the parallels
02:06
between the events
02:08
of 539 BC and 2003 and in between
02:10
are startling.
02:13
What you're looking at is Rembrandt's painting,
02:15
now in the National Gallery in London,
02:17
illustrating the text from the prophet Daniel
02:19
in the Hebrew scriptures.
02:21
And you all know roughly the story.
02:24
Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar,
02:26
Nebuchadnezzar who'd conquered Israel, sacked Jerusalem
02:29
and captured the people
02:32
and taken the Jews back to Babylon.
02:34
Not only the Jews, he'd taken the temple vessels.
02:36
He'd ransacked, desecrated the temple.
02:39
And the great gold vessels of the temple in Jerusalem
02:42
had been taken to Babylon.
02:45
Belshazzar, his son,
02:48
decides to have a feast.
02:50
And in order to make it even more exciting,
02:52
he added a bit of sacrilege to the rest of the fun,
02:54
and he brings out the temple vessels.
02:57
He's already at war with the Iranians,
03:00
with the king of Persia.
03:03
And that night, Daniel tells us,
03:05
at the height of the festivities
03:08
a hand appeared and wrote on the wall,
03:10
"You are weighed in the balance and found wanting,
03:13
and your kingdom is handed over
03:16
to the Medes and the Persians."
03:18
And that very night
03:20
Cyrus, king of the Persians, entered Babylon
03:22
and the whole regime of Belshazzar fell.
03:26
It is, of course, a great moment
03:31
in the history
03:33
of the Jewish people.
03:35
It's a great story. It's story we all know.
03:37
"The writing on the wall"
03:39
is part of our everyday language.
03:41
What happened next
03:44
was remarkable,
03:46
and it's where our cylinder
03:48
enters the story.
03:50
Cyrus, king of the Persians,
03:52
has entered Babylon without a fight --
03:54
the great empire of Babylon,
03:56
which ran from central southern Iraq
03:58
to the Mediterranean,
04:00
falls to Cyrus.
04:02
And Cyrus makes a declaration.
04:04
And that is what this cylinder is,
04:08
the declaration made by the ruler guided by God
04:11
who had toppled the Iraqi despot
04:14
and was going to bring freedom to the people.
04:18
In ringing Babylonian --
04:20
it was written in Babylonian --
04:22
he says, "I am Cyrus, king of all the universe,
04:24
the great king, the powerful king,
04:27
king of Babylon, king of the four quarters of the world."
04:29
They're not shy of hyperbole as you can see.
04:33
This is probably
04:36
the first real press release
04:38
by a victorious army
04:40
that we've got.
04:42
And it's written, as we'll see in due course,
04:44
by very skilled P.R. consultants.
04:46
So the hyperbole is not actually surprising.
04:49
And what is the great king, the powerful king,
04:52
the king of the four quarters of the world going to do?
04:54
He goes on to say that, having conquered Babylon,
04:57
he will at once let all the peoples
05:00
that the Babylonians -- Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar --
05:03
have captured and enslaved
05:05
go free.
05:07
He'll let them return to their countries.
05:09
And more important,
05:11
he will let them all recover
05:13
the gods, the statues,
05:15
the temple vessels
05:17
that had been confiscated.
05:19
All the peoples that the Babylonians had repressed and removed
05:21
will go home,
05:24
and they'll take with them their gods.
05:26
And they'll be able to restore their altars
05:29
and to worship their gods
05:32
in their own way, in their own place.
05:34
This is the decree,
05:37
this object is the evidence
05:39
for the fact that the Jews,
05:42
after the exile in Babylon,
05:44
the years they'd spent sitting by the waters of Babylon,
05:46
weeping when they remembered Jerusalem,
05:49
those Jews were allowed to go home.
05:52
They were allowed to return to Jerusalem
05:55
and to rebuild the temple.
05:57
It's a central document
05:59
in Jewish history.
06:01
And the Book of Chronicles, the Book of Ezra in the Hebrew scriptures
06:03
reported in ringing terms.
06:07
This is the Jewish version
06:09
of the same story.
06:11
"Thus said Cyrus, king of Persia,
06:13
'All the kingdoms of the earth have the Lord God of heaven given thee,
06:15
and he has charged me
06:18
to build him a house in Jerusalem.
06:20
Who is there among you of his people?
06:22
The Lord God be with him,
06:24
and let him go up.'"
06:26
"Go up" -- aaleh.
06:29
The central element, still,
06:31
of the notion of return,
06:34
a central part
06:36
of the life of Judaism.
06:38
As you all know, that return from exile,
06:40
the second temple,
06:42
reshaped Judaism.
06:44
And that change,
06:46
that great historic moment,
06:48
was made possible by Cyrus, the king of Persia,
06:50
reported for us in Hebrew in scripture
06:54
and in Babylonian in clay.
06:57
Two great texts,
07:00
what about the politics?
07:02
What was going on
07:04
was the fundamental shift in Middle Eastern history.
07:06
The empire of Iran, the Medes and the Persians,
07:09
united under Cyrus,
07:12
became the first great world empire.
07:14
Cyrus begins in the 530s BC.
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And by the time of his son Darius,
07:21
the whole of the eastern Mediterranean
07:25
is under Persian control.
07:28
This empire is, in fact,
07:30
the Middle East as we now know it,
07:32
and it's what shapes the Middle East as we now know it.
07:34
It was the largest empire the world had known until then.
07:37
Much more important,
07:39
it was the first
07:41
multicultural, multifaith state
07:43
on a huge scale.
07:45
And it had to be run in a quite new way.
07:47
It had to be run in different languages.
07:49
The fact that this decree is in Babylonian says one thing.
07:51
And it had to recognize their different habits,
07:54
different peoples, different religions, different faiths.
07:56
All of those are respected by Cyrus.
07:59
Cyrus sets up a model
08:02
of how you run
08:04
a great multinational, multifaith, multicultural society.
08:06
And the result of that
08:11
was an empire that included the areas you see on the screen,
08:13
and which survived for 200 years of stability
08:16
until it was shattered by Alexander.
08:19
It left a dream of the Middle East as a unit,
08:22
and a unit where people of different faiths
08:24
could live together.
08:26
The Greek invasions ended that.
08:28
And of course, Alexander couldn't sustain a government
08:30
and it fragmented.
08:33
But what Cyrus represented
08:35
remained absolutely central.
08:37
The Greek historian Xenophon
08:39
wrote his book "Cyropaedia"
08:42
promoting Cyrus as the great ruler.
08:44
And throughout European culture afterward,
08:46
Cyrus remained the model.
08:49
This is a 16th century image
08:52
to show you how widespread
08:54
his veneration actually was.
08:56
And Xenophon's book on Cyrus
08:59
on how you ran a diverse society
09:01
was one of the great textbooks
09:04
that inspired the Founding Fathers
09:06
of the American Revolution.
09:08
Jefferson was a great admirer --
09:10
the ideals of Cyrus
09:12
obviously speaking to those 18th century ideals
09:14
of how you create religious tolerance
09:16
in a new state.
09:18
Meanwhile, back in Babylon,
09:23
things had not been going well.
09:25
After Alexander, the other empires,
09:27
Babylon declines, falls into ruins,
09:30
and all the traces of the great Babylonian empire are lost --
09:33
until 1879
09:37
when the cylinder is discovered
09:39
by a British Museum exhibition digging in Babylon.
09:42
And it enters now another story.
09:45
It enters that great debate
09:48
in the middle of the 19th century:
09:50
Are the scriptures reliable? Can we trust them?
09:52
We only knew
09:55
about the return of the Jews and the decree of Cyrus
09:57
from the Hebrew scriptures.
09:59
No other evidence.
10:01
Suddenly, this appeared.
10:03
And great excitement
10:05
to a world where those who believed in the scriptures
10:07
had had their faith in creation shaken
10:09
by evolution, by geology,
10:11
here was evidence
10:13
that the scriptures were historically true.
10:15
It's a great 19th century moment.
10:17
But -- and this, of course, is where it becomes complicated --
10:20
the facts were true,
10:25
hurrah for archeology,
10:27
but the interpretation was rather more complicated.
10:30
Because the cylinder account and the Hebrew Bible account
10:33
differ in one key respect.
10:36
The Babylonian cylinder
10:38
is written by the priests
10:40
of the great god of Bablyon, Marduk.
10:42
And, not surprisingly,
10:44
they tell you that all this was done by Marduk.
10:46
"Marduk, we hold, called Cyrus by his name."
10:48
Marduk takes Cyrus by the hand,
10:51
calls him to shepherd his people
10:54
and gives him the rule of Babylon.
10:56
Marduk tells Cyrus
10:59
that he will do these great, generous things
11:01
of setting the people free.
11:03
And this is why we should all be grateful to
11:05
and worship Marduk.
11:07
The Hebrew writers
11:09
in the Old Testament,
11:11
you will not be surprised to learn,
11:13
take a rather different view of this.
11:16
For them, of course, it can't possibly by Marduk
11:18
that made all this happen.
11:20
It can only be Jehovah.
11:22
And so in Isaiah,
11:24
we have the wonderful texts
11:26
giving all the credit of this,
11:28
not to Marduk
11:30
but to the Lord God of Israel --
11:31
the Lord God of Israel
11:34
who also called Cyrus by name,
11:36
also takes Cyrus by the hand
11:38
and talks of him shepherding his people.
11:41
It's a remarkable example
11:43
of two different priestly appropriations of the same event,
11:45
two different religious takeovers
11:49
of a political fact.
11:51
God, we know,
11:53
is usually on the side of the big battalions.
11:55
The question is, which god was it?
11:57
And the debate unsettles
12:00
everybody in the 19th century
12:02
to realize that the Hebrew scriptures
12:04
are part of a much wider world of religion.
12:06
And it's quite clear
12:09
the cylinder is older than the text of Isaiah,
12:11
and yet, Jehovah is speaking
12:14
in words very similar
12:16
to those used by Marduk.
12:18
And there's a slight sense that Isaiah knows this,
12:20
because he says,
12:23
this is God speaking, of course,
12:25
"I have called thee by thy name
12:28
though thou hast not known me."
12:30
I think it's recognized
12:32
that Cyrus doesn't realize
12:34
that he's acting under orders from Jehovah.
12:36
And equally, he'd have been surprised that he was acting under orders from Marduk.
12:39
Because interestingly, of course,
12:42
Cyrus is a good Iranian
12:44
with a totally different set of gods
12:46
who are not mentioned in any of these texts.
12:48
(Laughter)
12:50
That's 1879.
12:52
40 years on
12:54
and we're in 1917,
12:56
and the cylinder enters a different world.
12:59
This time, the real politics
13:01
of the contemporary world --
13:03
the year of the Balfour Declaration,
13:05
the year when the new imperial power in the Middle East, Britain,
13:08
decides that it will declare
13:11
a Jewish national home,
13:13
it will allow
13:15
the Jews to return.
13:17
And the response to this
13:19
by the Jewish population in Eastern Europe is rhapsodic.
13:21
And across Eastern Europe,
13:24
Jews display pictures of Cyrus
13:26
and of George V
13:28
side by side --
13:30
the two great rulers
13:32
who have allowed the return to Jerusalem.
13:34
And the Cyrus cylinder comes back into public view
13:37
and the text of this
13:40
as a demonstration of why what is going to happen
13:42
after the war is over in 1918
13:45
is part of a divine plan.
13:48
You all know what happened.
13:51
The state of Israel is setup,
13:53
and 50 years later, in the late 60s,
13:56
it's clear that Britain's role as the imperial power is over.
13:59
And another story of the cylinder begins.
14:02
The region, the U.K. and the U.S. decide,
14:05
has to be kept safe from communism,
14:07
and the superpower that will be created to do this
14:10
would be Iran, the Shah.
14:13
And so the Shah invents an Iranian history,
14:15
or a return to Iranian history,
14:18
that puts him in the center of a great tradition
14:20
and produces coins
14:23
showing himself
14:25
with the Cyrus cylinder.
14:27
When he has his great celebrations in Persepolis,
14:29
he summons the cylinder
14:32
and the cylinder is lent by the British Museum, goes to Tehran,
14:34
and is part of those great celebrations
14:37
of the Pahlavi dynasty.
14:39
Cyrus cylinder: guarantor of the Shah.
14:42
10 years later, another story:
14:45
Iranian Revolution, 1979.
14:48
Islamic revolution, no more Cyrus;
14:50
we're not interested in that history,
14:52
we're interested in Islamic Iran --
14:54
until Iraq,
14:57
the new superpower that we've all decided should be in the region,
14:59
attacks.
15:02
Then another Iran-Iraq war.
15:04
And it becomes critical for the Iranians
15:06
to remember their great past,
15:08
their great past
15:11
when they fought Iraq and won.
15:13
It becomes critical to find a symbol
15:16
that will pull together all Iranians --
15:18
Muslims and non-Muslims,
15:21
Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews living in Iran,
15:23
people who are devout, not devout.
15:26
And the obvious emblem is Cyrus.
15:28
So when the British Museum and Tehran National Musuem
15:31
cooperate and work together, as we've been doing,
15:34
the Iranians ask for one thing only
15:36
as a loan.
15:38
It's the only object they want.
15:40
They want to borrow the Cyrus cylinder.
15:42
And last year,
15:44
the Cyrus cylinder went to Tehran
15:46
for the second time.
15:50
It's shown being presented here, put into its case
15:53
by the director of the National Museum of Tehran,
15:56
one of the many women in Iran in very senior positions,
15:59
Mrs. Ardakani.
16:02
It was a huge event.
16:04
This is the other side of that same picture.
16:06
It's seen in Tehran
16:09
by between one and two million people
16:12
in the space of a few months.
16:14
This is beyond any blockbuster exhibition
16:16
in the West.
16:18
And it's the subject of a huge debate
16:20
about what this cylinder means, what Cyrus means,
16:23
but above all, Cyrus as articulated through this cylinder --
16:26
Cyrus as the defender of the homeland,
16:29
the champion, of course, of Iranian identity
16:32
and of the Iranian peoples,
16:34
tolerant of all faiths.
16:36
And in the current Iran,
16:38
Zoroastrians and Christians have guaranteed places
16:40
in the Iranian parliament, something to be very, very proud of.
16:43
To see this object in Tehran,
16:46
thousands of Jews living in Iran
16:49
came to Tehran to see it.
16:51
It became a great emblem,
16:53
a great subject of debate
16:55
about what Iran is at home and abroad.
16:57
Is Iran still to be the defender of the oppressed?
17:00
Will Iran set free the people
17:03
that the tyrants have enslaved and expropriated?
17:05
This is heady national rhetoric,
17:08
and it was all put together
17:11
in a great pageant
17:13
launching the return.
17:15
Here you see this out-sized Cyrus cylinder on the stage
17:17
with great figures from Iranian history
17:20
gathering to take their place
17:23
in the heritage of Iran.
17:25
It was a narrative presented
17:28
by the president himself.
17:30
And for me,
17:33
to take this object to Iran,
17:35
to be allowed to take this object to Iran
17:37
was to be allowed to be part
17:39
of an extraordinary debate
17:41
led at the highest levels
17:43
about what Iran is,
17:45
what different Irans there are
17:47
and how the different histories of Iran
17:50
might shape the world today.
17:52
It's a debate that's still continuing,
17:55
and it will continue to rumble,
17:58
because this object
18:00
is one of the great declarations
18:02
of a human aspiration.
18:04
It stands with the American constitution.
18:06
It certainly says far more about real freedoms
18:10
than Magna Carta.
18:13
It is a document that can mean so many things,
18:15
for Iran and for the region.
18:18
A replica of this
18:21
is at the United Nations.
18:23
In New York this autumn, it will be present
18:25
when the great debates
18:28
about the future of the Middle East take place.
18:30
And I want to finish by asking you
18:33
what the next story will be
18:35
in which this object figures.
18:37
It will appear, certainly,
18:39
in many more Middle Eastern stories.
18:41
And what story of the Middle East,
18:43
what story of the world,
18:45
do you want to see
18:47
reflecting what is said,
18:49
what is expressed in this cylinder?
18:51
The right of peoples
18:53
to live together in the same state,
18:55
worshiping differently, freely --
18:57
a Middle East, a world,
18:59
in which religion is not the subject of division
19:01
or of debate.
19:03
In the world of the Middle East at the moment,
19:06
the debates are, as you know, shrill.
19:09
But I think it's possible
19:12
that the most powerful and the wisest voice of all of them
19:14
may well be the voice
19:18
of this mute thing,
19:20
the Cyrus cylinder.
19:22
Thank you.
19:24
(Applause)
19:26

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Neil MacGregor - Director of The British Museum
The writer and presenter of the BBC Radio 4 series "A History of the World in 100 Objects" and the accompanying book.

Why you should listen

Established by Act of Parliament in 1753 as a museum for the world (and free to enter, down to this day), the British Museum has built a near-encyclopedic collection of art and artifacts representing the sweep of human history across 2 million years. In his 2010 radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects (accompanied by a splendid book with the same title), director Neil MacGregor showed how the artifacts and items we collect are a powerful tool for sharing our shared human narrative.

MacGregor has long been fascinated with the way museums can tell the world's story. At the British Museum, he's negotiated his way to mounting shows full of Chinese and Persian treasures, helping sometimes-prickly governments to share his mission of cultural togetherness. He was named Briton of the Year in 2008 by the Sunday Times, who said, "He is a committed idealist who, in a world in which culture is increasingly presented as the acceptable face of politics, has pioneered a broader, more open, more peaceable way forward."

He says: "That’s what the museum is about: giving people their place in things.”

The original video is available on TED.com
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