The British Museum’s Cyrus Cylinder Travels to the MFAH, May 2013

First declaration of human rights to tour five museum venues, including Houston

Houston—April 4, 2013—The Cyrus Cylinder, one of the British Museum’s most iconic objects, is travelling to five major museum venues in the United States, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning will be on display at the MFAH from May 3 to June 16, 2013. The tour is supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation.

The Cyrus Cylinder is among the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. The Cylinder was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform (cuneiform is the earliest form of writing) on the orders of the Persian King Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC) after he captured Babylon in 539 BC. It is often referred to as the first bill of human rights since it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands. It was first found in Babylon, which is now in modern Iraq, in 1879 during a British Museum excavation, and has been on display at the British Museum ever since.

The Cyrus Cylinder is truly an object of world heritage, produced for a Persian king and seen and studied for over 130 years in the British Museum. It is valued by people around the world as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and different faiths, so much so that a copy of the cylinder is on display at the United Nations in New York. The British Museum previously lent the Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran in 2010–11 where it was seen by over one million people. This tour provides an opportunity for an American audience to engage with this unique object of world importance.

The tour began at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in Washington, DC before travelling to the MFAH; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (full schedule below). The exhibition is curated by John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum, and curatorial colleagues at each of the venues. Frances Marzio, Curator of Antiquities, organized the exhibition at the MFAH.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has said, "You could almost say that the Cyrus Cylinder is a history of the Middle East in one object, and it is a link to a past which we all share and to a key moment in history that has shaped the world around us. Objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space and this object must be shared as widely as possible. I am delighted that it will travel to the U.S. and am hugely grateful to both our U.S. partners and the Iran Heritage Foundation for making this possible."

"The Cyrus Cylinder tells a great story of human history," commented Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "We are thrilled to be able to bring this touchstone of ancient civilization to Houston, and to present the Cyrus Cylinder and related objects in the context of our collections."

John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum said, "The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning for the Ancient Near East. The Persian period, commencing in 550 BC, was not just a change of dynasty but a time of change in the ancient world. Some of these changes and innovations are highlighted in the exhibition."

Alireza Rastegar, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Iran Heritage Foundation America said, "Iran Heritage Foundation is proud to be partners with the British Museum and The Freer and Sackler Galleries in bringing this timely and magnificent exhibition to the United States. The Cyrus Cylinder and its message of respect for diversity and universal human rights provides a background of tolerance for all of us today. We are very grateful to the Iranian American community of the United States who have supported us in this endeavor and are looking forward to a positive reception throughout the USA."

The Cylinder will travel with an exhibition of 16 objects that are testimony to the innovations initiated by Persian rule in the Ancient Near East (550-331 BC). The Persian Empire was then the largest the world had known. It had a huge impact on the ancient world, introducing changes in terms of ethical behavior as witnessed in the proclamation on the Cyrus Cylinder. A gold plaque from the Oxus Treasure with the representation of a priest shows the spread of the Zoroastrian religion at this time. Persian kings also introduced a new writing system, Old Persian cuneiform, as seen on part of a column base from Hamadan and on the famous seal of Darius (522-486 BC). The kings also developed new forms of luxury goods, including beautifully decorated gold and silver bowls and sumptuous gold bracelets featuring fantastic animal shapes, some of them from the Oxus Treasure.

More about the Cyrus Cylinder
The Cylinder is 9 inches (22.86 centimeters) in length, is barrel shaped and made of baked clay. It is inscribed all the way around with a proclamation in cuneiform script. Originally it was inscribed and buried in the foundations of a wall after Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, captured Babylon in 539 BC.

The Cylinder was written in Babylonian cuneiform by a Babylonian scribe. 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. The text does not mention specific religious groups, but it is thought that the Jews were among the peoples deported by Nebuchadnezzar (the previous ruler of Babylon) who were now allowed to return home. The Bible reports that the deported Jews returned from Babylon at this time and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, Cyrus is praised in the Hebrew Bible because of the qualities of tolerance and respect enshrined in the Cylinder proclamation. These were enlightened acts, rare in antiquity.

In 2010, the British Museum discovered two fragments of tablet in its extensive collection of cuneiform tablets which had also been found in 19th-century British Museum excavations in or near Babylon. These fragments were identified by experts at the museum as being inscribed with parts of the same text as the Cylinder but do not belong to it. They show that the text of the Cylinder was probably a proclamation that was widely distributed across the Persian Empire.

Exhibition Schedule
• Arthur M. Sackler Gallery    March 9 – April 28, 2013
• The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston    May 3 – June 14, 2013
• The Metropolitan Museum of Art    June 20 – August 2, 2013
• The Asian Art Museum    August 9 – September 22, 2013
• The J. Paul Getty Museum    September 30 – December 2, 2013

Special Programs in Conjunction with The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia
Visit for additional information, updates and tickets (if needed). All of the following events take place at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

• The Many Meanings of the Cyrus Cylinder
Sunday, May 5, at 6 p.m.
Gallery 214, Second Floor, The Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street
In a captivating talk, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, will trace 2,600 years of Middle Eastern history through the Cyrus Cylinder. The lecture is free, but a ticket is required.

• Cyrus the Great: “Friend of God” and “Paradise Builder”
Friday, May 10, at 1:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 11, at 4 p.m.
Brown Auditorium Theater, The Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street
Cyrus II was the founder of the ancient world’s largest empire. In this lively and illustrated presentation, Dr. Jenny Rose will begin with the Cyrus cylinder and explore the ways in which the Ancient Persians appealed to the “hearts and minds” of various peoples in the Ancient Near East. Dr. Rose will also consider whether Cyrus’ diplomatic tolerance of local cultures and religions reflects a “Zoroastrian” understanding of the world. Dr. Jenny Rose teaches Zoroastrian Studies at the School of Religion, Claremont College, and is the author of The Image of Zoroaster: The Persian Mage Through European Eyes (Bibliotheca Persica Press); Zoroastrianism: An Introduction (I.B. Tauris); and Zoroastrianism: A Guide for the Perplexed, (Continuum). Tickets cost $5 for MFAH members and $8 for non-members.

• Artful Thursday: Cuneiform in Context
Thursday, May 16, at 6:30 p.m.
Brown Auditorium Theater, The Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street
This May’s Artful Thursday features a richly illustrated talk by Dr. Sarah Kielt Costello about one of the world’s earliest civilizations, the structure and decoding of the world’s first known written language and the significance of the Cyrus Cylinder. Dr. Costello is the Instructional Assistant Professor in Department of Art and Art History, School of Art, at the University of Houston. The lecture is free, but a ticket is required.

• Cyrus, the Anointed of the Lord: The Cyrus Cylinder and the Bible
Sunday, May 19, at 3 p.m.
Brown Auditorium Theater, The Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street
Cyrus II of Persia is mentioned over 20 times in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Isaiah praises the Persian king as “anointed” by the God of Israel, in response to Cyrus liberating the Israelites, and other subjugated peoples, and encouraging them to return to their homeland and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. In this richly illustrated talk, Dr. Matthias Henze compares the words of Cyrus from the Cyrus Cylinder to the records in the Hebrew Bible to show why the remarkable legacy of Cyrus the Great remains so strong. Dr. Matthias Henze is the Watt J. and Lilly G. Jackson Chair in Biblical Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, and Founding Director, Program in Jewish Studies, at Rice University. This lecture is free with museum admission, but a ticket is required.

• Ancient Persepolis in Blue – New Research on Colors, Gilding, Painters and Monuments in the Achaemenid Persian Empire, c. 520 to 330 BCE
Sunday, June 2, at 2 p.m.
Brown Auditorium Theater, The Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street
Much of what we know of ancient Persia’s history has been informed by studies of the magnificent site of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire from the 6th to the 4th centuries, BC. Established as a UNESCO world cultural heritage sites since 1979, these well-preserved ruins in Southwestern Iran constitute the most important examples of Achaemenid dynastic architecture in the Iran. Although it has long been known that these monuments and reliefs were painted, Dr. Alexander Nagel, Assistant Curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC, will show how new research in the fascinating field of polychromy has revealed the role of color in the ancient world. This lecture is free with museum admission, but a ticket is required.

Organization and Funding
The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning is organized by the British Museum in partnership with the Iran Heritage Foundation and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and is hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Lead Underwriting is provided by:
Ansary Foundation

Additional generous support is provided by:
Morteza Baharloo
Mr. and Mrs. Alan B. Chaveleh 
Farideh and Jafar Davoody
Suzanne and Ali Ebrahimi
Shoaleh and Asghar Nosrati
Sherry and Ardeshir Tajvari

CyrusOne Data Centers
John S. Beeson
Shari and Tofigh Shirazi
Zoroastrian Association of Houston (ZAH)

Afsaneh and Mostafa Alavi
Jennifer and Matt Esfahani
Iranian Cultural Foundation-Houston (ICF)
Manigeh and Yousef Panahpour
Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA)
Mona and Shahin Shadfar
Sima and Mehdi Sharifian
The Society of Iranian-American Women for Education (SIAWE)

About the British Museum
The British Museum was founded in 1753, the first national public museum in the world. From the outset its mission was to be a “museum of the world for the world.” This ambition still lies at the heart of the Museum today. The collection tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago, until the present day. The Museum is committed to lending the collection as widely as possible for maximum public benefit.

About the Iran Heritage Foundation
Iran Heritage Foundation is the leading supporter of Iranian studies in the UK. It promotes academic research through fellowships, grants, scholarships and publications. In association with museums and leading institutions, the IHF organizes exhibitions and convenes conferences on the history and contemporary culture of Iran. IHF America, launched in 2012 as a US based non-profit organization, administers a number of grants to North American institutions and is the core funder of the tour of the Cyrus Cylinder.

About the Arts of the Islamic World at the MFAH
Now in its sixth year, the Arts of the Islamic World program at the MFAH was established as an institutional commitment to collect, exhibit and interpret arts from the Islamic world. Since 2007, the museum has begun to develop a focused collection with an emphasis on quality and rarity of the objects. Among the most significant acquisitions of the past five years have been a 12th-century bronze incense burner in the form of a stylized feline figure from present-day Iran; a superb, elaborately illuminated 14th-century Qur’an from present-day Morocco; and a remarkable, early-16th-century tondino that originated in Iznik, south of Istanbul, then the center of production for one of the most distinctive types of ceramics in the Islamic world. The museum’s long-term goal is to establish a collection reflecting the regional, chronological and material diversity of the Islamic artistic tradition.

In addition to The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning exhibition, the program has brought to the MFAH significant exhibitions, including Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, c. 1600–1900 (2007); Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam (2010); Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts (2011); and Arts of Islamic Lands: Selections from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait (2013). Related public and educational programming has provided extensive interpretive materials and expanded the reach of these exhibitions and their unique perspectives on the arts of the Islamic world throughout Houston and Texas.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums
in the United States. Located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the MFAH comprises two gallery buildings, a sculpture garden, library, theater and two art schools, with two house museums, for American and European decorative arts, nearby. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers more than 64,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present.

Media Contacts
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Amy Lowman, Publicist,

The British Museum
Hannah Boulton, Head of Press and Marketing,
+44 207.323.8522