CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Interviewing the British Museum Director Neil MacGregor

During the inaugural reception and dinner arranged by IHF America and the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery to celebrate the Cyrus Cylinder Tour of the US, CNN’s Chief International Correspondant Christiane Amanpour had a 20-minute on-stage interview with Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. Below you can see the complete 20-minute  interview, as well as the full transcript of the dialog. For a short video, photos, and more information about the tour, see “Launch of the Cyrus Cylinder US Tour“:

Editor’s Note: The transcript below covers the interview its entirety. It is in part based on a transcript by Washington Life Magazine team for the WL article on the Cyrus Cylinder – a four page article including great photos of the event, as a part of their Cylinder/Norouz coverage – which will be printed in the April 2013 issue. We appreciate the WL contribution. To our readers: If you run across any errors in the transcript please let us know at info -@- THANK YOU!

Christiane Amanpour (CA): Thank you for joining me.

Neil MacGregor (NM): Thank you!

CA: Why is this cylinder so important today? 2,600 years old…What does it mean today?

NM: What it means is that it is the first serious attempt that we know about running [governing] a society, a state, in which there are people of different nationalities and different faiths. Because the ancient Persian Empire is the first empire to address that. So it’s the beginning of a new statecraft. And what is decided then, what Cyrus decides after he conquers Babylon in 539 B.C., is that he is going to allow the different communities to go home to the lands from where they’d been deported, and he is going to allow all the different parts of his empire to worship their own gods. This is an astonishing statement of how you run a multi-cultural, multi-faith society. And, it’s 2,600 years old but we all know that’s what we need today to think about just as much. That’s why it matters.

CA: Before I started reading about this, before this world tour started, I hadn’t been aware of the incredible role that the ancient Persian King Cyrus plays in the life of Jews, in the life of Jerusalem.

NM: He’s absolutely central. The Jews had been attacked by the Assyrians, by Nebuchadnezzar, by Belshazzar, and the people of Jerusalem had been taken captive and deported to Babylon. And there by the waters of Babylon, they sat down and wept. And then, Cyrus arrives and allows all the deported peoples, not only the Jews, but especially the Jews, to go home, to take with them the vessels from the temple that had been stolen, and to rebuild the temple. And why this cylinder is so interesting is because most people in Europe and America only know the story from the Hebrew bible. They know the story of the Jews coming back, rebuilding the temple, Cyrus having allowed them to go up. This is the story from the other side, from the Babylon end, from the Persian end. So this document is a great document in the story of Israel and in the story of Iraq, and in the story of Iran. And that’s why it’s so powerful now.

CA: When you have this 2,600-year cylinder in your possession, does it strike you that we’re in a state of really bad relations between Israel and Iran, between the United States and Iran? Do you think it has some kind of worth, particularly today?

NM: I think it [the Cyrus Cylinder] reminds us how strange that [political] situation is, because through all Jewish history from the prophet Isaiah, from Ezra onwards, Cyrus and the Iranians are the good rulers. They’re the rulers who allowed [the Jews] to return. And when the British government in 1917 issues the Balfour declaration to create the homeland for the Jews in Israel, the Jews of Eastern Europe compared King George V to Cyrus. Cyrus has always been a hero in Jewish tradition.

So, the current state of relations is a very odd historical phenomenon. And the same in the United States, because when the Founding Fathers in the 18th century are trying to decide how to the United States, what role will religion play, this is the model. We know that Jefferson had two copies of the biography of Cyrus in his library. He tells his grandson that he should start by studying the life of Cyrus. The United States Constitution is, in many ways, a reflection of these ideas. If you want people to live peacefully together, you need to allow different kinds of religion in the same state. So, it’s very odd that Iran and the U.S. are in this state at the moment, because they each share the same founding principles.


CA: I heard you say that the Cyrus Cylinder is even more important in terms of governance, in terms of human rights, in terms of a freedom document than the American Constitution or even the Magna Carta.

NM: Well it’s much older than either of them of course, which has to be said, but the three do deserve to be put together – the Cyrus Cylinder, the Magna Carta, and the American Constitution – because they are all a dream of what a society could be, what a society should be. And they are all dreams that their different countries have fallen away from in different ways, but that are [still] acknowledged as the central dream. One of the things that I found very fascinating, is that a couple of years ago, the British museum lent the Cyrus Cylinder to Tehran, and, it was seen in Tehran by somewhere around a million people. It became, in Tehran, a focus of real national pride. This is part of Iran’s story that needs to be remembered.

CA: Did it surprise you? Because obviously it’s pre-Islamic, and you remember that after the revolution there was even talk by Ayatollah Khomeini of razing Persepolis, razing any memory of ancient Persia.

NM: It surprised me very much and I think it’s what’s worth thinking about when we look at the role the Cyrus Cylinder plays, what it means. Because the last time it was lent by the British Museum to Iran it was for Shah’s celebrations, as part of the celebration of Cyrus, the Shah, the emperor, the Iranian view.

This time, for an Islamic Republic to choose to focus on the Cyrus Cylinder as embodying Iranian values long before the Islamic Republic and to articulate that, was I think a very interesting thing:
Here is a state, which is thought of as exclusively Islamic, quite deliberately focusing on an earlier [pre-Islamic] moment, and saying that the values set out in the Cyrus Cylinder of religious toleration are Iranian values. Just as in the Parliament of the Islamic Republic there are still seats reserved for Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews. So that “Cyrus ideal” lives on in the Islamic Republic.

CA: How did it come that you took the Cylinder to Iran?

NM: The request came from the Iranians. One of the roles of museums like the Sackler, like the British Museum, is to ensure that the community of scholarly research, scholarly historians, goes on functioning as a community, whatever is happening politically.
We’ve been trying at the British Museum in recent years to show the history of Iran to the public, because you can only understand a country if you understand its history and above all how it sees its history. So, we had asked for great loans from Iran, and they had sent wonderful things to our exhibitions, and they asked for one thing back, and I was surprised that [the Cylinder] was the one thing they wanted to borrow.

It was taken back, shown on its own to great acclaim in Tehran, great debate. What I found fascinating was that we know the role Cyrus has played in the Jewish tradition and later from the Christian tradition. But, very fascinatingly, Mr. Mashaie (who was previously the [Iranian] Vice President) began talking about Cyrus as a forerunner of the prophet [Mohammad], as also embodying values that can be part of an Islamic tradition.

CA: So everybody is getting is on the Cyrus act!

NM: Everybody wants Cyrus! Everybody wants Cyrus. That’s what’s so [fascinating]. And after the Cylinder finishes its tour of the United States, going to Houston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, it will then go on to Mumbai, India, because the Zoroastrians also think that Cyrus embodies their values. So there’s a big Zoroastrian conference in Mumbai, and yet another religious tradition will claim their values chime with Cyrus’s.

CA: Did you ever worry – I mean, you know… You’re the British Museum! Did you ever worry that the Iranians might want to keep the Cyrus Cylinder?

NM: Yes we did! The trustees talked about that at some length, as you may imagine. But we were very reassured by the fact that the Iranians had lent us critically important things previously, and they had been very worried that we would keep them! As you know the relationship between –

CA: You weren’t holding them while they had the Cyrus Cylinder, [were you?]

NM: Not at all. They had lent us those things first. As you know the relationship between Iran and Britain has not always been easy, and it was an act of great generosity on their part to lend. So the trustees were very confident that that generosity would be returned, and it was.

CA: What did the Iranians want you to do with it? Did they want you to bring it here to the U.S.? Did it matter?

NM: Yes, we talked a lot about this. And when it was in Iran there was a great deal of discussion of course, that this was not just part of Iran’s history, but of the whole Middle East, and indeed of the world. That this has shaped the way people think ever since. We talked about our desire to bring it to the United States and that was met with great enthusiasm by the Iranian government.

CA: By President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad?

NM: By President Ahmadinejad. He talked very interestingly about Cyrus. He also (of course is an heir of Cyrus, like Jefferson, like everybody else. Everybody wants to be Cyrus’s heir) was talking about it [the Cyrus Cylinder] as representing Iran’s commitment to justice and to different religions living together. I think he wanted very much that the world be reminded of this part of Iran’s history and that there’s a long history of Iran being the voice of toleration. So they were very eager that it travelled to the United States.

CA: So in sum, Cyrus and his heir, Darius, and on and on, represented a multi-cultural, multi- faith tolerance. Is that what they represent?

NM: What they represent is the first recognition that if you’re going to run a society with different languages and different beliefs, you cannot impose one system by force. You need to find a way of getting the consent of your different peoples by recognizing their diversity. And that is the question we all now have to address when we live in a world city like London: We have hundreds of different nationalities, languages, and different religions living together. [If you think of] the model of a state that can accommodate those differences, there’s only been one empire that really ever did it, and it is the ancient Persian one. That’s why it has become again a period of history that people want to study and we can learn from. How did the Persians, for several centuries, hold together this extraordinarily diverse group of people, in moderate peace and in great prosperity?

CA: I really am fascinated about how Thomas Jefferson was so devoted to it as well and had, as you say, copies of the biography of Cyrus. I’ve read that the [Cyrus] biography was required reading, for all who wanted to go into governance and politics, along with Machiavelli, in the 18th century.

NM: It’s not just Jefferson, it’s not just Machiavelli. By the time you get to the 18th century, everybody in Europe is interested in Cyrus. One of the best sellers in France is Les Voyages de Cyrus, written in English and French by the same author (Travels of Cyrus). We know that there are even Icelandic poems about Cyrus in the 18th century. It is impossible to exaggerate what he meant in the enlightenment world, the world out of which the American Constitution is born.


CA: Doesn’t it blow your mind that this is a Persian king in today’s world where Persia is viewed so negatively by so many people?

NM: It’s astonishing. You talked about the relationship between Israel and Iran, the U.S. and Iran being so bad. But, this is a very new phenomenon. For most of western history, that [Persian] Empire, that moment in Iranian history, has been the model to which statesmen look to think how to solve the problems.

CA: The actual Cylinder (it’s cuneiform? Am I saying that right?) Does it actually say the Jews were allowed to go back to Jerusalem?

NM: No. It’s not a rattling good read, it must be said! It’s quite a complicated text! Basically when you are putting up a building in Babylon in 6th century B.C., you’re always putting an inscription [such as the Cyrus Cylinder] at the foundation, and that space is to tell the future what a great chap you are for putting the building up, and so on.
What the Cylinder says is in three parts: The first bit is the god Marduk, the Babylonian god, And the Babylonian god Marduk says: “The previous ruler was rubbish, and didn’t look after my temples, carriaged[?] out the gods [gods left the temples], BAD THING!, and I called in Cyrus to sort it out!”

And then comes Cyrus speaking, saying: “I entered the place, and everyone was delighted to see me, they were thrilled to bits, and I’ve given peace.”

And then comes the third bit – what I am going to do now: “I am going to allow the people that has been deported to go home,” (and it lists a whole set of places, all of them in Mesopotamia) “and they are going to take their gods with them.”

The Cyrus cylinder is only about what happens in Mesopotamia, but fascinatingly the words used in the Cyrus cylinder are exactly the words used in the Hebrew bible in Chronicles and Ezra…That God called Cyrus and took him by the hand. God tells Cyrus to be his Shepard, to set the people free. The difference is of course that in Babylon, it’s the Babylonian god that does that. In the Hebrew Scriptures it’s Jehovah. But they use the same words and they speak to Cyrus in the same way. And this is evidence I think that there’s a general decree by Cyrus to let everybody go home. And the Jews in Jerusalem know about what is happening in Babylon because a lot of them have just come from there. And of course we know so much about this because they stopped building the temple in Jerusalem, and then, as we all know from building projects (sponsors, etc) money runs out. It gets slow, things start going badly. So, the Jews in Jerusalem appeal to Darius to help them.

CA: The son of Cyrus?

NM: Yes, the son of Cyrus. And [the Jews] saying that “Your king wanted this temple to be built, what are you going to do?” And they go through the files in the bureaucracy, and they find the document where Cyrus said this temple must be built and that we [the Persians] will help. Ezra in the Hebrew scriptures tells us this and he quotes the document in Aramaic (the language the Persians used). So the Jews ask the Persians to help them build the temple.

And, thanks to the extraordinary bureaucracy of the Persian Empire – it’s another great thing they really ace on, bureaucracy – they’re wizard record keepers. And then the temple goes ahead. More money comes, on orders from the Persian King and the Second Temple gets completed.

CA: Is there also a dispute as to whether the Cylinder really is a human rights document?

NM: I suppose it depends on what you mean by human rights. It’s clearly about the rights of peoples. I mean we now tend to think about human rights being the rights of individuals. That’s not what this is about at all. The Cylinder is about the rights of communities to organize themselves in their own way, live where they choose, and worship their own gods. So, that’s also a very important aspect of human rights. In that sense it is probably the oldest [document] we have of an articulated statement by a ruler that the communities over which he rules will have certain rights and privileges that he will defend.

CA: And what do you hope to achieve by taking it on a five-city U.S. tour

NM: There are two real values in it. Firstly, it’s more important now than ever to understand Iran. And one can only understand a country by understanding its history and how it views its own history. And most of us are not taught very much about Iranian history in school. So I hope it’ll allow a large public to think, again, about what it means to be an Iranian… If you are an Iranian, how you look at the world, how you think about yourself, because that’s useful.

The second is that I hope it will help us all to think again about how we tackle the question of great diversity of ethnicities and faiths in our societies. Every one of us now is living in our cities, in all the major cities that the Cyrus Cylinder is going to in the US, and certainly in London. We are living in cities that have the same problems as the Persian empire, and none of us has yet found the proper answer. So I think, I hope, that if we go back to those questions, and think again about what was done then and how it worked, that might be quite a useful thing for us all to reflect on.

CA: Neil MacGregor, thank you very much indeed.

NM: Thank you.