British Museum must not enable Israel's war on Palestinian heritage

British Museum must not enable Israel's war on Palestinian heritage
Loaning the renowned Cyrus Cylinder to Israel amid its war and destruction of Palestinian history in Gaza betrays the artefact's origins, writes Jeiran Jahani.
7 min read
15 Mar, 2024
During its war on Gaza, Israel has destroyed historical Palestinians sites and looted artefacts. [Getty]

The British Museum’s former director, Hartwig Fischer, has approved the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem from 4 October to 28 November 2024.

Given the Cylinder’s history, its political misappropriations to which the Museum has previously objected and Israel’s systematic destruction of Palestinian heritage, this loan at best acquires an ironic character and at worst endangers this invaluable artefact of Iranian and Iraqi heritage.

The Museum must reconsider its decision to loan the Cylinder as it has done before.

The Cylinder, excavated in Babylon in 1879, is a clay object inscribed in Babylonian with an account of the Achaemenid king Cyrus’ takeover of Babylon in 539 BC. It records Cyrus’ adherence to Babylonian principles of just rule, which include veneration and restoration of Babylonian rituals and public monuments.

According to the Cylinder, Cyrus relieved Babylon from the unjust king Nabonidus, who had let the city fall into ruin. He restored its walls, gates, temples and rituals, and permitted exiled people and statues of deities to return to their own cities.

"Where Cyrus is said to have maintained peace in Babylon, protected their heritage and allowed people to return to their homes, Israel is doing the opposite"

Observing Cyrus’ respect for Babylonian traditions, other kings paid tribute to him and legitimised his rule. Even just this short summary of the Cylinder is enough to reveal the irony of this loan.

Where Cyrus is said to have maintained peace in Babylon, protected their heritage and allowed people to return to their homes, Israel is doing the opposite: erasing Palestinian heritage, demolishing their homes, turning them into one of the world’s largest generational refugee populations and denying their right to return. But this is not all.

The Cylinder’s text was composed by Babylonian scribes according to standard Babylonian formulas for royal inscriptions. It has precedents in Babylonian history and embodies a long-standing tradition where rulers buried such texts in building foundations to commemorate their restoration activities and just rule.

The Cylinder clearly testifies to Cyrus’ participation in Babylonian material culture practices, making it an object of joint Iranian and Iraqi heritage that narrates a story of synthesis in a region that has witnessed millennia of melding cultures, languages and scripts.

This renders meaningless claims of former president Ahmadinejad who, in 2010 on the occasion of the Cylinder’s exhibition in Tehran, portrayed Cyrus as a defender of the homeland alongside Iranian soldiers of the devastating Iran-Iraq War.

The Cyrus Cylinder - a 2,600-year-old inscribed clay document from Babylon - is viewed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 20, 2013. [Getty]
The Cyrus Cylinder - a 2,600-year-old inscribed clay document from Babylon - is viewed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 20, 2013. [Getty]

Scholars of Achaemenid history have rightfully objected to such reductive politicisation of the Cylinder, and the British Museum has tasked itself with the responsibility “to resist the narrowing of the object's meaning and its appropriation to one political agenda.”

So why has it not upheld this promise in the case of this loan?

Misinterpretations of the Cylinder started in the 1950s and continue today. The Cylinder's Babylonian character was ignored by biblical scholars who used it to corroborate biblical accounts of Isaiah and Ezra: Cyrus was portrayed as liberating Jewish people from Babylonian captivity and initiating a unique policy of tolerance quite distinct from his Babylonian predecessors.

This became the pretext for Iranian politicians to misrepresent the Cylinder as the first charter of human rights, while promoting the Shah as an enlightened descendent of Cyrus. The Cylinder became known as the quintessential object of exclusive Iranian heritage and its Babylonian character was purged in the Shah’s nationalist discourse and Persianisation policy, echoing 19th century pseudosciences of race and Nazi racial ideology.

These calculated misinterpretations continue with the deposed Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, who on different occasions claimed that as the (self-proclaimed) representative of Iranians, descendants of Cyrus, he carries his message of peace, religious freedom and human rights, and hopes to lay the groundwork for Cyrus Accords, echoing Abraham Accords.

Although scholars have repeatedly disputed this popular image of the Cylinder, it has remained in the tight grip of Iranian nationalism, whose dark pages are still being written.

This is only one example where the multilayered meanings of archaeological artefacts are suppressed in the service of political agendas and nationalist discourse. 

In Israel, parts of the archaeological data that contradict the dominant political discourse are often erased or ignored, whereas other parts are privileged and used to substantiate territorial claims.

Settlers set up illegal outposts and settlements on the West Bank hills adjacent to archaeological sites with suspected Israelite pasts. They even name outposts and settlements, such as Ma’ale Adumim or Migron, after biblical place names, giving archaeological and biblical justification to illegal territorial expansion.

This is despite the existence of Palestinian villages and towns at those sites, some even bearing names echoing biblical ones, including Saffa, Saffuriya and Battir. The archaeological evidence for continuation of ancient Israelite settlements after the Roman destruction and synthesis with other cultures is mostly ignored.

"Israel has destroyed cultural landmarks in Gaza in what has been referred to as 'the worst destruction of Palestinian history'"

Following the Six Day War in 1967, the Israeli military claimed the historical sites with Israelite pasts in the West Bank as their “natural and cultural property.” This has led not only to devastating archaeological consequences but also to the establishment of more than 200 illegal settlements and outposts with half a million settlers in the West Bank. 

This loan clearly endangers the Cylinder by transporting it to a war zone. Iran’s Director General of Museums, Hadi Mirazei, announced his aim to initiate legal proceedings against the British Museum based on the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

After the Hamas attack of 7 October, Israeli curators promptly removed artworks on display in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem museums to safe storage.

Yet at the same time Israel has destroyed cultural landmarks in Gaza in what has been referred to as “the worst destruction of Palestinian history,” similar to the war crimes and arguably genocidal acts committed by ISIS’ destruction of Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan heritage sites, the British’s pillaging of the heritage of the colonised and the Nazis wiping out Jewish heritage and property.

These include the Rafah Museum, Deir Al Balah Museum, Gaza City Central Archive, the Great Omri Mosque, Ibn Uthman Mosque, the Pasha Palace, Church of Saint Porphyrius, Saint Hilarion Monastery, Blakhiya Byzantine cemetery, a recently excavated Roman necropolis, the ancient Greek port of Anthedon, archaeological site of Tell es-Sakan and the pre-Islamic Samaritan Bathhouse, including 22 UNESCO protected sites.

The silence of Israeli museums and cultural institutions in the face of such widespread destruction is alarming, and suggests institutional politicisation of cultural heritage and erasure of inconvenient histories in the service of territorial expansion. 

Equally alarming is footage of Israeli looting in Gaza, a war crime according to the Fourth Geneva Convention and the UN Security Council Resolution 2347.

On 21 January, the Director-General of Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Eli Escusido, shared on his social media a celebratory video and photos of Israeli soldiers posing with artefacts inside the archaeological storage site of the French School of Biblical and Archaeological Research in Gaza.

Accompanying the video, he posted a photo of archaeological artefacts displayed in the Knesset. While it is not clear if they were looted from Gaza, Escusido deleted his stories and denied the removal of artefacts from Gaza.

On the pretext of safeguarding, the IAA later recommended that the army move artefacts to East Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum, where the IAA is located. Social media videos of soldiers looting jewellery, money, carpets, musical instruments, lingerie and even cosmetics implies a structural impunity for looting.


It was after all Moshe Dayan, the renowned Israeli military leader, politician and self-proclaimed amateur archaeologist, who used his position to intervene in Israel’s 1978 Antiquities Law, to illegally excavate archaeological sites using untrained Israeli army labour, and to prevent legitimate scientific studies of the recovered artefacts, even selling them for personal gain.

After approving this loan, Fischer resigned from his role as head of the British Museum in 2023 following the report of his disregard of earlier warnings about widespread theft of antiquities by a member of his curatorial staff.

Surely the Museum should avoid making a similar mistake by failing in its responsibility to safeguard this invaluable object of Iranian and Iraqi heritage from harm. 

Jeiran Jahani is a PhD student in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, where she is researching the arts of the first cities in ancient Iran and Iraq. 

Follow her on Instagram: @jrunj

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.