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Persian artifact serves as enduring symbol for tolerance

The Cyrus Cylinder is acknowledged as the world’s first written declaration of human rights and religious tolerance. (Photo/Mike Peel)
The Cyrus Cylinder is acknowledged as the world’s first written declaration of human rights and religious tolerance. (Photo/Mike Peel)

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy is leading a public conversation on the role of cultural artifacts and museums as springboards of international dialogue.

The Cyrus Cylinder, a 2,600-year-old artifact from the Persian Empire, provided the platform for the discussion. Permanently housed in London’s British Museum, the object is widely recognized to be the world’s first written declaration of human rights and religious tolerance. Currently on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum of the Getty Villa through Dec. 2, it is on the final leg of its first American tour.

The bread-sized, clay object is significant for a cuneiform inscription that details King Cyrus the Great’s peaceful creation of an empire in present-day Iran. Upon incorporating new people into his kingdom, Cyrus allowed them to retain their own cultures and faiths. He also freed the Jewish people from exile in Babylon, permitting them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild lost temples.

The Center on Public Diplomacy has been engaged with the cylinder since its Los Angeles arrival in early October. Along with tracking international media coverage of its American tour, the center hosted a discussion in late October with Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts concerning the role of cultural institutions and artifacts in facilitating global dialogue.

“It helps to think … about the communication power of a museum object in the same way we would talk about the communication power of a person,” said Nicholas Cull, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor and event panelist. “It’s an example of how much extra mileage you can get when you think outside the box.”

Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts speaks to  Jay Wang, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. (Photo/Brett Van Ort)

Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts speaks to Jay Wang, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. (Photo/Brett Van Ort)

Throughout the duration of its five-city tour, the cylinder has given Americans a new message with which to associate Iran: one of peace and religious tolerance.

“Iran’s political relationship with the United States and Israel has been contentious for the past three decades,” wrote Nasser Manesh, overseer of the Iran Heritage Foundation. “It is, therefore, of particular interest to have an ancient object from Iran in the limelight, one that is so relevant to both the U.S. and Israel. The Cyrus Cylinder documents an important moment in the history of the Middle East with significant relevance to both of these nations.”

Associates at the center have written numerous articles questioning if the public success of the cylinder exhibition indicates a possible deterioration of the tense political barriers that exist between the American, Israeli and Iranian people.

“While world renowned museums like the Getty, Smithsonian, Louvre, British Museum and others serve as vehicles for our global cultural heritage, can the artifacts they hold lead to the betterment of state-to-state, people-to-people and state-to-people relationships?” asked Naomi Leight, assistant director of the USC center.

“One of the core tenets of public diplomacy is to share values,” she added. “It is clear from the global public interest in the Cyrus Cylinder, and reverence shown by both Iranians and Israelis for Cyrus, that the cylinder is the commonality that public diplomacy practitioners seek out and utilize as a jumping-off point for dialogue about international relations.”

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