Declarations begins from many departures premised on one object: the Cyrus Cylinder. Long considered a world heritage artifact, this ancient text, partially surviving as a clay cylinder, is hailed as “the first human rights document developed in the first multi-cultural empire” over two millennia ago. In the Iranian popular perception, Cyrus remains the “Great King, the King of Kings, the King of the Four Corners of the World,” and the Cyrus Cylinder is the proof that not only “at the dawn of history, Persia invented the state,” but, most relevantly to today, Persians created the first multi-faith and multi-lingual empire where tolerance for the religions, cultures and languages of the conquered nations was central to the success of the empire.
The accuracy of existing translations and subsequent interpretations of the cylinder text has been subject of much academic debate. The cylinder is not a unique object in that its form and content and even the fact that it was buried at the gate of Babylon follow pre-Cyrus formulae, argue some scholars. Other scholars assert that its emergence as a “document of human rights” must be understood in the context of post-WWII attempts by Iranian civil and legal architects to position Iran internationally as the land of an exemplary civilization, and thus preserve its national identity and independence in the face of increasing threats from Western powers from one side and Islamic fundamentalists from the other. Whatever the debates, the popular perception persists, partly bolstered by vague biblical references to Cyrus as the “Messiah” who saved the Jews from exile in Mesopotamia and allowed them to return to their homeland. This perception is encouraged time and again by contemporary figures in the service of diverse and sometimes competing political agendas.
For example, Shirin Ebadi, a secular former judge and lawyer whose law practice came under attack by the Iranian government because she defended critics of the Islamic state, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, twice the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a representative of far-right fundamentalists, both referenced the Cyrus Cylinder as evidence of a tradition of tolerance and the greatness of the Iranian civilization. In treatise she wrote after she was granted the Noble Peace Prize, Ebadi cited the cylinder to indicate that the Islamic State’s intolerance and persecution of difference was a historical aberration and out of line with Iranian legal and constitutional traditions. When the cylinder was exhibited in Tehran during a world tour organized by the British Museum – where it is housed – Ahmadinejad too laid claim to the cylinder as part of Iranian heritage to legitimate his government and hype up nationalist sentiments in support of its performance in the international scene while trying to normalize Iran’s international standing.
I often delve into history in order to understand the present. I started thinking about this project first in 2011. Although diplomatic relations between Iran and England were severed, the cylinder had recently been loaned by the British Museum to Tehran for a 4-month exhibition, and the Iranian domestic and diasporic media were abuzz with news and views about the cylinder. Driven by a decolonial urge, my work as an artist is predicated on departing from popular myths and propagandist agendas. I started with these questions:
- What perspectives does “thinking through” this object bring to our contemporary discourses of national identity, human rights and cultural pluralism?
- What creative channels can this object open onto how we see ourselves as a global community with shared and interconnected histories and conflicting interpretations and interests?
I kept these questions in the background of my thinking as I produced a few major projects that dealt with other historical subjects and the political and cultural effects of Western (neo)colonialism while attempting to create spaces for healing from such traumas. When I finally garnered some funding and began working on this project in 2015, I brought to it a deeper understanding of the psycho-socio-cultural dynamics of colonial relations. I believe the popular perception that sees the cylinder as evidence of a just ancient empire is a reaction to the dehumanizing assault by Western (neo)colonialism that treated Iranians as “backward and childlike” before the 1979 Revolution and as “terrorists” after. The cylinder, therefore, is a prism through which Iranians reclaim their dignity as a people with a long and rich history that predates the formation of most Western nations.
Iranianness as an identity, however, is a relatively recent category, and its presence masks the many ethnicities, cultures, languages (both ancient and contemporary), and changing colonial dynamics within them, that have existed in the region for over two millennia. Standing as a mascot for Iranianness, the Cyrus Cylinder, therefore, masks the real histories of the people on the land in favour of a modern fiction. I accept that Cyrus was a king and that empire-building has been part of my heritage as a Persian. Indeed the Cyrus Cylinder is prime evidence of that as it was created and ritualistically buried to commemorate the invasion of Babylon.
I find no pride and no solace in this knowledge. If what is attributed to my early ancestor, Cyrus, is a proof of my people’s greatness to some, for me it raises many questions about violence, expansionism and colonialism that are part of my heritage as a Parsi (Persian) born and raised in Shiraz, only a short distance from the ruins of the ancient empire’s seat of power, where Cyrus was buried after he was killed in one of his many wars. Having thought about my contemporary world through the Cylinder, in Declarations I part ways with my ancestor, his adoring descendants, and all who believe “rights” are to be granted from top down. I believe that
- Our rights as humans should be understood as inherent in our humanness. Theyshould not be dependent on and interpreted within frameworks of nation/state/empire and granted by such institutions.
- Our rights as humans are interconnected with the rights of all beings and the land that sustains us all. Therefore, we are responsible to ensure that human will to power and greed, do not isolate our needs and desires and prioritize them over the welfare of all beings.
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I departed from a focus on the historical cylinder, leaving it in museum confines, and decided to do this project as a thought process and a series of rituals and performances. As I walk the land, I discover the lay lines, and learn to “truly love the world.”