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Squandering Our Heritage


By Shahram Rafizadeh (Source: Gozaar)

Iran's cultural heritage is in danger. This is a warning that, over the years, particularly in the last one or two years, has been issued by admirers of Iran's ancient culture and civilization. However, these warnings seem to be falling on the deaf ears of all three branches of the government: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.

The plunder and destruction of cultural heritage sites in Iran has at least a thirty-year history. In January 1979, a popular revolution resulted in the collapse of the Iranian monarchy. For more than a decade, the newly-founded Islamic Republic branded Iran's ancient and historical sites as symbols of oppression and self-glorification. A large portion of the population, marking the country's changed societal values, accepted this belief. It was during these years that hundreds of ancient and historical sites were destroyed or plundered. The excuse for this apathy and destruction was to contradict the Pahlavi kings who were so infatuated with the past and the connection they drew between the pre-Islamic Iranian monarchy and their own. 

But such attitudes come and go, and by the end of the war people gradually came to understand the depth of the tragedy that had befallen their national identity and cultural heritage. Some newspapers and a few high-ranking officials once again spoke of cultural heritage. However, even today, the disintegration and plunder of ancient sites continues despite widespread public opposition.

The disintegration of historical sites (of which a large part can be blamed on the mismanagement of repairs and lack of preservation), smuggling of artifacts, and a lack of legal structure protecting these artifacts are the most important factors contributing to the loss of Iran's ancient and cultural heritage. Charged with the preservation and stewardship of these sites is the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, a government institution, whose director is a high-ranking official appointed by the president. 

In a country with such an ancient civilization, this organization should be one of the most important, but government officials in past years have demonstrated the government's view of this institution as merely decorative and serving propaganda purposes. Rather than having expertise in the realm of culture or cultural heritage, the administrators of this organization have "favorable" political histories within the regime.  

At least two administrators of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, namely current director Esfandiar Rahim Mashai and Hossein Marashi, though from very different political backgrounds, were both for a time very close to the leaders of the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, because of his close friendship with Mahmood Ahmadinejad, Rahim Mashai has recently expressed such confidence in his position that responding to the news of his probable discharge, he told reporters that no one would dare to have him replaced. 


In recent years, a large portion of historical sites throughout Iran have been destroyed or are in danger of being destroyed. This destruction comes in three forms. The first is general damage that is inflicted by tourists and inhabitants of neighboring areas. The writing of names and messages, either with paint or carved into the rock, are forms of vandalism that, though not malicious, are primarily a result of apathy and a lack of education and awareness by the responsible institutions. The second form is related to the ongoing lack of preservation measures and repair of sites in need. This category includes a long list of ancient and historical sites facing deterioration. 

The third destructive party consists of government institutions and ministries themselves. The most blatant example is the Sivand Dam. In spite of widespread opposition from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and protests in Tehran and Shiraz against the dam's construction, it was completed in March 2007 upon the orders of Mahmood Ahmadinejad with official approval by the director of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization and with written endorsement from the Ministry of Energy. Even proof of the dam's damaging effects on nearby sites was not enough to change the government's mind. The area of the Balaqi Straits that was flooded with filling of Sivand Dam included an archaeological complex from time periods ranging from the prehistoric through the Achaemenid Empire, more than 2500 years ago. When the dam was filled to capacity, more than 100 ancient sites were lost forever.

The difference in the dam's water level with the nearby site of Pasargadae which includes the tomb of Cyrus the Great has been declared to be 35 meters by officials, but experts have claimed that the true difference is only four meters. The distance from the tomb to the dam's reservoir is approximately five kilometers. Cultural heritage advocates in Iran fear that Cyrus's tomb will be damaged by the reservoir's humidity. 

On November 26, 2004, without any prior notice or news published, the Karun Dam began to be filled, drowning an archaeological compound of the Middle Elamite period. While construction of the dam was billed at 728 billion tomans and its construction began in 1994, the government allotted a mere 25 million tomans for excavation of the site in the final months of construction. This eliminated the possibility of a genuine excavation of the area, leaving those on the site, because of lack of time, money and manpower, with no choice but to remove a few sample artifacts.

In another case, the 7,000 year-old archaeological site, Tape-ye Mehr Ali Farsi, located in the province of Fars, was buried under water with the filling of the Mollasadra Dam in 2006 without any prior announcement. The internationally famous site, Persepolis, one of the most important and well known national symbols of Iran, has been put in danger by a railroad project due to pass through the area, which could result in damage to the site. Also, the archaeological site, Bistun, is under threat due to activities of a petro-chemical company on the site, and the digging of a canal. The 3,500 year-old temple of Cheqazanbil has been damaged in an effort to discover new oil wells, and preservation experts have stated that if explosions to find new gas and oil deposits continue, it will be destroyed. The statues of Jamshid Jam and Qar-e Adam, near Pardis Mountain, located in the province of Bushehr, have also been placed in danger because of the activities of oil and gas companies in Asaluye. Taq Gora, the tomb of one of the Sassanid kings near Qasr-e Shirin is also under threat for similar reasons. It has been called one of the historical wonders of Iran. The tomb of Ferdosi and the historical city of Tus is also in serious danger, due to nearby high voltage electric transformers. 

In Esfahan, following the deconstruction and reconstruction of many historical buildings, and after a few years of back-and-forth on the construction of a tower that nearly caused Naqsh-e Jahan Square to be cut from the World Heritage list, the site of Chahar Baq-e Esfahan found itself in danger of being damaged by metro construction. The historical city of Masuleh has been faced with ruinous floods in recent years, a result of deforestation by people and government institutions. Cultural heritage experts have stated that this city also risks destruction because of landslides and the resettling of the mountain.

In addition to archaeological and historic sites that have been destroyed or risk destruction, unexcavated sites are also at risk. The 3,300 year-old Elamite-era archaeological compound at Susa was considered very important in the history of humanity, but was ruined prior to its excavation by agricultural activity. Dasht-e Bastani Moqan and the compound of Ultan Ghalas is an unknown historical site around Ardebil that is coming under threat by factories and nearby industrial dumps. In the last three years, archaeological sites in Jiroft has been plundered by a rush of hundreds of unauthorized excavators. Thanks to the lack of attention paid by cultural heritage authorities and government institutions, most of its artifacts have fallen prey to theft and antique smugglers before they can be examined by experts. Other archaeological sites in the province of Khuzestan, a large portion of which have already been ruined by the filling of Karun Dam, among others, are also in danger.

These cases demonstrate how cultural heritage sites have routinely suffered at the hands of the government; however, dozens of other cases can be presented to illustrate the harmful effect that unchecked public and private development has had. 

Smuggling Artifacts

The smuggling of artifacts in Iran is so rampant that it has been dubbed "plundering history." This is in spite of current laws prohibiting vandalism of sites, and the smuggling, buying, selling and digging up of artifacts. According to Articles 558 to 569 in the Islamic Penal Code, damaging or smuggling ancient artifacts is punishable by one to ten years in prison (depending on the circumstances), restitution of properties, and a cash fine equal to double the value of the smuggled goods. Article 727 of the Islamic Penal Code, in the chapter on the "Destruction of Historical and Cultural Properties," describes these fines, stating that this crime is not prosecuted except in the case of a "personal compliance" grievance. If a personal compliance is remitted, the court can issue a lower fine or, in compliance with religious measures, can choose to not prosecute at all. Unofficial news sources have reported that dozens of organized crime circles excavate these sites illegally. In many cases, these groups are related to powerful and influential individuals, some connected to the regime, which looks the other way as they plunder artifacts and smuggle them out of the country. 

Taha Hashemi of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization has said, "The laws and punishments regarding cultural heritage need to undergo a thorough review. Clearly, a petty thief is not the same as a thief who steals national heritage and in doing so threatens the national identity of a country, removes artifacts from the country, and, in doing so, challenges a sense of order." She emphasized that, "the crime of people who threaten national heritage and who participate in smuggling is just as serious as drug smuggling. Just as drug smugglers profit from the weakness of the human body, artifacts smugglers profit from the weakness of the spirit of our nation. They put the esteem and global respect of a nation up for sale. The solution lies in increasing the risk of smuggling within the country." Hashemi noted that the price of returning stolen artifacts to Iran is very high due to expensive international court proceedings: "We have paid many times the amount needed to prevent smuggling just to get an artifact back."  

In 2004, Iran implemented a plan to control smuggling by forming the Pasdaran Cultural Heritage Special Forces Unit for Handicrafts and Tourism in Iran. However, the unit's allotment of manpower and funding has been insufficient given the breadth of damage. In August of last year, the commander of the Pasdaran Unit announced the need for more than 8,000 people for the preservation of more than 16,000 registered historical structures in Iran. 

The Pasdaran Cultural Heritage Special Troops Unit is charged with maintaining the 16,000 structures registered as national sites, as well as museums and depositories of historical artifacts. To this end, it has erected more than 207 bases in regions of historic significance around the country through spring 2007. But despite these steps, smuggling continues. In late May of this year, the government newspaper, Iran, reported that, according to Pasdaran Cultural Heritage Special Troops commander Abasali Ruhi,at least 743 people accused of involvement in smuggling ancient artifacts have been arrested in the last year.

According to one government official, some of the arrested individuals had connections outside the country and 444 people were arrested during excavations, while 299 people were arrested as they attempted to smuggle artifacts illegally. He said that 253 smuggled stashes were discovered in 2006 alone, including such items as a gold-plated statue, a precious rug, Parthian masks, a statue of a standing woman, a statue of a winged horse, 30 volumes of manuscripts, 1584 gold coins and 8058 historical coins. Describing Iran's cultural heritage police, he admitted, "We are 50 years behind other countries." 

On August 13, 2007 the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) reported the discovery of a room containing a large stash of ancient artifacts at the customs station in south Tehran. Hasan Qarakhani, a cultural heritage expert, announced that this stash at the customs station was discovered completely accidentally. According to Qarakhani, this "room included at least 300 examples of Iranian antiques as well as pieces of European and Buddhist art. They were presented to customs as 'household items' with the intention of smuggling them to America via Iran's southern border." This historical artifacts expert also claimed that "some large, well-equipped companies, with the trust of the country's border crossings, use their abounding power and influence to transport historical artifacts out of the country by air and sea." While refraining from naming the company and its directors, he said, "It is one of the biggest companies that work in packing and transportation. This company packs historical and cultural artifacts as household items and stores them in the food storage areas in very unfavorable conditions. They are trusted by officials at the border crossings and benefit from our outdated and backlogged customs system and inefficient inspections." According to Qarakhani this case was revealed completely unintentionally by a customs official. He added, "There is no guarantee that we will find other such stashes unless somebody accidentally reveals it. This company sends several big shipments of various items to the borders of Europe every day."

He concludes - as will I - with a lamentation for Iran's cultural heritage: "Iran is a wellspring of historical artifacts which has become a source of cultural and historical items for foreign galleries and this is shameful."

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