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The Burnt City, a Great Civilization in a Small Desert


By: Nastaran Zafar Ardalan



Abstract: The Burnt City in eastern Iran dates back to 5,000 years ago and is spread in an area of 150 hectares. In its life span of 1100 years, the Burnt City has been witness to four civilization eras. It was unearthed in the year 1915.



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The area, 56 km from the city of Zabol in Sistan-Baluchestan Province, is the place that is known by some local people as the "region of bandits" but in fact far from any wickedness, it is the place where our past history has taken shape. The place is the "Burnt City", a land that has come from 5000-years ago, and has opened up its secrets to archaeologists to enable them to reveal its magnificence to the contemporary generation. 


Thousands of years ago some people used to live on this desert land and its hot soil that is hard to bear today, who had their own civilization and architectural style, the remains of which that had once been buried under the layers of soil have now been pulled out of the ancient hills of the region.


The entire vast desert is filled with fragments of clay works spread all over the area. However, we were not able to inspect the entire region due to the hot weather and wind. 


"With every step that we took the soil under our feet moved aside, revealing more fragments of clay works. We were told that after each rain the earth will be washed away and fragments will come out to the surface and that the more fragments they collect the generous land will give them more pieces of the precious gifts. The moment we touched the clay fragments that were buried under the soil we sensed a strange feeling that reminded us of our Oriental background and this feeling made us to search for our lost identity within the Burnt City" (Dr. Mansour Seyed Sajjadi, an archaeologist who has for years made research works in the Burnt City).


"The Burnt City with a span of 150 hectares of land is the largest areas in the Middle East dating back to the Brass Age. It was founded in 3200 BCE and was ruined in 2100 BCE and in the course of its 1100-year life was witness to four civilization eras. It was burnt for three times and completely ruined in the third fire. That is the reason as to why the city is called the "Burnt City". 


So far, no one has found out the real name of the city and only in the case that archaeologists gain access to the historical record of the ancient city, it would be possible to find out the real name of the city by reading the unearthed manuscripts. 


The available evidences indicate that the Burnt City was first discovered by British scholar Orwell Stein in the year 1915 and later in the 1960s, a team from the Italian institute for the Middle East and Oriental studies launched archeological excavations with the cooperation of the Archeology General Department in a period between 1967 to 1978. 


With the discovery of 250 graves, the team collected interesting valuable information. However, excavations were halted in the ancient area from 1978 for a period of 18 years but archeological activities once again resumed in the area in 1997.


Dr. Sajjadi, whose abundant love for the ancient region is hard to be estimated, was greatly cautious lest anybody might damage the newly repaired walls of the invaluable historical heritage by walking on it. 


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He believed that the Burnt City is a big laboratory in the heart of the desert that has housed various sectors such as residential quarters, historical monuments, graveyards and industrial units. Given that so far no defensive fortress or walls have been discovered in the Burnt City, archaeologists believe that the inhabitants of the city were all peace-loving and calm people who lived a peaceful life in the absence of any boundaries and without getting involved in any war or confrontation.


Studies show that in the early stage of their settlement in the region (3200 to 2800 BCE) the people of the Burnt City had established contacts and entered into transactions with the people in the Eastern and North-Eastern parts of the Greater Iran, the Central Asia and Quetta (in what is today known as Pakistan's Baluchistan). 


Dr. Sajjadi, the expert archaeologist of the Burnt City, says that in the second phase of their settlement (2800 to 2500 BCE) the people halted their contacts with Khuzestan but preserved their ties with Central Asia. Seals that have been discovered in the Burnt City, Mishmahig (Bahrain), Kuwait and southern Khvarvaran (Iraq) lend further proof to such a theory. In the third phase (2500 to 2300 BCE) and even in the fourth phase (2300 to 2100 BCE) the inhabitants of the Burnt City had contacts with northern and eastern areas but gradually lowered the level of their relationship.


The archaeologist further opines that the Burnt City was the center of a civilization known as "Civilization of the Hirmand River Zone" that served as the capital of the civilizations that existed 5000 years ago. 


However, due to the displacement and drying up of the Hirmand River's delta, living in the region lost its charm. It is said that the Burnt City had about 70 villages that were highly active in agriculture and production of clay works.


In the course of the 2001 archeological excavations in the area, over one ton of clay objects were collected from inside the graves and in architectural environments. The number of objects discovered from the historical site is out of estimation. It was very hard to make further comments on the people who lived in the Burnt City when we heard that objects, including 12 patterns of fabrics in different colors have been discovered in the area as well as inlaid works dating back to 5000 years ago. 


The efficiency, knowledge and state-of-the-art deployed by those people leaves no room for any judgment. We were told there that the oldest sample of surgery on human's skull was carried out on a 13-year-old girl suffering from hydrocephalic. The skull is due to be displayed at the first medical history museum of Iran. 


Apparently, the major part of the information has been obtained from graves that have been unearthed in the course of excavation operations. 


"We then slowly proceeded towards the graveyard section as if our steps would disturb the sleeping ancestors. The graveyard sector was expanded in an area of 20 hectares of the dead land", according to Dr. Sajjadi. 



The graveyard embraces about 40,000 graves of which only 134 graves have been excavated in the course of four operational seasons and 158 skeletons have been discovered out of them of which about 120 samples have undergone anthropological studies. 


Research studies show that due to the hard labor, men and women who lived in the Burnt City had short span of life to the extent that men died at the age of 26 to 53 and women at 26 to 46. On the other hand, archaeologists evaluate these graves as data banks through which they can find out the style of living, beliefs and professionals of their ancestors.


Findings obtained in the course of four archeological seasons in the Burnt City indicate that the people of the Burnt City had veteran jeweler, painters, shepherds, farmers, weavers and craftsmen among them. 


Samples of the precious stones cut in that period, some with less than a millimeter thickness further reveals the delicacy of the art of jewelry at that time. 


Archaeologists have also found remains of paints in a number of pots indicating that artists of that time used to paint clay pots. Elaborating on the people's belief in that era for putting pots inside the grave and beside the buried body, the archaeologist said the inhabitants of the Burnt City believed in the postmortem life and thus viewed death as a temporary sleep that would come to end one day. Therefore, they used to place dishes, water and all the basic requirements in the graves so that on the resurrection day they would be used when the dead body will be awakened again. 


Dr. Sajjadi also points out that some cloves of garlic have been found in a number of graves, adding that in some countries in southern Europe and certain Indo-European tribes it is believed that garlic will expel the wicked spirits out of their homes. Therefore, it is also believed that people who lived in the Burnt City put cloves of garlic inside the graves for the same reason and in order to keep evil away from the dead body. He said that the evidence found in one of the graves attested to the commitment of a murder as the head of the dead body together with the deadly weapon had been placed underneath his feet. 



Despite the invaluable information that archaeologists have obtained out of the graves in the Burnt City, however, Dr. Sajjadi believes that until the time that 1,000 graves have not been examined no one can express his idea definitely and all comments are based on assumptions. According to him, by the deployment of the present technology it takes 150 years to scientifically to excavate the area. In fact, no end could be speculated to that ancient realm as it was spread in a span of 150 hectares. 


"We were curious to find out what happened to the people in the last fire of the city and in the aftermath of the drying of the Hirmand River's Delta and that where we could find their traces following their migration from the Burnt City". According to Dr. Sajjadi, after migrating from the Burnt City, the people had apparently settled in regions on the other side of the borders. 


He says that there is no trace of them after 2100 to 2000 BCE because no scientific research work has been conducted in this regard. The more we gathered information about the Burnt City and its people the heavier became our grief.




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