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Islamic Regime's Destruction of Pre-Islamic Iranian Heritage to Continue


News Category: Cultural Catastrophe

 31 December 2005



LONDON, (CAIS - edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav) -- Once again the Islamic regime threat of dam construction to pre-Islamic cultural heritage of Iran has raised its ugly head to dominate this year’s excavation calendar.


In terms of scales of construction and related destruction of Iranian cultural heritage, massive dam programmes by the Islamic regime is currently tearing up landscapes in Iran. The country’s 243 dams under construction (or undergoing feasibility studies) are intended to contain ten billion cubic metres of river water for irrigating Iran’s arid fields and generating hydroelectric power, and to modernise the country following a seven-year drought. At least 79 dams have reached various stages of completion. Particularly problematic are the Salman-e Farsi, Mulla Sadra, and Marvast dams in Fars Province, southern Iran, where pre-construction figures estimated that 42 ancient and historical sites would be submerged (threatened sites include a great Zoroastrian fire temple in the reservoir area of Salman-e Farsi).


Iranian experts confirm that no formal feasibility studies were conducted before construction of the Sivand Dam in the Bolaghi Valley of Fars Province was started. Consequently, the endangered list has now swollen to 174 sites ranging from the Palaeolithic to Islamic periods according to the Cultural Heritage News Agency. Mohammad Talebian, director of the Parse-Pasargadae Project, which is co-ordinating salvage operations, calls the 129 sites to be lost to the Sivand Dam alone ‘unquantifiable damage’. The speed and scale of construction has shocked scientists and the United Nations.


Scheduled to become operational in March 2006, current efforts are concentrated on these priority 130 sites within the Bolaghi Valley. After archaeology was frozen in Iran following the Revolution of 1979, the country has dramatically reopened as an archaeologists’ heaven - but also a hell. Some 16 foreign teams are currently conducting fieldwork along the 5.5km-long Valley. Some 77 new sites found in the region include ancient settlements (seven Sasanian), 12 Palaeolithic caves, ten Achaemenid mounds, four mines, five cemeteries, three dams, water mills, castles, mosques, and a commercial wine production estate of c. 200 CE. None of these sites has ever been examined scientifically.


The Sivand Dam lies less than 2km from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pasargadae, the first capital of the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BCE) and residence of Cyrus the Great. Iranian experts and European archaeologists alike are highly concerned that alongside the disappearance of the ‘Royal Road’ inside the Valley - Iran’s oldest road - the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great may even be at risk.


Elsewhere, excavations behind the Ai-Doqmush Dam in the Eastern Azarbaijan region, encompassing Bronze and Iron Age remains in the area of Kola, have uncovered a mysterious two-storey platform dating to c. 3000 BCE. Archaeologists are currently trying to make sense of unique ‘violet glazed’ pottery sherds, some incised with geometric decoration, found at Bronze Age Kale Tepe, but are literally fighting against the current: Iranian archaeologists have dismissed the 10 million rials ($12,000) allocated to saving the site as unacceptably low.


Meanwhile, salvage work ongoing at the Iron Age cemetery of Lafurak in Mazandaran Province has also confused scholars by exposing burials of 800 BC apparently encased in fired clay, with no grave goods. At least three other inhumations, one with gold and silver earrings, stand out from the overall sample because of their dolichocephalic (elongated) skulls, suggesting the deceased are non-indigenous. The ancient village and cemetery of Lafuruk, in addition to 11 other sites nearby, will all be inundated by the Alborz Dam.


Excavations directed by Kazerun Azad University and the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organisation at Tell-e Bondu in Fars Province have revealed at least 50 mid-Elamite (1500-1100 BCE) clay seals stamped with merchants’ marks listing produce quantities and quality. Extensive pottery workshops also cover the site, where vessels were manufactured for export. In combination, the evidence for substantial organised inter-regional trade (including the discovery of what the Iranians are referring to as a ‘pen’) has impressed local scholars.


Junko Taniguchi, a UNESCO officer in Tehran, has confirmed that the current international rescue missions ‘will only be able to do initial research. It is unfortunate but the work is very urgent’. Despite the absence of formal pre-disturbance assessments, Iranian archaeologists have managed to win some major concessions from the developers, not least pushing the opening of the Sivand Dam back one year from March 2005, to maximise the rescue efforts.


How on earth, in such a sophisticated world, can such major cultural heritage as in Iran be so blatantly sacrificed? Every country naturally has to balance cultural resource management with everyday economic reality that will benefit the well-being of its people. No nation can live in a protected Disneyland heritage centre, but the equilibrium remains alarmingly stacked against the past.


On a planet subjected to so many extreme pressures - bloating demography, globalisation, industrial expansion - there is little scope for unproductive ‘tree hugging’ amongst the dense forest of cultural heritage management. Yet there is every reason to expect pre-conceived programmes to successfully sample appropriate key endangered sites well in advance of destruction or to explain why such measures have been sacrificed for a greater good. Such systems work very successfully in the United Kingdom and America to strike a realistic balance.


So why, with the high-profile experience of Pre-Islamic Iran, has Iran failed to implement appropriate measures to record or at least to allocate appropriate funds from developers?


Even though archaeologists have had a longer run up to events in Iran, the scale of destruction will be a disaster. Although an accurate picture based on facts and figures is extremely hard to assemble, the language of various documents makes it obvious that local teams are uncovering completely new sets of material culture and data on a daily basis. The Cultural Heritage News Agency has confirmed that $300,000 has been allocated to fieldwork in the Bolaghi Valley. This sum must cover research into 130 sites and is ‘meant to be spent on excavation, repair works, and also the establishment of a museum in which the objects found in this ancient site will be exhibited. In addition, since most of the foreign universities and institutions who are currently working on this project in Iran have not undertaken their own expenses, part of the above mentioned budget will be allotted to funding their archaeologists’.


For Iran, surely it would not be too much to expect at the very least a project overview to be published on the websites of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre or ICOMOS? What is the purpose of either organisation if it is not to exert high-level pressure on Islamic regime and to kick-start funding initiatives? Accountability and transparency are keys to safeguarding the past; neither is evident amidst the ruins of this ‘dammed’ nation, which could simply be coined as the "Cultural Holocaust" taking place in Islamic Iran.




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