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Could the Sivand Dam Project be a Blessing in Disguise?
The Art Newspaper
Between Pasargadae, the
first capital of the Persian empire, and
Persepolis, a road leads through a narrow gorge
through a little valley called Bolaghi. A dam is
under construction, scheduled to be finished
this year, which will flood 20 square kilometres
of the valley, raising the water level in the
river that flows through it by several metres.
The waters will rise to within six kilometres of
the tomb of Cyrus, which is not itself at risk,
nor are the palaces in the vicinity. At the
request of the Iranian Cultural Heritage and
Tourism Organisation (ICHTO), archaeologists
carried out emergency surveys of this area in
2003 and 2004.
mapped more than 100 sites of human activity,
including two impressive 10-kilometre-long
canals built in stone or carved out of rock.
They found evidence of dwellings and shards from
many different eras. Very few finds were
prehistoric, most were Achaemenid or later,
including up to the Modern Era.
The caves, some of which may have been occupied
in the prehistoric era, are high up and
therefore not directly threatened by the rising
waters. Because of the valley’s modest
dimensions and the relatively small size of its
sites, its importance cannot be compared to
other sites that have prompted salvage
operations by international teams in Turkey,
Syria and Iraq all along the Euphrates River.
However, the Bolaghi/Sivand region does merit
archaeologists’ attention. It has occupied a
strategic position through many different
historical eras, and, if we do not act now, we
may never know what archeological evidence it
Archaeologists, and all those who take an
interest in the past, must now confront the
question of how to reconcile economic
imperatives with the protection of cultural
heritage. It is not a question of outlawing all
modernisation in historical areas. If this were
to happen, town centres, roads that correspond
to ancient routes, and many other sites would
remain frozen in time forever.
What historians and lovers of heritage demand is
a knowledge of the past in all its forms, not
the conservation at any cost of all historical
remains. All traces of our history deserve to be
studied, but few are worth conserving.
Consultation, time, legislation, and finance,
this is what the archaeologists need. They
already know how to adapt to economic
In Iran, the great excavations of the last 20
years show that Iranian archaeologists know how
to respond effectively to the demands of
modernisation: for example, in the centre of
Hamadan which is the site of the ancient city of
Ecbatana, in the west of Iran; or at Nishapur,
the famous medieval town to the west of Meshed.
The Sivand dam project began in 1992, a
difficult time for Iran, and there was probably
not enough concern in the country about the
consequences of the new project, but it is also
the responsibility of archaeologists to inform
contractors about the possible dangers of the
necessary modernisation of the regions. It is
also true that surveillance is extremely
difficult in remote, inaccessible areas.
The archeological authorities should have the
necessary political weight, backed up by
Iran’s legislation on the protection of
cultural heritage, to stand up to the big
ministries (energy, communication, housing,
etc.), a confrontation that will be familiar to
archaeologists all over the world. There are
numerous sites and rock bas-reliefs in the
Zagros chain, south-west of Iran, the ancient
Elam of the Bible (second to first millennium
BC) and Elymaïde from the beginning of the
In this region, the construction of a series of
hydro-electric dams on the river Karun, the
biggest such project in Iran, was begun in the
60s and recently started up again. It seems that
from the start of this project, archaeologists
were never able to make their voices
sufficiently heard, and this has been going on
It is such a shame; the delays could have been
used to carry out salvage excavations by Iranian
or international teams. In the Bolaghi valley,
the construction of the Sivand dam has been
slow, but now there is talk that it will start
to be filled later this year. The reaction in
Iran, and abroad, has undoubtedly helped to
bring about a prise de conscience and a dialogue
about the potential threat; there have even been
suggestions that the authorities may postpone
the flooding of the valley until 2006.
Fortunately, the waters will rise very slowly,
giving some time to investigate sites, many of
which are several metres above the current
height of the river.
The dam, which is designed above all for
irrigation, must not divert all the water from
the Pulvar river, which is already used to
irrigate hundreds of hectares of wheat and maize
in the Sivand plain all the way to Persepolis.
The Iranian heritage authorities (ICHTO) called
for international co-operation last autumn to
survey, explore and excavate several sites.
It is not a question of excavating every square
metre where artefacts have been found, or even
of excavating a site in its entirety. The
objective is to survey the different types of
remains (villages, camps, farms, workshops,
cemeteries, roads, etc.) and understand their
chronology, in order to reconstruct the life of
the human communities, undoubtedly very few in
number, that once occupied this valley. There is
evidence of human life as far back as 2,000
years, and, according to the initial
observations, possibly even Neolithic.
Time is running out, but much is still possible.
ICHTO has devised a strategy to survey the
entire area, giving priority to the areas most
at risk of flooding. Several Iranian and
international teams have responded to the appeal
for help and will start work this month.
Finally, the threat of the dam could yet produce
a positive outcome; in many industrial
countries, the best known areas of
archaeological record are those where teams of
archaeologists have been called in before the
construction of motorways, railway routes or new
urban areas. The salvage excavations along the
Euphrates River have bought in an incredible
harvest of new data.
The Bolaghi valley could one day prove to be an
exception in Iran: a well-studied micro-region
in the province of Fars, where, until now, only
the most famous monuments, such as Persepolis,
have been studied.
*The writer is a senior researcher at the NRS
(National Centre for Scientific Research),
Maison de l’Orient, Lyons
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies