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Destroying Ancestral Heritage in the Name of Development


20 May 2006



Edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav


LONDON, (CAIS) -- A few weeks ago, Iranian cultural heritage authorities announced that UNESCO's Director of World Heritage Centre, Francesco Bandarin, would come to Iran to examine and discuss a number of issues regarding some cultural heritage sites within the country that are put in real jeopardy as a result of the Islamic Regime's so-called development projects. This was a good news since Iran's national heritage has extensively suffered since 1979 Islamic revolution, and especially in recent years as the result of a fast trend of de-Iranianization of the country by the regime. The detestation toward anything Iranian since 1979, has either endangered, damaged or even destroyed prominently Pre-Islamic sites. 


Many ruling clerics and prominent member of Islamic regime, who are of non-Iranian origin have desperately tried to undermine or suppress Iranian culture and Iran's pre-Islamic heritage. The regime since early 1980s have hopelessly tried to deter Iranians from celebrating their ancient celebrations, such as 4000-years-old Nowruz and Chahar-Shanbeh Suri, by falsifying that Iranian history was begun after Islamic invasion of Iran in 7th century, which their brutal Arab rule had lasted over two centuries. Many of the ruling clerics and prominent members of the regime in Iran who are address themselves as Sayyed, dreadfully are proud of being non-Iranian descends, in a country of non-Arab stock.


However, Bandarin during his short stay, he paid a visit to Esfahan to observe closely the process of reduction of the height of Jahan Nama Tower, a building in Esfahan, which had been constructed by the Islamic Regime Revolutionary Corps higher than the UNESCO standards and had eventually intruded the aerial buffer zone of the world heritage site of Naqsh e Jahan Square. Naqsh-e Jahan Square, is the second largest square in the world, constructed by Safavid King, Shah Abbas the Great in 15th century. He also visited the highly disputed Sivand Dam in Fars province, built in the vicinity of an ancient sites of Pasargadae and Persepolis in Bolaghi Valley. During his visit to this historic site, he observed the process of the salvation project, originally launched with the purpose of saving the remains of ancient evidence before the flooding of the Dam which will submerge this ancient site almost completely. He also visited the newly discovered palace denoted to Darius the Great, the Achaemenid King of Kings, which was unearthed during archaeological excavations not more than two weeks ago in Bolaghi Valley and was amazed by its massive size.

Francesco Bandarin has commented on ICHTO in protecting of its cultural heritage sites, Bandarin said, "I think that overall we have seen a good situation and a lot of improvements in the management of both cultural and natural heritage in Iran. The legislation that protects the cultural and natural heritage is properly in place, although we know there are some shortages and we have a few suggestions to fix them. There are a number of issues which need to be discussed. Certainly it is a country that has a very rapid economic and demographic growth, and overall a much accelerated development. And this is an issue that always affects cultural and natural heritage sites in a country. So you have all these problems which are the problems of all the countries that are developing. However, I think we are very lucky to have a situation in which development starts in the moment when all these institutions and legislations that protect cultural and natural heritage sites are there so we can at least try to solve some of the problems that naturally arise from urban and economic growth."

Regarding Iran's participation in UNESCO, Bandarin said that Iran is "a very active member" and referred to a relatively long period of absence Iran had in UNESCO as a problem the country is facing today which needs to be resolved.

Pointing out to Iran's lack of participation in UNESCO for nearly 20 years, Bandarin added, "It has been about three to four years that Iran has restarted a very active role in the organization, whereas in the 20 years that preceded it nothing had happened, and we were in fact a little worried about Iran’s absence of participation. But since three or four years go, thanks to the leadership of ICHTO, Iran has taken a very dynamic role and has come back to a very active participation and inscribing sites. So in spite of this 20 years of silence it is back on track now. Nevertheless, this long period of absence has created problems because no training happened during those years. So this is something that needs to be considered as a problem. Yet we can help to improve this situation in many ways. We can provide assistance on organizing meetings. For instance, we had an important meeting about two weeks ago on cultural landscapes in Persepolis. We can also offer international assistance for special cases, Bam was one example. In the meantime, we should keep in mind that UNESCO can not solve the problems by itself, but we can certainly help and be a partner to the countries."

As for Iran's joining of UNESCO's Committee for Cultural Heritage, Bandarin said that Iran would have to be elected by the committee first and he considered Iran's chances high in this respect. However, whether this would give any privileges to Iran for inscribing more than one file per year in UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites, he said, "The rules will equally apply to everyone. So it depends which rule the committee decides to adopt. However, at the moment the rule is that each country may nominate maximum of two sites per year: one cultural and one natural. Frankly I think it is quite a lot and it is not an easy task to nominate even one site in one year."

Before Bandarin came to Iran, it had been announced that he would visit Choghazanbil in Khuzestan Province to draw up a report on the activities of Iran's Oil Company there. Previously, UNESCO had expressed its concerns over the activities of the Oil Company near this historic site which had dug some holes for oil extraction purposes. It thus ordered the stop of oil exploration in the area. Bandarin said that he was initially not scheduled to go to Choghazanbil despite what Iranian officials had previously announced and he was only supposed to discuss the case: "My trip was essentially for Esfahan and Shiraz, and I was only planning to discuss the issue concerning Choghazanbil in Iran and not to go there. So I spent a full afternoon with the Choghazanbil Site Manager, Mohammad Hassan Talebian, discussing the situation of this ancient site and the issue of oil exploration in the area as well as what should be done for the conservation of the site."

The issue of Iran's enormous natural heritage sites came up next during our talks with UNESCO's Director of Cultural Heritage Center. He agreed with us on the fact that natural sites are not taken as seriously as cultural heritage sites in Iran and said, "The fact that Iran has no natural heritage sites inscribed in the World Heritage List and has only cultural heritage sites in that list shows that there is a certain delay and this is a problem which needs to be addressed. In fact, this was also an element of discussion during my visit to Iran this time with many Iranian institutions. In particular, I discussed the case with the geologists of Iran's Geological Survey. We have planned to have a workshop on this issue within the year with natural heritage experts to look at the situation of natural heritage sites in Iran and to design a plan to make descriptions for these sites. However, this alone does not solve the problem since there are very few protected areas in Iran so we need to work on that more. This is while the potential that this country has is enormous and Iran has very important natural heritage sites of all types: coastal, mountainous, desserts, etc. UNESCO also works on another program which is called Man and the Biosphere (MAB) which is also what we should apply to the case of Iran. In any event, I believe that even though there is a delay but we can look forward to a much better future."

Going back to one of the major problems which exists especially in developing countries like Iran where there are several instances that the country's economic and developing plans come into clashes with its duty in protecting its cultural heritage sites and especially taking into account the large number of these cultural heritage sites all over Iran. Bandarin suggested that there are ways that would help a country preserve what it has inherited from its ancestors without actually stopping its developing projects. Bandarin referred to some examples within Iran such as Bolaghi Valley and the Sivand Dam in Fars province, Choghazanbil and oil exploration activities in Khuzestan, and finally Jahan Nama Tower and its hazards to the famous Naqsh e Jahan Square in Esfahan and also construction of a subway system in this city which would pass underneath the cultural heritage site of Chahar Baq and said, "First of all there must be a long term view because if you let things happen without looking at their impacts in the future then of course a disaster could happen. So you have to plan it in advance. In this trip we looked at many different situations. We visited the Sivand Dam and it is clear that this dam is going to destroy a number of sites. This made the Iranian cultural heritage authorities launch a campaign about two years ago consisting of rescue archaeologists to investigate the sites before their destructions. I think we must be aware of the values of these sites and plan in advance and try to limit the disastrous affects some of our development projects may have and always try to maintain a balance between the two. Almost the same thing happened in Choghazanbil. We know that oil is necessary and we are not going to stop their work but we are considering the conditions that maybe they could move somewhere else."





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