Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
& CULTURAL NEWS OF THE IRANIAN WORLD
Are Opposing An Irrigation Project they Fear Could Destroy Priceless
Symbols of Iran's pre-Islamic Heritage
22 November 2006
(CAIS) -- He founded the world's first multinational empire, was celebrated
in the Bible and Qur'an and is recognised as ancient Persia's greatest king. But
now the 2,500-year-old tomb in which Cyrus the Great rests is at risk from one
of the many vast dam projects that Iran's present rulers say is vital to future
Conservationists, including the UN's heritage body, Unesco, say the £15.5m
Sivand dam threatens the long-term survival of the historic tomb and the remains
of several adjoining palaces at Pasargad in southern Iran.
The issue highlights a classic conflict in contemporary Iran. The urgent need
for water in a parched region on the one hand, versus the desire to preserve
remnants of an ancient civilisation, in which most Iranians express great pride,
on the other.
Putting the clash in perspective, cultural heritage campaigners point out that
Iran has always had an urgent demand for water and warn that priceless reminders
of the glory of historic Persia are being jeopardised needlessly for short-term
They insist the dam, intended to irrigate farming land 40 miles away, will
drastically raise local humidity levels and destroy culturally precious
structures that have survived from antiquity specifically because of dry
conditions. A petition prepared by a conservationist website, savepasargad.com,
has gathered more than 50,000 signatures and has been presented to Unesco, which
has designated Pasargad a world heritage site.
Work on the project began 11 years ago and is virtually complete. After several
delays, Iran's water authority has scheduled next February as the starting date
for the 15m gallon capacity facility, which sits just three miles from Cyrus's
tomb. The tomb is built on the site where the ancient monarch defeated Astyages
The dam's opening has already been postponed by more than a year to allow
international teams of archaeologists to dig in the neighbouring Tange Bolaghi
gorge, where civilisation is believed to date back 6,500 years. Excavations have
uncovered a wealth of remains, including remnants of a palace belonging to King
Darius the Great, a successor to Cyrus, and an iron smelting plant traced back
to around 2,500BC. The skeleton of a human female, originating from around
4,000BC was also discovered in a cave.
The gorge, thought to have been a hunting area for kings during the
2,800-year-old Achaemenid dynasty, will be flooded once the dam starts
operating. Hundreds of hectares of farmland will also be swamped, necessitating
compensation for local farmers.
The water authority insists the tomb will be unaffected but has offered to
install humidity measuring devices to monitor possible damage.
Campaigners say the environmental impact has been inadequately studied, however.
They believe increased humidity will corrode the stonework of the ancient
structures and weaken their stability by softening the soil on which they stand.
"Apart from the dangers of humidity, nobody can assure us that there won't
be constant underground tremors from the dam which will affect the buildings'
foundations," said Ali Hashemi, secretary of Farpad, a conservationist
campaign group. "In areas near a dam, water springs emerge underground and
they could easily emerge under Cyrus's tomb. We have these precious historic
sites here today but if they are destroyed by water, future generations will
only be able to learn about them in books."
The dispute reflects a bitter struggle to preserve symbols of Iran's pre-Islamic
heritage in the face of opposition from the country's religious authorities, who
have denounced Cyrus and other former monarchs as tyrants.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, a leading ayatollah, Sadegh Khalkali - a
close henchman of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's
spiritual leader - attacked the ancient emperor's legendary greatness as a
"Jewish myth" in a book called The False Cyrus. Cyrus is revered in
Jewish history for freeing the Jews exiled in Babylon and ordering the
rebuilding of their temple in Jerusalem after the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar
destroyed it. Cyrus's deeds are extolled in the Old Testament's book of Ezra.
The government's hostility has prompted some campaigners to denounce the dam as
a conspiracy designed to destroy a symbol of Iran's monarchical heritage. They
say more than 80 dams have been built since the revolution, inflicting great
damage on pre-Islamic cultural artefacts. Dam building was a top priority during
the eight-year presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the revolution's leaders
and still an influential figure in Iran.
But residents in Arsanjan, a town south-east of Pasargad, insist the need for
the Savand facility is genuine. By infusing 200 litres of water per second into
nearby fields, farmers say the dam will transform a situation that has forced
them to dig deep wells or use drinking water to cultivate fields rendered arid
by salty soil.
"The people in this town are waiting for water. They believe water is
life," said the mayor, Farzad Mirzai. "A farmer who lives here might
not go to Pasargad once in 10 years, but he cannot turn a blind eye to water. By
building this dam and saving the livelihoods of thousands of people, we have the
chance to build things that could turn into historic sites 2,500 years from
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