Iran’s Heritage Sites Remain Under Threat. What Could We Lose?
A country’s heritage is arguably vital to its lifeblood. It connects the present to the past and also unites humanity in the appreciation and love for history and archaeology. Ancient cultural sites may remind us of our own histories or perhaps the stories of our ancestors. This is part of why so many of us marvel at and cherish ancient places. It is also a partial explanation why the intentional destruction of any ancient site can cause global outrage and despair .
The Possibility of Losing Iran’s Heritage Sites
International news sites such as BBC News have been reporting on the possibility of a huge loss to cultural heritage in Iran, as has happened to countries in conflict throughout the region. The concern is a response to what the president of the United States tweeted on Saturday January 4:
....targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2020
Since then, he has apparently backtracked somewhat on the comment; following the contradiction of his threat by US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, for example, who told CNN “We will follow the laws of armed conflict.” This should mean that Iranian heritage sites are safe because, as The Guardian points out:
“Targeting cultural sites is prohibited by international conventions signed in Geneva and at the Hague. In 2017, the United Nations security council passed unanimously a resolution condemning the destruction of heritage sites.”
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Certain organizations have deliberately targeted cultural heritage sites in the recent past, but the sad fact is that even if such sites are not deliberately targeted, actions from both sides in a conflict cause collateral damage, and when it happens to historic sites, it is inevitably irreversible. This has happened throughout history.
The current situation in Iran and Iraq is unsettling for many reasons, but our focus is not the politics here. Instead, this article will explore some of the treasured heritage sites of Iran which could be under threat even if international conventions are respected. The following are six of Iran’s important archaeological sites we hope will survive the differences of modern nations and stand for many years to come.
The Biblical city of Shushan, also called Susa in the past and now known as Shush, passed through the hands of the Elamite, Persian, and Parthian empires. It was known as a center to worship Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and warfare. It was also the winter residence of Persian kings after it was captured by Cyrus the Great.
A number of excavations of the city have revealed evidence of occupation going back to 4200 BC. Artifacts discovered at the site include carved cylinder seals, jewelry, clay balls, and clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions recording business transactions, political history, and mathematical calculations. Panels of colored glazed bricks can still be seen in the ruins today as well.
Chogha Zanbil, meaning ‘basket mound,’ is most famous for its unique ziggurat. The city was founded sometime around 1250 BC by the Elamite king, Untash-Napirisha to perhaps function as a religious capital. Unlike the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the monument in Chogha Zanbil was not constructed by placing one story on top of another - all five stories of the Chogha Zanbil ziggurat rose from the ground. The original temple dedicated to an Elamite god surrounded a square open courtyard which made it possible for the ziggurat to be constructed in its unique manner.
Other structures at the site included an oval wall that surrounded the ziggurat, and two more enclosures. The second enclosure surrounded a vast, almost empty zone, and the outermost enclosure was meant to protect the city from invaders. Three palaces and a temple were discovered in the area between the second and third enclosures. Interestingly, it seems that houses were never built in the city. In 1979, Chogha Zanbil became the one of the first Iranian sites to be listed as a World Heritage Site.
Once the stunning capital of the Persian Empire (also known as the Achaemenid Empire ), Persepolis was lost to the world for almost nineteen hundred years, buried in the dirt of southwestern Iran until the 17th century. It was founded in in 518 BC by Darius I and was built at the foot of the “Mountain of Mercy” in modern day Iran.
The city was modeled on previous Mesopotamian complexes and designed just as much to visually impress as it was to deal with court and military matters. Today, the terrace and the bones of the audience hall remain, as do shallowly carved friezes which have withstood time, nature, and warfare, making their continuance even more intriguing. There are also numerous freestanding columns topped with griffins, winged bulls, or lions scattered around the area that was once a kingdom. Untouched tombs and the Gate of All Nations are two other features that attest to the importance of this ancient site.
The tomb of Cyrus the Great is the name given to a monument located in the ancient Persian city of Pasargadae. This city was founded by Cyrus, and served as the capital of the Achaemenid Empire until his successor, Cambyses II, moved it to Susa. The structure is found not far from the palaces of Pasargadae. This monument has been hailed as an exceptional example of the first phase of royal Achaemenid art and architecture.
It consists of two sections – a lower part and an upper part. The lower part is in the form of a stepped platform, which is reminiscent of Mesopotamian ziggurats. As for the upper part of the tomb, it may be further divided into two sections – the tomb chamber itself, and a room above it, of which the exact function remains unknown.
Golestan Palace (which means the ‘Roseland Palace’ in Persian) is a palace complex that once was part of a group of monuments situated within the mud-thatched walls of Tehran’s Arg (citadel). The Golestan Palace consists of a number of magnificent buildings with well-kept gardens. It’s located right in the center of the city of Tehran, the capital of Iran.
The earliest surviving structures of the palace complex date to the Zand Dynasty, during the second half of the 18th century and the most distinct feature of the Golestan Palace is the co-existence of Persian and European architectural elements. Many of the impressive buildings, including the Imarat-i Takht-i Marmar (the ‘Marble Throne Room’), where formal receptions were held, and the Talar-i Aaj (the ‘Hall of Ivory’), where gifts from foreign countries were kept, have been preserved. Today, Golestan Palace is a World Heritage Site and is open to visitors.
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Nashtifan is an ancient site located in Khaf County, which is part of the northeastern Iranian province of Rzavi Khorasan. In olden days, the town was known as ‘Nish Toofan,’ which may be translated to mean ‘storm’s sting,’ and is an indication of the kind of environment it was in. Due to the strong winds that blow across the area, windmills were built near the town to harness this source of energy. Amazingly, there are still a number of windmills that were built during ancient times, and are still functioning today.
The windmills of Nashtifan are of the asbad type, and have been used for milling grain into flour. It has been reckoned that these windmills have been functioning for about 1000 years. In 2002, the windmills of Nashtifan were recognized as a national heritage site by Iran. In addition, the ancient windmills of Iran are currently on the Tentative List of UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Nevertheless, the recognition conferred upon the site is no guarantee for its future.
Let’s hope that these sites will be safe and treasured for many more years.
Top Image: Four Iranian heritage sites: The ruins of Persepolis. (F. Couin/ CC BY SA 4.0 ), Pasargadae Tomb in Shiraz ( CC BY SA 3.0 ), Ancient ruins in Susa, Iran ( UNESCO), Elaborate decoration in Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran. (Diego Delso/ CC BY SA ).