Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Protect Iran—and the world’s—priceless treasures

This short but important piece was written for the Guardian and was picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald (6 March). Let’s hope they are not in the line of fire and that these concerns turn out to be needless.

Iran’s priceless antiquities lie in line of fire
Maev Kennedy in London
March 6, 2007

IN his quiet office at the British Museum in London, among portraits of dead explorers and 3000-year-old inscriptions, one of the greatest experts on the archaeology of the Middle East has a series of maps of Iranian nuclear installations spread out across his desk.

John Curtis’s maps fill him with foreboding: because they show how many of Iran’s nuclear plants are perilously close to ancient cultural sites.

Natanz, home to a uranium enrichment plant, is renowned for its exquisite ceramics; Isfahan, home to a uranium conversion plant, is also a UNESCO world heritage site and was regarded in the 16th century as the most beautiful city on earth.

Other nuclear installations lie close to Shiraz, dubbed “the city of roses and nightingales” and famous for the tombs of medieval poets; Persepolis, the great palace of King Darius, whose ruins are still magnificent; and the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler said to have been buried in a coffin of gold.

Four years ago Dr Curtis warned that war in Iraq would be a disaster for some of the oldest and most important sites in the world. He has since seen his worst fears confirmed: the site of ancient Babylon became a US military base; thousands of objects are missing from the national museum in Baghdad; and looted artefacts have been illicitly excavated and smuggled out of the country.

Now Dr Curtis dreads seeing history repeated, this time from the escalating threat from the US against Iran. “Any kind of military activity whatever in Iran, whether aerial bombing or land invasion, would inevitably have the gravest consequences, not only for its people but for its cultural heritage, which should be a matter of concern not just to Iranians but to the whole world,” he said.

“The main nuclear bases would seem the most likely targets, which would directly threaten two major sites, Isfahan and Natanz.” The medieval splendour of those cities, at the height of the power of Islamic Persia from the 13th to the 17th centuries, was built on a cultural history which was already thousands of years old.

The history of cities, of writing, of engineering and astronomy began in the ancient centres of Iran and Iraq. “The archaeology is so rich there is almost nowhere that you could say is devoid of interest,” Dr Curtis said. “But certainly a list must be compiled of the sites which need the most consideration.”

Unlike the looted and still shuttered national museum in Baghdad, in Iran the risk is considered less for the national museum in Tehran than for hundreds of major sites with standing buildings and ruins, and thousands of known but unexcavated sites.

Some of the structures are in stone, but most are in baked brick with elaborate tile decorations, a building type particularly vulnerable to blast damage.

Apart from Isfahan and Natanz, other potentially vulnerable sites cover 3000 years of the world’s history.

Professor Harriet Crawford, of the Institute of Archaeology in London, said: “An attack on Iran would not only cause thousands more avoidable deaths, but would also risk inflicting untold damage on its heritage, comparable with that seen in Iraq.”

Guardian News & Media

12 comments on “Protect Iran—and the world’s—priceless treasures

  1. Dave On Fire
    9 March, 2007

    Thanks for reminding me of that aspect of the crisis, easy to forget beforehand but impossible to forget afterwards. Centuries after the oil runs out, we will still be mourning the C21 sack of Mesopotamia.

  2. peoplesgeography
    9 March, 2007

    Indeed, Dave. A civilisation (well, empire) that purports to uphold civilisation by destroying its own underpinnings and history … doesn’t bode well, does it?

  3. Servant
    9 March, 2007

    I’m so relieved we’re just talking about artifacts – mere things. I thought we were talking about Homie! She’s not old but she’s definitely priceless.

    Doesn’t the British Museum have back up copies of all that arcane stuff?

    I don’t know about these things. I’m an American.

  4. peoplesgeography
    9 March, 2007

    Agreed, Homie is definitely priceless :) Human life is the most important thing I agree, but cultural heritage matters too.

    LOL “Back-up copies”?! Now that’s a Star Trek world (you’re worse than I am) — “let’s replicate a priceless hand-written manuscript”. Uh-uh, heritage matters!

  5. Servant
    9 March, 2007

    Maybe I’m getting too good at the ignoramus schtick. I’m starting to believe it too. I just stick out my buck teeth and type whatever sumpin comes to me. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it just runs down the wall ‘n don’t stuck too good. Almost like real life.


  6. naj
    9 March, 2007

    Hi PPG

    I really like your blog, but often when I come here, my CPU starts firing up, fan starts screaming and often (depending on how many screens/programs I have open, it CRASHES on me.

    Speaking of what will be lost if Iran is attacked, I thought you may like to take a peak at this

  7. naj
    9 March, 2007

    Hi PPG

    I really like your blog, but often when I come here, my CPU starts firing up, fan starts screaming and often (depending on how many screens/programs I have open, it CRASHES on me.

    Speaking of what will be lost if Iran is attacked, I thought you may like to take a peak at this

    (second try)

  8. peoplesgeography
    9 March, 2007

    :) Yep, the ignoramus schtick ain’t foolin’ me, I know you’re way too intelligent. But it is funny. I suppose you can be more dangerous when you wield the ignoramus stick, because some people fall into underestimating you (unlike, say, Bush, whom we are definitely not “misunderestimating”)

    Btw, on a slight tangent, the British Museum is not above criticism either. Nor are other museums in former colonial powers. Their cultural imperialism still operates in their refusal to hand back treasures which the Brits have looted, to their place of origin and rightful custodians. A couple of such cases are Greece (eg Parthenon Marbles) and the case of the Australian Aborigines. Lamenting the loss of cultural treasures is one thing, not joining and giving weight to the fight to stop one’s own government “leadership” to prevent the disaster another. I feel very passionately about this!

    Putting that fine American principle (from reel life) of the Prime Directive into practice would be a fine thing. Wilsonian self-determination would be even better if truly respected.

    Some further info on disputes over ancient antiquities in British and American museums:

    * Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs
    * BBC on Elgin Marbles Dispute
    * Greek and Aboriginal communities unite against British Museum
    * No love lost with Getty Museum as Italy cries foul over Aphrodite
    * Museums unite against return of imperial ‘loot’
    * Italy loans statue in exchange for return of disputed art
    * Reopening the mystery of dirty Aphrodite (4 Jan 2007)

  9. peoplesgeography
    9 March, 2007

    Naj, thanks for coming by and for your valuable feedback. The effect my site has sounds about right! ;) Seriously, I’m trying to make the page a bit easier to load and have disabled a few features that recently caused it to seize up for some, such as Snap Preview. Guess its harder when you, like me, tend to have several pages open simultaneously but I’ll look into it again, for sure. Anything that I can do to make it easier to load and experience a good browse, I will do.

    With respect to comments, occasionally my spam filter catches legitimate comments. eg my own comment above I also had to rescue from the queue, it was automatically in there because I’d embedded more than 2 links (something spamsters are wont to do). Your comments should now go through immediately.

    Thanks for the link to your post. Beautiful images and I agree that Persian interests are autonomous and should not be homogeneous with any other, as you state in your entry. While I do have some Pan Arab sympathies, its only for regional autonomy and to offset hegemonic divide and conquer policies from Bushmert. I’m certainly not doctrinaire about it and it is more a strategic / collegial thing whereby nations in the region cooperate by elective affinity rather than assume a single monolithic doctrinal posture.


  10. Naj
    10 March, 2007

    Hi PPG, so this mesage is coming from a linux box (in case it adds debugging power to your information), and I could load your page easly! I guess I Will have to steal from work hours to visit you form now on ;)

    sorry about bombarding you last night. I tend to get impatient when technology messes with me.

    I am happy you understood my opening comments and I think we share a common view and approach to nationalism: it is valuable just in as far as it is protecting regional autonomy. It becomes a dangerous entity when used as an exclusion or inclusion criterion and I vehemently oppose that kind of nationalism.

    The contingency that I see in a narrative that portrays the middle east problems as an “Islamic Ummah” problem is that it is masking the menace of colonization, which has ridden easily on the religious carriage for the past hundred years in the ME. The Palestinian problem is not an Islamic problem, and I don’t think it is an Arab problem only. The fact that an Apartheid State is protected by the so called free-world, the fact that this Apartheid State is formed by the so called WWII victors, the fact that the injustice done to the population of an ex-british colony has blown into a fire that is engulfing all the middle eastern countries, and is providing easy trgger for any new fire that the original colonizers wish to set in the region, IS A UNIVERSAL PROBLEM.

    And strategically speaking, I think the sooner Palestine divorce itself from the Muslim/Arab-Nationalism narrative, the more clear the hypocrisy of the Western powers will become!

    Palestine NEEDS to be the WORLDS problem. For Palestine’s sake!

    Nice to talk to you.


  11. peoplesgeography
    10 March, 2007

    Glad to hear things have worked themselves out from the technology end. I’ll still endeavour to make it easier to load. Speaking of sites, I’ve added Neo-resistance to my blogroll. I think at one stage you may have contemplated moving your blog to wordpress, but it looks like you’ve elected to stay at blogger? Let me know and I’ll update my link accordingly.

    Thanks for the thoughts on strategy for the Palestinian cause. The narrative you describe well has indeed been debilitating rather than enabling to the cause. As you rightly point out, Palestine is a world issue, and no genuinely emancipatory politics can afford not to have it at its heart and to confront all its attendant politics of colonialism, Israeli apartheid, and silent complicity.


  12. Servant
    10 March, 2007

    Proposal: Let’s stop talking about the Palestine problem. Let’s talk about the Israel problem. Palestine isn’t the problem.

    If you something invaded your body, should we call it the virus problem or the cancer problem or the bullet problem? As if you were impeding the progress of the disease?? No. The convention is to name the problem after the invader, not the one being invaded.

    On the next larger scale we could refer to the regional pandemic as American hegemony. If not for American “interests” [strange word, isn’t that?] in the Middle East, no one would be able to sell the idea that Israel is some kind of ally in an ongoing cold war. Since the cold war is over, they need a new excuse. Which is why we have invented the GWOT.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"