• 4 December 2009
  • Posted By NIAC
  • Culture, Diplomacy, persepolis artifacts

Auctioning Ancient Iranian Artifacts

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post:

Auctioning Ancient Iranian Artifacts: Implications for US Cultural Policy

By Touraj Daryaee

A bombing in Jerusalem. A troubled foreign country tried in absentia in U.S. courts. Priceless archeological artifacts threatened. It sounds like it could be the plot of Dan Brown’s next novel, but this time the situation is a real one that could have tragic consequences for America’s cultural policies and standing in the world community.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been sued successfully by the victims of an attack on Israel and awarded, on paper, some 375 million dollars. To pay for this judgment, the next step might be to seize Iranian national assets, but nowhere near that amount is available inside the U.S. Instead, the plaintiff’s lawyers have proposed that ancient Iranian art treasures, currently housed in American museums, be confiscated and auctioned off. The institutions threatened by this include the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard University, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

This issue has very important implications for the United States. First of all, one can imagine how much dislike, distrust, and suspicion would be incurred by a Western power dragging another culture’s ancient heritage to the auction block. America’s museums are national institutions that are often trusted to hold and display the cultural materials of other societies around the world. They are not bank accounts or slush funds to be raided whenever money is needed.

Secondly, and more importantly, if Iranian artifacts are successfully seized, it will set a precedent that will open a floodgate of claims to other cultural treasures in the US. American museums hold thousands of objects from countries in the Middle East and other troubled spots in the world. Many of these are on loan from their home countries, brought here for a time so that they may educate and inform American citizens. If it is established that such artifacts can be taken and sold, what country would risk lending its invaluable antiquities to any U.S. museum? None. The hesitation of every foreign country and museum around the world to lend art and artifacts to U.S. museums will cripple exhibits in the United States and contribute to the decline in the cultural awareness of Americans and our understanding of the meaning of cultural diversity.

One group of the endangered Iranian artifacts that has come in the news more often than others is a collection of clay tablets that was discovered in the 1930s at Persepolis, the great palace of the ancient Persian Empire. During the excavations at Persepolis, a team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago discovered more than 30,000 inscribed tablets. Much of this imperial archive was then lent by the Iranian government at that time to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

What these tablets tell us is the economic, social and religious history of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE) and the larger Near Eastern region in the fifth century BCE. For centuries, historians of the ancient world have viewed Persian culture through the prism of Greek historical writing. However, the Greeks usually treated the Persians with prejudice and thus left a relatively warped view of the Persian Empire. Furthermore, the Greeks were mainly concerned with the court and with the kings and queens of the empire, and not with the lives of ordinary people, so we have only a view from the very top. These tablets provide exactly the missing part of social history of the region. For example, they provide information on Persian landholding women, the lives of working women and men in the Near East, including the amount the government paid its pregnant female workers, and the religious tolerance and exchange of ideas over a wide area, from modern day Israel to Afghanistan.

These tablets only make sense if they are studied as a group and not dispersed throughout the world in the hand of dealers and private collectors. It is a rare archive from antiquity, and so it should remain as such to be studied and understood. It would be a shame to have had in the twenty-first century a unique source for understanding the ancient Persians that got arbitrarily partitioned and dispersed, forcing us to remain in the dark for another 2,500 years about the social and cultural history of these people and the region.

As citizens of a society which promotes the understanding and accepting of diversity here and for the world, we must not let this happen. Our people need to be able to go to museums and see these objects to understand the antiquity, beauty, and diversity of the world in which they live in. The auctioning ancient artifacts would be a great mistake. If the current administration allows their sale to private dealers and collectors, the cost, in terms of the destruction of evidence for the study of the history of humanity, as well as with regard to America’s reputation, is incalculable.

Posted By NIAC

    One Response to “Auctioning Ancient Iranian Artifacts”

  1. ak says:

    Thank you for addressing this traggic situation. I am deeply concerned about it and appreciate your efforts in preventing the horrible possibility of losing these priceless artifacts to the private market.

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Sign the Petition


7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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