Antiquities & Archaeology

Construction of dams in Iran submerges crucial archaeological sites

“To see this happen breaks my heart”, says archaeologist Dr Henry Wright

Iran’s cultural heritage is facing almost unquantifiable damage from an ambitious programme of dam building. There are currently 85 dams under construction across the country and, in its desperate attempts to mount salvage operations, the Iran Cultural Heritage Organisation (ICHTO) has found itself not only obstructed by the Energy Ministry, but close to being in open opposition to the government. With little time remaining to survey the sites under threat, it is possible that the true extent of what will be submerged beneath the waters of these reservoirs will never be known, a potential cultural tragedy in a country often referred to as the cradle of civilisation.

At least five dams, all in advanced stages of construction, have been identified as threatening sites of particular importance. On 8 November, the waters began rising in the reservoir behind the biggest and most advanced of these projects, the Karun-3 Dam, on the Karun River, around 28 kilometres east of the ruins of the ancient city of Izeh. In a clear display of dissent, ICHTO officials refused to attend the opening ceremony attended by Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf. By 14 November, the historic Shalu Bridge, Iran’s first suspension bridge, had already been submerged.

Of greater significance are the early archaeological sites in the area. In late September, a desperate plea for assistance was posted on the internet by A. Dashizadeh, an Iranian archaeologist directing an ICHTO salvage team, which was given a single month to survey the 50 kilometre-long river valley by Ab-Niroo, the company responsible for building the dam. Mr Dashizadeh said that the team had already located 18 sites from the Epipaleolithic period (20,000-10,000 BC), including 13 caves and four rockshelters. The river valley is also rich in rock-carved reliefs, graves, ancient caves and other remains from the Elamite era (2700BC– 645BC) many of which are now underwater.

At the time of writing archaeological salvage operations were continuing around the clock, with four to six months remaining before the water rises to its maximum level. However, Mahmud Mireskandari of the ICHTO’s underwater archaeology team said that his team possesses neither the equipment nor the expertise necessary to save these sites, and without foreign assistance they will be lost. This assistance has yet to materialise and Faramarz Khoshab, president of Izeh’s Cultural Heritage Association says that looting is already a problem.

US archaeologist Dr Henry Wright of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, who surveyed the Karun river area in 1973, told The Art Newspaper that in addition to the early archaeological sites, other significant losses could include castles or qaleh from the Islamic period as well as extraordinary late Islamic cemeteries. “To see this happening breaks my heart,” he said.

By far the most famous site under threat is Pasargadae, ancient capital of the Achaemenids in the sixth century BC and residence of Cyrus the Great, which was registered on Unesco’s World Heritage List last July. Situated in Fars province, it is only four kilometres away from the Teng-e Bolaghi gorge, once part of the renowned Imperial route to Persepolis and Susa, which will be flooded by the Polvar River when the Sivand Dam is completed in March 2005. Part of the ancient city will be buried under mud, and even the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great is believed to be at risk. Beginning in January 2005, a salvage team consisting of French, German, Italian, Japanese and Polish archaeologists will collaborate with their Iranian counterparts in a joint operation to save an estimated 100 archaeological sites in the area.

Another major project, the Sarhand Dam near Hashtrud in East Azerbaijan Province, which will also become operational next year, threatens at least 10 important archaeological sites and substantial archaeological losses are also expected in Gilan Province.

This potential archaeological tragedy has received little media coverage in the west, and many of the areas have never been properly surveyed. What has emerged thus far may just be the tip of the iceberg, and in the process of attempting to transform itself into a modern industrial state, Iran seems set to obliterate a significant part of its cultural heritage.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper in '"To see this happen breaks my heart"'