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Heap of dust it is not
Sialk is just one of thousands of structures of antiquity in Iran plundered by colonialists, thieves, incompetent authorities, and time itself

By Nima Kasraie
April 20, 2004

Upon visiting the oldest ziggurat in the world, one is only greeted with the solitary sound of dusty wind gusts. Here, tucked away in the suburbs of Kashan, sits the 7,500-year-old ziggurat of Sialk, a testament to ancient civilizations that flourished in Iran long before the Egyptian or Greek cultures blossomed. Like many other ruins in Iran, unfortunately, what is left of this per ancient edifice is only a big pile of crumbling bricks.

This author is familiar with the efforts of dozens of historic preservation institutions as well as local, state, and federal organizations in Knoxville, that preserve and protect the heritage of eastern Tennessee. These institutions will do what it takes to make sure that a humble house built in the 1920s will receive historic overlay zoning and come under he protection of the law.

In Sialk, on the other hand, what we see is a sign saying: "Please do not touch objects", and next to it another sign saying: "Items excavated here belong to the Stone Age". When the guard, sitting in a chair, isn't looking, you can easily lift the rope where the signs hang, and sneak a few pieces of millennia old ceramics, spear heads, or other items into your pocket.

The guard won't care if you climb on top of the crumbling ziggurat itself, and while walking behind the ziggurat you can enjoy how it feels to kick 7000-year-old mud bricks to rubble. You can even ask the guard to let you see the "off limit" 5,500 year old skeletons unearthed at the foot of the ziggurat.

Built by the Elamite civilization, Teppe Sialk was first excavated by a team of European archeologists in the 1930s. Like the thousands of other Iranian historical ruins, the treasures excavated here eventually found their way to museums such as the Louvre, the British Museum, the New York Metropolitan Museum, and private collectors -- including the three jars you see in this piece.

What little is left of the two Sialk ziggurats is now threatened by the encroaching suburbs. It is not uncommon to see kids playing soccer amid the ruins.

One cannot help but imagine that if Sialk were located in Tennessee, the ziggurat would have been fully preserved by three layers of vacuum-sealed Mission Impossible-type weathering protection systems, if not rebuilt and restored altogether like the cathedrals in Europe. Hollywood would have made several movies, using the monument as a device to further publicize the antiquity and sophistication of Western civilization.  

The significance of the scientific and cultural achievements of the Elamites and their influence on other civilizations can be better understood when we learn that according to some scholars the first wheeled pitcher (or wheeled roller) is known to have been invented by the Elamites.

Furthermore, the first arched roof and its covering, which are very important techniques in architecture were invented by the Elamites, and used in the mausoleum of Tepti-ahar around 1360 B.C. (unearthed in the excavations made at Haft Tappeh) nearly 1,500 years before such arches were used by the Romans.

But the painful reality is that Sialk is just one of thousands of structures of antiquity in Iran plundered by colonialists, thieves, incompetent authorities, and time itself. Only the more famous ones come to attention when threatened, and a select few come under the protection of UNESCO.

Other ancient structures of Persian heritage are not so lucky. The Sialk ziggurat at least has a guard or two protecting it, and Cultural Heritage Organization (hopefully) pays for the rope that supposedly prevents visitors from stealing the numerous excavated pieces. Others like the massive Sasani-era citadel of Nareen Ghal'eh (See photo) in Naeen have turned into a garbage dump by the locals. And many many others fare even worse than that.

Protecting such heritage is a critical responsibility for everyone. Sometimes I feel ashamed when I hear about Italian or Japanese authorities voicing concern over the preservation of buildings in Iran. What are we doing? Turning ancient caravansarais into bus repair garages for TBT and IranPeyma?

If there is one reason why Persian culture has managed to survive thousands of years of change and onslaught, it is because of the vast inheritance that we are now so easily giving away. The destruction of our monuments from Taq-I-Kasra near Baghdad to the tombs of Bukhara and Samarqand are only minor facets of this tragedy.

The least we can do here in America, is document our culture by publishing articles, making websites, creating databases of information, photographs, and the fine arts, and spread the word around by calling for the help of other fellow Americans of Iranian heritage.

Nima Kasraie is a graduate student in Physics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

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