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Seda: Voices of Iran

Lesson: The Legal Battle Over the Persepolis Archives (World Savvy Monitor)

History matters.  History is about stories that happened in the past that become part of our memories.  These memories make up who we are and how we feel, and they affect how we experience the present.

The Persepolis Fortification Archive is a collection of those stories for the people of Iran today.  They are the stories of people who lived over 2500 years ago.  Those stories are still important to people living today.  They are the memory of the Iranian people.

The Archive is a collection of thousands of clay tablets that were discovered in the 1930s by an American archaeology team working in Iran, in partnership with the Iranian people and their government.  Back then, the National Museum of Iran made an agreement with the University of Chicago to send the tablets to the US to be studied and catalogued.  As scholars have finished translating and recording them, the tablets have been gradually shipped back to Iran.  About 8,000 pieces still remain with the University.

A lawsuit, called Jenny Rubin, et al v. the Islamic Republic of Iran, et al, was brought to court in the US by a group of people who had survived a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997.  The Palestinian group Hamas, which is supported by Iran, claimed responsibility for the bombing.  In 2003, a federal court decided that since the Iranian government supports Hamas, the Iranian government should be responsible for paying damages to the victims’ families.  The decision authorized the sale of the tablets in order to pay $423.5 million in damages that was awarded to the plaintiffs.  The government of Iran and historians don’t want the tablets to be sold, however, because then the public could not see and learn from the tablets.

The Persepolis tablets date back to the 6th Century B.C., to the Achaemenid Dynasty, the beginning of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great.  This Empire ultimately would span the lands that include all of the Iranian Plateau, as far as Afghanistan in the East, the Caucuses in the North, parts of modern day Greece and the Balkans to the West, and Egypt, Israel/Palestine, and parts of Saudi Arabia in the South.

Persepolis became the capital of the Persian Empire under Darius I.  Though Alexander the Great sacked Persepolis in 332 B.C., he emphasized his respect for Persian culture when he subsequently took a Persian wife and ordered troops to do the same in a mass wedding.  Viewing the city’s impressive remains today give us a window into the power and sophistication of these ancient people.

The tablets are records of the Persian government during this time.  Written in Elamite, they illuminate the thinking and work of the Empire’s decision-makers.  There are names of generals that can also be found in the writings of Greek historians, and records of trade in the region and between empires.  The tablets give valuable details of what life was like for the Persians, directly from them.  Prior to the discovery of these tablets, we only knew about the ancient Persians through Greek, Egyptian, and biblical sources.

The Persepolis Archive is currently trapped in a series of conflicting US and international laws and treaties.  Rubin et al claim that the property can be seized under the 2002 Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which states that property of a terrorist state can be confiscated despite any immunity granted by previous agreements.  However, a UNESCO Convention states that the sale and transfer of any and all Persian antiquities is considered illegal.

The University of Chicago has submitted a claim that the Persepolis Archive, along with any other cultural treasures shared by governments, are subject to the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).  The FSIA protects foreign governments from judgments handed down by US courts.  It is thought that conflicts with foreign governments should be handled through official channels between nations.  The US State Department currently supports the University of Chicago in this position.  Whatever decision is made could have an impact on many more collections of cultural treasures that are shared between nations.

Scholars from around the world have asked the US government to prevent the sale of the tablets.  In February 2009, an appeal was made to President Obama to use his executive branch powers to override the court’s ruling.

Persepolis is part of the memory of the Iranian people.  It is linked to a time that is as important to Iranian identity as the original Declaration of Independence or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are to American identity.  These days the average American may know “Persepolis” as the title of the recent critically-acclaimed graphic novel and film by Marjane Satrapi.  Soon, Americans may learn more about the value of ancient Persian culture through another surprising source.

Yas is a popular Iranian rap singer who has just been signed to an American recording contract, and has his own MySpace page, Google blog, Facebook group, and YouTube uploads.  In a piece called “My Identity,” he sings about Persian poets, his family history, Persepolis, and Cyrus the Great.  He also criticizes the movie 300 for its portrayal of ancient Persians as barbaric and monstrous in comparison with the Greek Spartans.  This film offended many Iranians, because they see this as an important period in their history, just as Greeks see the Athenian period as important to their history.

No matter what the outcome of the court decision over the Persepolis Archive, the memory of Persepolis will remain an important part of Iranian identity.  If these tablets become part of private collections instead of the property of the Iranian government, then it will be even more important for citizens and artists like Yas to keep the memory of Persepolis alive.

Article courtesy of World Savvy Global Educators Program

Discussion Questions

  • What is the Persepolis Archive?  Who does it currently belong to?
  • Why might the Persepolis Archive be sold?
  • When were the tablets created?  Why is this period in history important?
  • Do international laws help or hurt the cause of Iran as they seek to keep the Persepolis Archive in their possession?  Why or why not?  Who makes the final decision in such contested cases?
  • What do you think should happen to the Persepolis Archive – should the government of Iran get to keep the tablets or should they be sold to pay damages for the victims of the terrorist bombing?  Why?

Further Research

Foreign Soverign Ammunities Act:

2002 Terrorism Risk Act:



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