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Seda: Voices of Iran

Lesson : The Persepolis Archive (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 a long time ago – 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 final decision about whether or not the tablets can be sold to pay damages to the victims might impact other collections of cultural treasures that are shared between nations.  In February 2009, an appeal was made to President Obama to use his executive branch powers to override the court’s ruling.

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 spanned 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 destroyed by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Alexander showed his respect for Persian culture when he married a Persian woman and ordered his troops to do the same.  Viewing the city’s impressive remains today gives 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 show 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.

Persepolis is part of the memory of the Iranian people.  It is as important to Iranian identity as the Declaration of Independence or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are to American identity.  

Although Americans do not know much about Persepolis, they may soon know more, due to the popularity of the rap singer Yas.  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 happens in the court case over the Persepolis Archive, the memory of Persepolis will remain a key 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 the 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?
  • 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

Persepolis Fortification Archive Project: 



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