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Ancient Persian Treasures in American Courts


02 May 2011 23:20Comments
Persepolis-Fortification-tablets1.jpgLegal dispute over Persepolis tablets threatens international lending of cultural assets.

[ briefs ] In 1930, archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld came across 30,000 clay tablets on a dig in the ancient city of Persepolis, near modern-day Shiraz. Now these same Persepolis tablets are embroiled in a legal battle involving the Islamic Republic of Iran, the University of Chicago, and a pedestrian mall bombing in Jerusalem.

After they were unearthed in the 1930s, the inscribed and sealed tablets have been on loan to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago for study, where many still remain. They have become a treasure trove in revealing the inner administrative workings and social structure of ancient Persia during the reign of Darius I around the time of 500 BCE.

Among many facts, they hold the records of the different rations apportioned to women and men, receipt and taxation, redistribution to priests and artisans, means of travel and communication, storage of food and livestock. Not least of all, they have proven to be a valuable asset in the study of ancient languages such as Elamite, which died off with the invasion of Alexander the Great, and Old Persian, a language which the tablets show was surprisingly used more often than expected by everyday Persians.

The tablets hold a further value: What is known about this era historically comes from Greek and Arabic sources, and the Aramaic and Hebrew versions of the Old Testament. For the first time, scholars had the day-to-day story of the Persians, by the Persians, and for the world.

In 2002, the Persepolis Fortification Archive at the Oriental Institute began state-of-the-art 3D imaging of the tablets that had not already been returned to the government of Iran. Though the primary purpose of the Fortification Archive is to store digitally the clay tablets for future scholars who happen to find the daily administrative routine of the Persian Empire titillating reading, there was a more immediate motivation for initiating the process.

Only one year before the Oriental Institute began the 3D imaging, five American victims of a 1997 Hamas suicide bombing that occurred on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street sued the government of Iran in a U.S. court for its support of the Palestinian organization.

The Rubin plaintiffs, as they are now called, were not the first to sue the Iranian government for supporting terrorism -- the Campuzano plaintiffs succeeded, at least in court, with such a suit the year before. What sets the Rubin plaintiffs apart is that in their attempt to collect on the more than $400 million they were awarded, they went after the Oriental Institute, asking for the ancient Persepolis tablets as payment toward the verdict.

Most countries have not feared lending their cultural assets, such as the Persepolis tablets, to American institutions due to legislation protecting their seizure, in particular the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). However, various amendments in recent years have paved the way for a historic ruling that now has ancient ramifications.

The counsel for the Rubin plaintiffs claims that the Oriental Institute has been operating as an "agent" of the Islamic Republic. Letters exchanged between the Institute and the Iranian government in the 1930s and 1940s are the evidentiary basis for the claim. Understanding that no single buyer will emerge to keep the artifacts together, the plaintiffs are seeking to auction off the tablets individually.

If this international dispute simply squared off the victims of terrorism against America's enemy number one in the Islamic Republic of Iran, then perhaps the tablets would be sitting right now in the rooms of private and institutional collectors across America and Europe and the Rubin plaintiffs would have recovered not only their medical costs but much of the punitive damages they were awarded as well.

But nothing has been quite so simple in this case.

"The Old Persian tablet departs so much from expectations that its authenticity would have been questioned if it had not been found in the Fortification Archive," said Mathew Stopler, professor at the Oriental Institute, to Science Daily in 2007. Gil Stein, the Institute's director, believes, "This shows how important it is to keep the Persepolis Fortification texts together."

The Oriental Institute also has sympathizers in Washington.

This ruling would "open the United States up to retaliation in foreign courts," wrote Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), in an op-ed regarding the case. "Iranians could seek retribution for the U.S.S. Vincennes accident, for America's support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, for the 1953 coup to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq."

NIAC is currently working on the Persepolis Amendment, a revision to existing law that would essentially keep the tablets together and safe from private auction.

Appearing on Voice of America's Shabahang on April 18, Touraj Daryaee, University of Irvine professor of Iranian studies and author of Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, argued that the seizure of cultural assets also jeopardizes future potential museum lending between countries. "These tablets belong to the Iranian people," he added. "It would be a tragedy to find 80 million people at fault."

Not to be outdone, the government of Iran has already responded to the Rubin plaintiffs themselves, with a ruling of its own.

In 2007, Hussein Alikhani alleged that he was kidnapped by U.S. Customs and held 130 days for violating sanctions against Libya. An Iranian court later awarded Alikhani $550 million and, according to Kriston Capps of the Guardian, "found the US to be a state sponsor of terrorism."

It should come as no surprise that neither country defended itself in the other's court.

The Rubin plaintiffs, to their misfortune, have already inspired others to interpret U.S. law in like fashion. Nearly 1,000 relatives of victims of the 1983 Marine barracks bombings in Beirut have stepped into the picture by staking a claim to the Persepolis tablets, drawing the ire of the Rubin plaintiffs.

These American servicemen, known as the Peterson plaintiffs, have sued the government of Iran for its support of Hezbollah, which carried out the bombings, and are seeking the auction of the Persepolis tablets as part of their own $2.5 billion judgment. Add them to the Campuzano plaintiffs, who now want a piece of the Persepolis tablets as well, and it appears unlikely that the auctioning of the tablets will cover even the legal costs of all the plaintiffs.

On March 29, a Chicago court reversed a lower court's decision that denied immunity for the tablets, effectively keeping them together, for now. However, according to Parsi, whom I emailed regarding the case, "All the decision did was to make the efforts to confiscate the tablets a bit more difficult [...] it didn't put a stop to these efforts." He added, "The Iranian-American community and the friends of the Persepolis Tablets must continue to defend our heritage through three avenues: the legal avenue, the media and through the legislature."

Even before the recent ruling, more than 600 archaeologists worldwide signed a letter asking President Barack Obama to prevent the tablets' sale. Given the conflict over Iran's nuclear program and Obama's focus on shoring up support for more sanctions against the Islamic Republic, the fate of thousands of clay tablets seems as inconsequential to the American administration as the now extinct Elamite tongue. To a small group of dedicated people, however, it seems to mean the world, however ancient.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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