Mishandling Cultural Heritage

Mishandling Cultural Heritage Mishandling Cultural Heritage

Chogha Mish made the headlines in late April for all the right reasons: Over a hundred priceless artifacts known as the Chogha Mish Collection were returned to Iran after spending more than half a century at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute.

Located in Dezful County, Khuzestan Province, the area known as Chogha Mish was occupied continuously, except for one or two presumably short breaks, from approximately the late 6th millennium to the late 4th millennium BC and must have played a key role in the cultural and social development of the region, according to research by Helen J. Kantor and P.P. Delougaz who studied the area extensively between 1961 and 1978.

Chogha Mish made the headlines again in mid-May, this time, for all the wrong reasons. Mojtaba Gahestooni, a renowned activist from Khuzestan, was quoted by the Persian media as saying that on his visit to Chogha Mish, he witnessed history being destroyed. "Excavators and trucks have completely leveled a hill in Chogha Mish. It was a disaster. Broken pieces of clay artifacts were scattered everywhere."

When Gahestooni confronted the farmers in the area and asked them on whose authority they had committed those atrocities, he received a chilling answer: "The Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHHTO) of Dezful."

According to an exclusive report by the Persian daily Shargh, ICHHTO's immediate response to Gahestooni's claim came in the form of a scathing statement published online. The organization labeled the reports "a bunch of lies" and claimed that the leveled hill was nearly a kilometer away from the main archeological site. The head of the Dezful office of ICHHTO, Gholamali Baghban Koochak, jumped into the fray and said that the destroyed hill was of no historical value.

Nevertheless, ICHHTO's strange stance on the matter did not deter journalists and activists, and when the governor of Dezful weighed in on the problem and confirmed the reports, matters started to take a serious turn.

  Damage Control

Pressure started mounting on ICHHTO when Alimohammad Borjpour, a landowner in Chogha Mish, told the media that he had been approached by a man who identified himself as an expert working for ICHHTO.

"I had been asking local authorities for months to fend off the protected area of Chogha Mish so I could begin working on the land, before the ICHHTO expert showed up."

According to Borjpour, he was told by the expert to begin working on the land, and was charged 200 million rials ($6000) for the permit, which he never received.

"I was told that the permit would be issued once I began working on the plot," he said.

Following Borjpour's claims, ICHHTO made a U-turn and, in a carefully drafted statement which had damage control written all over it, said that it had deployed experts to the area who confirmed reports of the destruction.

"Our investigation revealed that a number of local officials were abusing their powers and had been issuing illegal permits to farmers to work on lands which impinged on the historical site of Chogha Mish," the statement read.

The following day, Baghban Koochak was relieved of his duties and Yaghoub Zelghi was installed at the helm of the Dezful office of ICHHTO, and two officials were put on trial.

In the aftermath of the trial, Asadollah Darvishi, the legal affairs deputy at ICHHTO, said, "People's vigilance towards cultural heritage and historical sites make up for the organization's shortcomings."

While relevant authorities have taken appropriate steps to put an end to the destruction of one of the world's first inhabited regions, ICHHTO's initial reaction to the problem may cause some to wonder if the officials in charge are at all different from their predecessors.