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Archaeology and archaeological institutions in Iran under Reza Shah

The abolition of the monopoly and its consequences

The creation of the National Museum in Tehran in March 1917 by Morteza Khan Momtaz al-Molk indirectly threatened the French monopoly. The Persian authorities, who wished to enrich this museum, insisted strongly that the monopoly should not be confined only to Susa, where all discoveries belonged to France, but that French archaeologists should excavate in other regions as well, where the discovered objects would be shared equally between the two countries.

Almost one year after the coup d’etat of 21 February 1921, led by Seyyed Ziya’ al-Din Tabataba’i and Reza Khan, according to the official records of the Pahlavi era, a few “intensely patriotic” men like Zoka’ al-Molk (Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi), Hakim al-Molk (Ebrahim Hakimi), and Moshir al-Dowleh

(Hasan Pirniya) gathered and “spontaneously” formed a “cultural group” called the Society for National Heritage (Anjoman-e asar-e melli). Its aim was to “preserve, protect and promote Iran’s patrimony.”41 To achieve this goal, the Society concentrated its efforts in three fields: establishing a museum and a library in Tehran; ensuring the proper registration of all artefacts and monuments that were in need of protection as national heritage; preparing correct records of all antiquities in possession of the government and national organizations.42

The Society for National Heritage also organized conferences and invited scholars, most notably among them the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) and the American art historian Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1969), who gave various lectures for the Society. For example, in his presentation on 13 August 1925, which he delivered in French, Herzfeld outlined the importance of preserving historical monuments and their significance for the identity of a nation, and he concluded:

Those who consider preserving national remains should also take into account the question of excavations and discovery of antiquities, because important historical documents and fine treasures of antiquities are buried beneath the Iranian soil. Arrangements for excavations should therefore complement the preservation of national heritage, and the ensuing results should be exhibited in a National Museum to encourage public interest, so that Iranians can take advantage of them in their present technological development in order to revive and appreciate their civilization.43

As for Arthur Upham Pope, on 22 April 1925 he gave a lecture on “The Past and Future of Persian Art.” The lecture was in English, translated into Persian for a large audience, including Reza Khan and some members of the government, the Parliament and the Society for National Heritage. Pope presented a survey of Iranian art from the Achaemenid to Sasanian and Islamic times, and stressed the cultural, artistic, and spiritual contribution of Iran to world civilization.44 During this lengthy speech, Pope conveyed several politically current themes and concluded his speech with this phrase: “Art is a vital necessity of life for the Nation. ... The government and the people together must do everything possible to bring art again to life in Persia.”45 Thus, the speeches given by Herzfeld and Pope, who were both against the French monopoly and actively present in Iran, more and more promoted the idea among the Persian elites that the monopoly should be abolished. Under these circumstances, the monopoly issue came up for discussion in the Iranian Parliament (Majles), where Hoseyn ‘Ala’ and Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi argued that the Majles had every right to withdraw concessionary privileges if they had not been fully exploited.46 A few months after this parliamentary debate, the formal end of the Qajar dynasty in December 1925 and the accession of the nationalist Reza Shah, who tried to abolish all concessions granted under the Qajars, threatened the French monopoly even further. How did the French diplomacy respond to this situation? Official records in French Archives reveal that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Public Instruction were prepared to make some sort of compromise that would salvage at least parts of their archaeological privilege.47

By the end of 1926, Ernst Herzfeld was acting as archaeological adviser to the Iranian government. The government officially employed him to work as “a specialist in Oriental Studies” for three years with an annual income of 72.000 rials (then approximately ?1500). As archaeological adviser, Herzfeld requested strict controls over all antiquities to be sent abroad, including objects discovered by the French mission at Susa. Roland de Mecquenem, director of this mission, complained about these measures.48

Early in 1927, the Iranians appeared on the verge of appointing Herzfeld as Director of the Antiquities Service. The French minister in Tehran, Gaston Maugras, intervened at the last moment to thwart Herzfeld’s appointment. He told the court minister ‘Abdolhoseyn Teymurtash that the nomination of a German in this position could well end all hope of revising the archaeological monopoly. Teymurtash, who valued Herzfeld’s presence in Iran as a very strong weapon to get rid of the French monopoly, offered Maugras a way out of the impasse: Iran would be prepared to accept a French national as Director of the Antiquities Service in return for ending the monopoly. Maugras strongly advised his government to accept the proposal.49

Finally, after long negotiations between the French and Iranian authorities, Mohammad Tadayyon,50 Iranian minister of education, and Paul Ballereau,51 the French charge d’affaires, in Tehran, signed an agreement on 18 October 1927. The French government gave up the monopoly over all excavations in Iran which had been granted to them through the convention of 1900, restricting it to the region of Susa where it would also be subject to the sharing of discoveries. In return, the Persian government agreed to hire a specialist, to be proposed by the French government, to act as Director of the Antiquities Service, as well as of the library and the museum, which would be established under his responsibility. This expert should carry out his duties for a period of at least twenty years under the authority of the responsible Iranian minister.52

Shortly after the abolition of the monopoly, Herzfeld, who had not been able to obtain the position as Director of the Persian Antiquities Service, made plans to excavate at Pasargadae in April 1928. Accompanied by Friedrich Krefter, a young architect from Berlin, he set out for Fars. The exploration lasted 28 days, after which they went to Persepolis. But in the absence of any concrete regulations, excavations at Persepolis could not be carried out. Thus, in his capacity as archaeological adviser, Herzfeld’s first task was to convince the Iranian government to accept and approve a general law regulating excavation procedures, and then to apply such a law to the site of Persepolis. Soon he prepared a draft law and passed it on to the court minister Teymurtash. The latter ordered the minister of education, at that time Yahya Qaragozlu (E’temad al-Dowleh), to prepare a text based on this draft and to present it to the Parliament. Qaragozlu formed a committee with several high-ranking

Persian officials and European scholars, including Herzfeld, Pope, and Andre Godard, a French expert who had just arrived in Iran in order to serve as General Director of Antiquities.53 This committee prepared a draft law consisting of twenty articles, which was ratified on 3 November 1930 by the National Consultative Assembly. According to this law, which in parts was a translation of the respective Austrian law, the Iranian government became for the first time responsible for the conservation and preservation of all antique objects up to the end of the Zand dynasty (1750-94). With regard to the importance of this first law on antiquities, which is still valid in Iran, its complete translation is given in the appendix.

The enthusiasm of members of the Persian elite for the conservation of their cultural heritage certainly played a considerable role in its protection. However, to protect and, more particularly, to repair the ancient monuments, first funds and second capable artisans and adequate building materials were needed. Mere expression of anguish and care did not protect these monuments against wind, rain, and sunlight. In the budget of the Ministry of Education, no provision at all had been made for the restoration of historical monuments. Only in Article 9 of the Law of Foundations (owqaf), which had been ratified in 1925, the amount of one twentieth of the revenue had been allocated as supervision right (haqq al-nezareh) to repair historical monuments and to renovate madrasas and shrines. This meagre sum could not meet the needs for conservation and restoration.54

The abolition of the monopoly and the ratification of the first Antiquities Law opened the doors of ancient Persian sites to all foreign archaeologists, who for years had tried to obtain official permissions to carry out excavations. Thus, throughout the reign of Reza Shah, in addition to France, which continued its archaeological mission at Susa under Roland Mecquenem,55 other countries, especially the United States, launched archaeological excavations all over Iran. Among these missions, the Oriental Institute excavations at Persepolis led by Ernst Herzfeld from 1931 to 1934 and by Erich Friedrich Schmidt from 1935 to 1939 proved to be of particular significance in promoting nationalist feelings in Iran. Reza Shah was a strong supporter of these excavations. He visited Persepolis for the first time as minister of war in 1922 - when he escorted Ahmad Shah into exile to his ship at Bushehr - and he was shocked by the deplorable state of the Achaemenid palaces. During his second visit in 1928, when he saw the Persepolis buildings, he was moved by “the glory of ancient Iranian monarchs” with their “colossal monuments” and delighted to learn that “such great kings have ruled Iran and left these magnificent remains.” After the beginning of the excavations at Persepolis, Reza Shah, who had already made the acquaintance of Herzfeld, ardently supported his work at the site and personally ensured that the project would run smoothly. In his third visit to the site in 1932, he told Herzfeld: “You are doing a work of civilization here, and I thank you.” In his fourth and last visit to Persepolis in March 1937, Reza Shah praised the work already accomplished and encouraged Erich Schmidt to work faster to clear the entire platform.56

Other excavations carried out by foreign missions in Iran during Reza

Shah’s reign can be presented briefly in this way:

  • • Three expeditions sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania: at Turang Tappeh from 1931 to 1932 under Frederick R. Wulsin; Tappeh Hessar from 1931 to 1932; and Ray from 1934 to 1936, both under Erich F. Schmidt.
  • • Under the auspices of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Schmidt also dug at Istakhr from 1935 to 1939, carried out the first aerial reconnaissance in western Iran from 1935 to 1937, and led one of the first expeditions to Lurestan in 1934-35 and 1937-38.
  • • The Oriental Institute in 1932 also sponsored excavations at Tall-e Bakun (only briefly explored by Herzfeld in 1928) under Alexander Langsdorff.
  • • The Metropolitan Museum of Art sponsored excavations at Qasr-e Abu Nasr in 1932 and 1933-34 under J. M. Upton. Furthermore, Aurel Stein conducted extensive surveys and some test excavations in southern and western Iran from 1932 to 1936.
  • • The Sino-Swedish expedition excavated at Shah Tappeh in 1933 under T. J. Arne.
  • • The French also expanded their activities by digging at Tappeh Giyan from 1931 to 1933 under Georges Contenau and Roman Ghirshman; Tappeh Sialk from 1933 to 1937 under Ghirshman; and Bishapur from 1935 to 1937 under Georges Salles and Ghirshman.57

All these missions were carried out in cooperation with the Iranian Antiquities

Service, which had been under the direction of a French expert since 1928.

Let us explore who this expert was, how he had been chosen, and what he did

as director of the Service.

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