Images of clouds of thick black smoke and dust billowing up above where an ancient monument once stood shocked the world less than five years ago when a 2,000-year-old temple was shelled by Islamic State in Syria.
The Temple of Baalshamin in the Syrian city of Palmyra was just one of numerous World Heritage sites – alongside the city’s Monumental Arch and the Temple of Bel – which were damaged or entirely destroyed during the country’s civil war, which has raged since 2011.
Now cultural historians fear a similar situation could occur in nearby Iran, following unprecedented threats by US President Donald Trump to utilise ancient monuments, temples and archaeological sites as military targets.
“In Syria, they had a horrible loss of cultural monuments,” says Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Edinburgh University. “Monuments were damaged, museums were looted and items sold. That’s the worst thing that has happened, culturally, in the Middle East for quite a while.
“If Trump carried through his threats in Iran, it would obviously surpass even the damage that was done in Syria.”
In a move which would be in breach of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, Trump threatened to target 52 Iranian sites – representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran in 1979 and held for over a year.
The threat came in retaliation following increased tensions between the US and Iran after the American military killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a targeted attack in Iraq on 3 January.
The president said: “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites.”
Although US authorities appear to have since backtracked on the president’s veiled warning, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisting the government would “behave lawfully”, experts still fear for Iranian cultural monuments, some of which date back more than 5,000 years.
His threat did not come lightly. Iran, which has a total of 24 historic sites on Unesco’s World Heritage list, has a rich cultural history, described as its “glory” by prominent Iranologist Richard Nelson Frye.
Despite international agreements prohibiting countries from targeting cultural sites during a conflict, neighbouring Iraq has already lost many important cultural items due to heavy military machines crushing them in recent years.
“Major libraries of tens of thousands of clay tablets from 3,000 years ago were lost in Iraq,” Hämeen-Anttila explains. “Archaeologists knew they were there, but they were buried in the soil. There were a lot of treasures, but when you put a tank over that ground, clay tablets turn into dust.”
The Hague Convention, created in 1954, requires “refraining from any act of hostility” directed against cultural property.
The convention covers “movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above,” as well as buildings and centres whose main purpose is to house such items.
It also prohibits using a cultural site “for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict”, meaning that armies cannot shelter soldiers in cultural structures in an attempt to avoiding bombardment.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted following Trump’s threats that “targeting cultural sites is a war crime”, while Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay “stressed the universality of cultural and natural heritage as vectors of peace and dialogue between peoples, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations”.
Victoria and Albert museum director and former Labour politician Tristram Hunt said that Trump’s threats “must be condemned” and compared such a move to the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State – which is not covered by the Hague convention, as it is a rebel group rather than a government force.
“This is a worrying step towards the normalisation of cultural destruction as a war aim,” said Hunt.
While Iran’s cultural heritage is not limited to monuments – Iranian literature and stories have a rich history and influenced writers in English, including Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales were influenced by Persian poetry – the country’s physical architecture is unique and among the oldest in the world.
“The one most significant Iranian monument that comes to mind is Persepolis,” says Hämeen-Anttila. “If you think about Greek culture, it is all tied up with Persepolis.”
Persepolis is one of Iran’s best-known sites, which Unesco says “ranks among the archaeological sites which have no equivalent”. The archeological ruins cover a total of 1.6 square kilometres with remnants of large columns, two royal palaces and gardens, as well as what is believed to be the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great.
The country is also littered with ornate cuneiform rock carvings – one of the earliest systems of writing – dating from the fifth century BC.
These inform us about Zoroastrianism, which was the most common religion until the 7th century, when the Arab conquest took place in what was then known as Persia.
“Persians used it for carving into the rocks,” says Hämeen-Anttila of the early writings. “It was often used for imperial propaganda. They also depict rock carvings of the kings themselves, showing how they vanquished the Roman emperors. Of course, the Romans had their own version of that too. Then there is the Islamic period, where there are beautiful mosques, which are newer, so are even better preserved.”
In the city of Isfahan in central Iran, the Shah Mosque is spectacular, mainly due to its intricate blue and yellow mosaics. It was built during the Safavid dynasty under the order of Shah Abbas I of Iran, while three Armenian Christian monasteries, known as the Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran, were established between the 7th and 14th centuries in the period known as Medieval Persia.
Hämeen-Anttila adds: “These are the great sites, but then the country is also full of beautiful mosques from the Safavid dynasty of the 16th century, where there are a series of small mosques that tourists would not usually know about or notice.”
He adds: “There has been a continuing architectural tradition even in modern times. It is like castles in Scotland – you can’t miss seeing half a dozen historically significant monuments if you drive for an hour anywhere.”