Should Iran nominate more World Heritage sites?
The UNESCO Convention Concerning The Protection of The World Cultural and Natural Heritage (adopted 1972) is based on a belief that damage to any item of cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world, no matter to what people it belongs. The Convention also considers that the preservation of this heritage at the national level often remains incomplete, given the scale of problems and the insufficiency of resources of all kinds, in particular economic and technological circumstances. Therefore, the state parties are encouraged to nominate parts of their cultural and natural heritage which they consider as outstanding and in need of protection at a higher level as part of the world heritage of mankind. The nomination of a World Heritage (WH) site/monument is a prestigious accomplishment for a state party and means that the significance of that heritage is appreciated first at the national level. It should also mean that the state party wishes a higher level of appreciation of these values, of understanding of that heritage, and of protection of it by asking for recognition of the property as part of the heritage of mankind (http://whc.unesco.org/en/conventiontext).
In 1979, Iran nominated its first three WH sites. In 2003, after an interlude of twenty four years, the re-emergence of an interest in additional listings from Iran was regarded as a new wave of appreciation of and determination for preservation of the country’s rich, yet threatened cultural heritage. This article suggests that in fact the process of listing seems to have been regarded by Iranian authorities merely as a badge of prestige on their managerial résumé, and has in fact had little impact on the protection of those sites, not to mention Iran’s national heritage.
In 2011, the Gargar Bridge, an apparently solid part of Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System (SHHS), inscribed on WH list in 2009, collapsed. Since the introduction of motor vehicle into the city of Shushtar, this bridge had connected the first and most congested street of the old city to the other side of the Gargar Canal (laying on the eastern fringe of the city) and to the neighboring villages and cities. The fact that the through traffic should have been diverted from this bridge had been known and discussed, both at the national level and in the documents submitted to the WH Committee. The delay caused the collapse which fortunately involved no loss of life. The first, short term solution undertaken by Iranian authorities was the erection of a temporary bridge in the perimeter of the WH property, which was objected to by WH committee. The ultimate solution seems even more problematic; the Gargar Bridge is now endangered by a restoration plan which intends to bury the old bridge into a box of reinforced concrete so that the passage of traffic over the bridge can be resumed. This restoration plan is only one example of several threats to the authenticity and integrity of Iran’s WH sites which raises several questions about raison d’être of nomination of such sites and monuments. The decision making process which led to this restoration plan has been undertaken in a black-box with rumor serving as the only means for cultural heritage experts and supporters to discern what the ultimate fate of the Gargar Bridge will be. This problem and similar situations around the country contrasts clearly with the WH Convention’s concern that the significance of nominated sites should be first appreciated at the national level and that state parties are expected to utilize all human (and economic) sources at their disposal within the country. Where necessary, the state parties are encouraged to ask for the technological and scientific assistance of the WH committee and other state parties.
The management of cultural heritage in Iran has never been smooth and unproblematic. Nonetheless, the scale and nature of problems witnessed in recent years has been unprecedented. The plan of decentralization of the Cultural Heritage Organization was exercised through downsizing of the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research to a managerial body and has resulted in the deactivation of members and cessation of archaeological research. In addition, in recent years, the owners of the properties listed as national heritage have been allowed to ask for revisiting of the inscription, and to withdraw their properties from the national list. These acts have, in almost all cases, been followed by the destruction of the properties announced as deprived of historical values by court’s judgment. When raison d’être of the Iranian national cultural heritage organization, that is its eligibility to nominate and protect Iran’s national cultural heritage, is now severely challenged, and with increasing threat of mismanagement on the Iranian WH sites, one must ask whether additional nominations would bring along any results except a prestige for managerial resume of the involved authorities. One may wonder whether in the present state of affairs, additional WH nominations from Iran would not simply encourage further mismanagement of cultural heritage and engender a situation where violation of preservation guidelines becomes a norm, and will in turn negatively affect the condition of Iran’s national heritage? Should UNIESCO take a comprehensive standpoint vis-à-vis state of preservation of the WH sites in Iran?