The tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae, Iran. Photo: Wikipedia

Modern Iran, known as Persia until 1935, is the inheritor of a revered civilization, which according to some accounts is at least 7,000 years old. There is consensus among scholars that Iran boasts one of the most esteemed historical lineages of any modern state.

The first Persian Empire was founded by the Achaemenid dynasty in 550 BC, and at its greatest extent under King Darius I, its territory stretched from the Aegean Sea and Libya to the Indus Valley.

Iranians are credited with making seminal contributions to the sciences, culture and arts, contributions that are deplorably eclipsed by the plethora of unfavorable media coverage of Iran’s tumultuous politics and its poor relations with the West.

History aficionados are aware that ancient Iran was the birthplace of algebra, the first universal declaration of human rights, namely the Cyrus Cylinder, the first monotheistic religion of the world, namely Zoroastrianism, and the first water-management system used in irrigation, locally known as qanat. Even some artifacts that are taken for granted to be Western creations such as the guitar and postal service are documented to have Iranian roots.

That said, contemporary Iranians have not earned a pass mark in safeguarding this time-hallowed legacy, and some even have chipped away at it.

In the years that followed the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the outpouring of religious zeal and fanaticism set the stage for a crackdown on the representations of Iranian civilization, including arts, literature, language, festivals and celebratory occasions.

The authorities set about branding patriotism un-Islamic and wounds were inflicted on the national culture through eliminating historical occasions from the calendar, modifying the curriculum of the schools and universities to stamp out ancient poetry and literature from textbooks, destroying monuments of patriotic literati and scholars across cities and even, in some cases, burning old books and libraries.

In tandem with whittling away the epitomes of Iranian culture and history, colossal investment was made on religious initiatives, and hundreds of religious institutions, cultural centers affiliated with mosques, seminaries and Islamic denominational universities were established.

Even the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, a gigantic media conglomerate employing upward of 48,000 staff members and operating on an annual budget of 17 trillion rials (US$77.9 million), has been involved in deluging its audience with religious programming, and in 2013, a provincial director of IRIB, Hojatollah Rahimzadeh, asserted that 80% of its programs had religious motifs.

This is while since 1979, audiovisual content on Iranian culture and civilization has been conspicuously absent from IRIB’s airtime, a broadcaster that is on the public payroll and is obviously bound to meet the needs of the entire Iranian population, while satellite TVs are officially banned.

This disproportionate underwriting of Islamism while shrugging off the characterizations of national culture and traditions has generated an ominous dichotomy of religion versus nationalism, resetting public attitudes to the concept of identity, and alienating Iranian youth from their past.

Even so, it is not only the identity crisis emanating from the authorities’ disregard of Iranian values and history that is threatening the resilience of an ancient cultural tradition.

Now, cashing in on Iran’s international isolation, its skirmishes with the global community and its leadership’s indifference to armoring the nation’s heritage against oblivion, neighboring countries and some other states in the region are finding it expedient to appropriate Iran’ cultural assets as well as its historical illuminati in their own names.

Major conundrums

Recently, Turkey submitted a bid to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to inscribe “Islamic calligraphy” in the organization’s inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as a craft of Turkish origin.

Iran’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism lodged a complaint to UNESCO about Turkey’s proposal, contending that Islamic calligraphy originally emerged in Iran after the fall of the Sassanian Dynasty and the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD in the form of Kufic and Naskh scripts.

For years, Turkey has been calling Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, theologian and Sufi mystic, a Turkish scholar. Rumi’s mausoleum is in the Turkish city of Konya and draws thousands of tourists every year. However, all of Rumi’s poetry, including his international best-seller Masnavi-ye-Ma’navi, is composed in Persian.

He was born in the city of Balkh, a territory of the Persian Empire that is now part of Afghanistan. Rumi lived almost his entire life in Iran under the Persian Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, and there is even a verse by him whereby he explicitly rules out being a Turk or being familiar with the Turkish language.

Avicenna, a world-renowned polymath, physician and astronomer of the 10th and 11th centuries, is one of the other Iranian scientific and cultural dignitaries claimed by several countries. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are some of the nations that have fiercely argued in recent years that Avicenna actually “belongs” to them.

Avicenna, who is buried in the Iranian city of Hamedan, composed his treatises and scholarly works in Persian and Arabic and is identified by the plurality of major global encyclopedias and medicine anthologies as an Iranian scientist. Bukhara, his birthplace, was the capital of the Iranian Samanid Empire and is in modern-day Uzbekistan.

Similar claims are cited by Turkey and Kazakhstan about the nationality of Al-Farabi, a 10th-century Iranian Islamic philosopher and jurist, who is known by the honorific title “Second Teacher” for the depth of his philosophical knowledge, which is believed to be only inferior to Aristotle’s.

And the Republic of Azerbaijan has long insisted that Nizami Ganjavi, a 12th-century Persian Sunni poet, is a national bard of its own. Nizami’s effulgent romantic epics Khosrow o Shirin and Leyli o Majnun, composed in Persian, have been integral constituents of Iranian and world lyrical literature for decades.

Ivan M Steblin-Kamensky, a leading Russian scholar of Iranian studies who died in 2018, reacted to the donation of a sculpture of Nizami by the government of Azerbaijan to the city of St Petersburg in 2003: “Nizami, the monument of whom was erected at Kamennoostrovsky Boulevard, is proclaimed [a] great Azerbaijani poet, although he did not even speak Azeri. They justify this by saying that he lived in the territory of current Azerbaijan, but Nizami wrote his poems in Persian language.”

The list does not end here. The origins of chogan, a horse-riding polo game that is evidenced to have been first devised in ancient Persia during the reign of Darius I (521-485 BCE), are challenged by Azerbaijan, a republic that was separated from Iranian territory in 1813 by virtue of the Treaty of Gulistan, and declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The genesis of the badgir wind scoop, a traditional, chimney-like architectural structure that has created passive air-conditioning and provided natural ventilation in buildings in central Iran since antiquity, is claimed by the UAE government.

And in 2016, reports emerged that the Republic of Azerbaijan was intending to submit a file to UNESCO for the registration of the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, Yalda Night, as an Azeri heritage. Yalda, in essence a Zoroastrian feast, is the celebration of the birth of Mithra, the god of light in Indo-Iranian mythology, and is believed to have been initially observed during the reign of the Achaemenids.

Whether different countries have nationalistic motives for laying claim to Iran’s heritage and historical figures or simply find a debilitated, secluded Iran vulnerable enough to take its civilizational belongings away from it, it is the Iranian authorities who are responsible for this mess, steeped as they are in dismal disregard for their country’s historical fortes.

For several years now, any debate on the cultural pedigree of Iran, the nation’s ancient fiestas and occasions, its scientific and cultural luminaries and its pre-Islamic genealogy has been missing from the public sphere.

The state’s media apparatus is not supposed to bring them up, the educational system is totally out of touch with this history, and the country’s multiple cultural entities do not bother spending their vast financial resources on preserving the relics of this indispensable past.

Therefore, it should not seem unusual if the charming cultural, artistic and scientific trump cards of Iran wind up being claimed or encroached by other countries. By the same token, the Iranian authorities will have no moral standing to complain that the country’s youth are suffering from an identity crisis and are detached from their cultural roots.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.