On Friday morning a week ago, thick snow was falling on the green leaves in Innsbruck, and someone posted to the agade mailing list that Yale proposes to dissolve the Yale Babylonian Collection as an institution, reassign its curator to other work, and transfer it from the Sterling Library to closed storage where it will not be immediately accessible to scholarly visitors. I suppose that an institution with investments worth 25 billion dollars finds it difficult to afford such luxuries, gathered as they were in a softer time when workers could earn several dollars for a 12-hour shift in a steel factory. If you want to learn more you can find the petition Save the Yale Babylonian Collection on
change.org. This week I want to tell a story about another community with heritage to protect and make accessible.
On the road to Shiraz there is a little village nestled up against the cliffs. I wish I remembered the name of the relief or the village or the local dignitary who showed us the new clothing workshop which he had opened, but I am a human being and met so many Europeans and Iranians on that trip. As you walk from the highway towards the rocks, the houses acquire gardens with low fieldstone-and-cinderblock walls, and the world becomes verdant and not just the colour of jagged twigs and limestone dust.
That is because there is a spring at the base of the cliff, and the kings of old chose this spot for a series of reliefs. I suspect that this spot had been sacred for a long time before the first stone-carvers set to work. Iran was probably not always as barren as it is today: 10,000 years is a long time for overgrazing, greedy loggers, droughts and bad winters to strip away the topsoil and leave the remaining ground impoverished. Ancient visitors describe dense woods where now there are just scrublands. But I don’t think there was ever a time that shade and fresh clean water were not precious in Fars.
The relief higher up on the rocks has mostly been erased, appearing as an orange smudge. I think that the main relief closer to the pool dates to the Sasanid period, as the compositon feels ‘late antique.’ I am pretty sure I have seen a painting of Charlemagne or Justinian in a similar posture. But long after those kings were gone and their reasons had been forgotten, the relief survived because the locals took care of them or at least did not let anyone damage them. The Iranians love bright colours and spraypaint, but I did not see any graffiti anywhere around the pool, just the occasional plastic bag or piece of cast iron.
Now, the local villagers don’t have an endowment worth 25 billion dollars, or charge undergraduates $48,000/year to be taught by graduate students. I suspect that most families would be very happy to have 25 thousand dollars in the bank. But they do their best to preserve their local antiquities and are happy to show them to visitors. If Yale does not want to show off its Babylonian collection, perhaps it could lend the tablets to them?