- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

TEHRAN — Conservation specialists are dismayed by the destruction of the citadel at Bam — a highly prized archaeological site that had been painstakingly restored and maintained by successive governments since 1958.

Rising from the desert like a giant sand castle, the citadel crumbled within minutes in the powerful earthquake that struck Friday morning, killing more than 25,000 people.

“It’s a cultural catastrophe,” said Iraj Afshar Sistani, a Tehran historian and writer of many books. “This historical city constituted one of the wonders of Iran’s heritage.”

Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, a Tehran cultural expert, likened the citadel’s destruction to the 2001 demolition of the giant Buddhas in central Afghanistan by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban.

The impressive reddish-gray castle compound — made of sun-dried mud bricks, palm-tree trunks and straw — was the greatest mud-brick structure in the world, dominating the Kavir Desert in southeastern Iran, an arid and mountainous area near the Afghan and Pakistani borders.

Tens of thousands of tourists visited each year, including one U.S. citizen who reportedly perished in the quake.

At least 2,000 years old, the citadel of Bam was subject to countless invasions during its history and was sacked completely on several occasions.

Although it lay upon a major trade route, it was too far south to be part of the ancient Silk Road connecting Europe to China.

Bam became one of the first places in Iran to adopt Islam, its Zoroastrian inhabitants building the first mosques found in Iran, said Bernard Hourcade, a geographer and Iran specialist at the National Research Center in Paris.

The citadel last was rebuilt during the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Persia — now Iran — from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was abandoned in 1722 after an invasion by Afghanistan.

“It’s like a city frozen in time that gives the perfect picture of ancient cities of the old Iranian plateau,” said Remy Boucharlat, a University of Lyon archaeologist specializing in Iran.

Spread out over 4 square miles, the citadel was perched on a 200-foot-high rock and dominated by 38 towers, some rising as high as 120 feet. Four walls protected the city within from potential invaders.

Mr. Boucharlat described Bam as a perfectly preserved specimen of an ancient fortress city with its high walls, residential quarters and administrative buildings, mosques, bathhouses and wind towers.

“In short,” he said, “it’s a true lesson in architecture.”

The Iranian government began restoration efforts 45 years ago, and adventurous Western tourists traveling from India and Pakistan during the 1960s and 1970s began to spread tales of its wonders.

In the past two decades, the oasis town has struggled to house and employ a new generation of Iranians, and its identity as an archeological site partly has been eclipsed by a growth in manufacturing jobs and a plan to turn the area into a tax-free trade zone to lure foreign investment.

Already, Daewoo, a Korean car manufacturer, has set up a car-seat factory.

Migrant workers from the countryside and from Afghanistan flocked to the city, boosting the population of the sleepy village, which had no more than 13,000 inhabitants during its medieval peak, to nearly 80,000 in the city and 100,000 in the outlying areas.

Modern-day Bam is particularly proud of its dates, which it advertises as the sweetest in the world.

International experts already have begun discussing the restoration of the citadel, and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has promised to send experts to assess the damage.

Egypt, which has strained relations with Iran’s clerical government, has offered to contribute its significant restoration expertise to rebuilding the site.

“The citadel is one of the important landmarks of the history of civilization and humanity in the East, and we hold it in very high regard,” Egyptian Culture Minister Faruq Hosni told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Mr. Sistani, the historian, said there are numerous photographs, sketches and films depicting the site that could be used in its restoration. “This citadel symbolizes part of our Persian identity,” he said.

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