Iran has received thousands of Achaemenid-era clay tablets from the United States in the latest such instalment after decades of efforts to repatriate the antiquities.
Touted by the state media as “souvenirs of president's US visit,” a total of 3,506 Achaemenid tablets were returned home by the plane carrying President Ebrahim Raisi, who addressed the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly during his visit to New York.
“The tablets of the Achaemenid Empire, which were being kept in the United States and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago (CEAS) for 84 years, were repatriated to Iran. The tablets were originally set to stay there for three years for study purposes,” Raisi told reporters upon arrival at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.
These tablets, on loan from Iran to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago since 1935, were transported in nine 75kg boxes. The university had received approximately 30,000 tablets or tablet fragments, which were reportedly produced during the reign of Darius I, commonly known as Darius the Great. He served as the third King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire, reigning from 522 BC until his death in 486 BC. These artifacts were discovered at the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (6th – 4th c. BC) in southern Iran.
In August, Iran’s deputy cultural heritage minister announced that the United States had agreed to return over 20,000 Achaemenid clay tablets to Iran within months. Ali Darabi said, “More than 20,000 Achaemenid tablets belonging to Persepolis will be returned from the US by the end of this year.”
The last batch of these artifacts returned to Iran in 2019, consisting of 1,783 objects from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. The fate of these ancient Persian artifacts was determined by a US Supreme Court ruling in 2018, which allowed Iran to have the tablets that were initially blocked due to a court case initiated by American survivors of the 1997 Hamas terror attack in Israel. However, the reimposition of US sanctions on the Islamic republic since August 2018 complicated the return of the antiquities to Iran.
A significant portion of the tablets was returned in three batches between 1948 and 2004, before the court ruling. The plaintiffs had demanded the seizure of the tablets and their sale in exchange for the $71.5 million that Iran was ordered to pay in the case.
Following the delivery of the last batch, Matthew Stolper, Professor Emeritus at the Oriental Institute, emphasized the scientific significance of these works. He highlighted that the artifacts had contributed to a better understanding of “how (Achaemenid) society was organized and how basic institutions of control and support worked.” Stolper also mentioned that they had learned the names of some important individuals in the ruling class and gained insights into how they governed.
Currently, the regime seems reluctant to acknowledge the ancient Iranian empire – once the largest empire in the world – amid rising popular support for exiled Prince Reza Pahlavi, the heir to Iran’s last royal dynasty that ruled for almost 54 years between 1925 and 1979, who has become a leading opposition figure in recent years.
Since 2017, the Islamic Republic has implemented security measures and even blocked roads leading to Pasargadae and Persepolis to prevent people from visiting these Achaemenid sites, fearing that visitors of these monarchist symbols might hold protests against the clerical regime. These measures have intensified since October 2016 when thousands of people gathered at the historical site and chanted antigovernment slogans, such as "Iran is our homeland, Cyrus is our father."
Since news about the clay tablets has emerged, a large number of Iranians are voicing concern online that the regime may auction off these pieces of Iranian national heritage or destroy them with mismanagement. The administration of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard are accused of the bagging carpets of Saadabad Palace in Tehran.