Durban - Three years ago, when eThekwini metro museum researcher Steve Kotze returned from visiting Iran’s heritage sites, he felt deeply for nearby Syria where cultural historic gems were being destroyed in the civil war.
“One heartbreaking thing is imagining what destruction must have taken place in Syria,” he said on Saturday on his return.
Now, he’s horrified that the ancient sites, mosaic adorned mosques, huge squares and cloistered bridges he has fond memories of could be subjected to similar treatment after the US drone attack last week, killing Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani.
President Donald Trump then threatened to strike 52 sites in the country, including cultural sites which is a war crime.
This week, Trump appeared to step back from his threats in an address to the US.
The world’s second largest square, the Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Iran’s city of Isfahan, is second only in size to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and a World Heritage Site.
“It’s likely one of his 52 targets,” Kotze said, pointing out that it was a heritage site with several other heritage sites in and around it, like the Shah’s Palace that has a “room with weird holes in the wall that make perfect acoustics”.
It also has the small royal mosque opposite the palace, which he compares with Florence’s Medici Chapel.
“It has the phenomenon of highly shining roof tiles on its ceilings. Throughout the day the shape of a golden peacock feather “struts” around inside the dome because of the shining tiles.”
Kotze stressed that these treasures do not belong to Iran.
“They belong to the world. Iranians protect them because they know they are the custodians of these heritage sites for the whole world.”
He said he feared that so many large sites and hundreds of small ones could become “victim to the ravings an irresponsible politician”.
That said, Kotze noted that many of Iran’s sites had been laid waste both in the recent and distant past.
The famous ruin at Persepolis, which dates back to the sixth century BC, was destroyed by Alexander the Great three centuries into its existence, but many of its structures like decorations of griffins that are now the emblem of Iran Air, have survived.
“They look like they were carved yesterday.”
Kotze said he had come home from Iran with a sense of how big people there are on martyrdom.
Portraits of modern martyrs in the war against Iraq hang on boards beside freeways and on the sides of buildings in modern, bustling Tehran.
On sale in bazaars are metal whips young men use to flagellate themselves in praise of martyrdom during the Shia Islam holy month of Muharam.
“Martyrdom is the default attitude for Iranian Shia Muslims. By martyring Suleimani, Trump has played directly into a strong cultural belief.”
Kotze said he also feared for the safety of Iran’s 70 million people whom he warmed to on his visit.