Bitter Story of Plundering Cultural Heritage of Iran
By: Ata Ayati

Abstract: The present article is a brief history of archaeological excavations of Iran carried out by some French archaeologists such as Jacques de Morgan, Marcel Diolafoa and Jeanne Diolafoa. Mention should be made of Pascal Coust (an architect) and Eugene Flanden (a painter), who discovered some monuments and relics during their two year stay in Iran, such as Tsephon Arch of Kangavar, Hamedan, Firoozabad, Fasa, Naghsh Rostam, Pasargad and Persepolis and published results of their works with some illustrations.

On the occasion of the centenary of the conclusion of the Archaeological concession Treaty between Iran and France (1897-1997), an exhibition, under the heading Jacques De Morgan’s mission, was held in Louvre Museum in Paris. The exhibition began on October 15, 1997 for three months. On behalf of the government of his country Jacques de Morgan, a French archaeologist entered into negotiations with the king of Iran (Mozaffareddin Shah) and signed a treaty on May 15, 1897, according to which archaeological excavations were entrusted to France.

In the above exhibition one can see the biography, history and the missions of De Morgan to various parts of the world, the original copy of the Archaeological Treaty signed by Mozaffareddin Shah in French and Persian, the miniatures of faces of Qajar kings, De Morgan’s excavations in Malaysia, Armenia and Iran. Furthermore, paintings of Pascal Coust (a French painter) of Iran, paintings of Susa excavations and other French archaeological activities are seen in the exhibition.

In the following account you can see a brief history of archaeology in Iran up to 1930, so that you can see what has been done with the heritage of our forefathers.

Since the Safavides dynasty and the establishment of relations between Iran and Europe, the ancient arts and works of Iran have attracted the attention of Europeans. The westerners were enchanted by arts and the cultural heritage of our country from the time when various groups of religious missionaries, antique dealers, tourists, merchants, military men, ambassadors, orientalists and, to put it in modern words “Western Iranologists” came to Iran, particularly the bazaar of Isfahan, the capital of Safavides dynasty, turned into the center of activities of antique dealers.

By writing their memories accompanied with some images and pictures of the cultural heritage of Iran, and also through taking fine objects of Iran to their own country, the above groups attracted the attention of their politicians and influential men to be able to satisfy their imperialistic designs. Furthermore, imports of these objects helped to increase artistic and archaeological collections which were, and still are, the pastime of some of the western people.

Every day a valuable object from our heritage would leave our country by various ways and means in return for a small sum of money and found its way into museums or back rooms, or in modern terminology private collections. The situation has reached such a stage that signs and examples of past history of Iran can still be found in all big museums of the world today, and that private collections get richer from our heritage regularly (owners of the private collections sometimes sell some of their works at exorbitant prices). It is interesting to note that sometimes the purchaser is the country which is the real and original owner of the antiques. So in all auctions that are held in the west with a great deal of advertisement every now and then, without any exception, examples of Iran’s ancient culture and arts can be found; in other words, the artistic work go from one back room to another and render the Iranian patriots sadder and sadder.

The question arises for every Iranian as how these valuable pieces of work which are made by able hands of our fathers and mothers and which should remain for future generations and enrich our culture, so that they can boost their historical identity, have gone to the west? Why no action is taken to stop this trend? Why are we always obliged to travel to the west to see the works of our ancestors? Why should the accessible western sources be the only source for us when we want to study the texts concerning the past period of Iran?

Plundering of our cultural heritage, whether through concessions or signing of treaties or through groups and individuals, has a long record in history. In fact it is more than a century that European excavators (plunderers) have unearthed the relics of our past civilization, and taken them abroad. Exit of Iran’s cultural heritage is carried out in several ways, some of which are mentioned below. At the end of the war between Iran and Russia, a great amount of war damages were taken to the residence of the Russian general Paskwitch. Some of the war spoils were in the form of gold and precious stones and others in the form of artistic, historical and cultural objects. They adorned and enriched Saint Petersburg’s museums. Qajar kings also presented our past cultural heritage as gifts to western ambassadors and emissaries and envoys. In addition to that the kings, in order to secure and provide for the expenses of their kingdom, pleasures, revelries and of their trips to Europe, sold a part of relics or gave an unbridled liberty to foreigners to plunder the cultural heritage through granting exclusive excavation, archaeological concessions, in return for a small sum of money. With the same motivations, many groups came to Iran one after another. The first mission that came to Iran was a British one led by William Oseley. He came to Iran after the trip of Mirza Abolhasan Khan Ilchi, Fathali Shah’s ambassador to British Court (James Morier was a member of that mission). Roaming round Iran and acting as the eyes and ears of the British government, Oseley carried out excavations and discovered Shahpur cave, and had Shahpur statue prepared by stone cutters and took it back to England. It is now kept in British National Museum. It accords very well with the old saying: “If a thief has a torch in his hands, he can steal better objects and goods.”


After the British, the French men started working in Iran. In the field of recognition of artistic and ancient works, one should mention Pascal Coust (architect) and Eugene Flanden (painter). On behalf of the French Academy of Fine Arts, these two French men, together with Edward de Sassi, the French Ambassador, came to Iran. During their two years stay, they discovered Tsephon Arch, Kangavar, Hamedan, Firoozabad, Fasa, Naghsh Rostam, Pasargad and Persepolis archaeological relics, and published the results of their efforts in their travel diary together with relevant pictures. But the excavation of Susa archaeological works was carried out by William Kennet Loftus, an Englishman. He is the first person to have obtained an accurate information about Susa, particularly Apadana hall. His excavations near the tomb of Daniel Nabi incurred people’s wrath and was left incomplete. Twenty years later (1881), a French couple by the name of Marcel and Jeanne Diolafoa continued Loftus’ excavations.

Marcel Diolafoa (1844-1920), who was from Toulouse, France, started working as an engineer in Algeria. Later on he made some trips to various countries and was enchanted by arts and ancient monuments of the East. In 1881 he was given a mission by the French Ministry of Education to study Sassani’s arts and ancient monuments. He was helped by his wife who took charge of copying and taking photographs. This engineer started his studies in Armenia, then came to Tehran through Tabriz and Mianeh, and was welcomed by Dr. Toulousan (Nasereddin Shah’s doctor). He studied the towns and cities of Varamin, Qom, Kashan, Isfahan and Shiraz, then went to Iraq through the south of Iran, and returned to Iran in company of Karbala pilgrims. Having carried out an extensive research in Dezful and Susa he went to France. In 1882, he published the results of his work, entitled “The ancient Arts of Iran”, and showed the results of his excavation to Jules Ferry, the Minister of Education. The latter dispatched Diolafoa to Iran again to carry out further excavations there.

During this trip, he was accompanied by two other engineers, named Charles Bobin and Frederique Husse. Dr. Toulousan obtained the necessary permission, and it was decided that half of the findings should belong to France. Diolafoa, his wife, and the two engineers began their work in Susa. The outcome of their excavations was 35 tons of ancient objects which were transported from Susa to Basra. A few months later the French people got acquainted with the heritage of Iranian ancestors displayed in Louvre Museum. Marcel Diolafoa published more than 8 books about arts and ancient monuments of Iran.


During the last few years of his reign, Nasereddin Shah gave permission to some Europeans to carry out investigations, so a number of groups started working here. The heads of these missions presented some of the objects they found to the Shah and the courtiers and took the rest with them abroad. In some provinces such as Khuzestan and the central regions, the governors and the owners carried out excavations themselves and amassed wealth. A little while later as the Iranian government could not guarantee the security and safety of the missions, so it issued orders that excavations should cease. Since the time of Diolafoa mission, the French were waiting for better and more favorable conditions to sign a contract for excavations. In the end, Nasereddin Shah in 1895, granted archaeological concessions to the French government. According to the contract the sum of 10,000 toomans (50,000 Francs) was offered to the Shah, and it was agreed that half of the findings should belong to the French government, and out of the rest one third to the Iranian government and two thirds to the land owners. Luckily, because the Shah did not want to incur people’s wrath, so the religious sites were not included in the contract.

Imagine that if the religious sites were not excluded from the contract, then if we wanted to pay pilgrimage to Imamzadeh Saleh and Hazrat Masumeh, we had to travel to Paris to visit the above shrines along with Eiffel Tower, the tombs of Louis 14th and Napoleon.

Anyhow, an archaeologist by the name of Jacques de Morgan (1857-1924) led the French mission. He was busy carrying out anthropological and mining research in Armenia for two years starting from 1886. In 1889, he was sent on a mission to Iran by the French Ministry of Education to carry out geographical, geological, linguistic and anthropological surveys. De Morgan carried out his research in Mazandaran, and Guilan particularly Rasht, then went to south of Russia to do comparative work. But the Russian government did not allow him to do research, so he went to Tabriz, Urmia, Kurdistan and to Kermanshah. In 1892, he succeeded in discovering oil in Sar Pole Zahab. Then he set out for Lorestan, Dezful, Susa and the part of Bushehr, then to Egypt and returned to France. De Morgan took a lot of objects to his country some of which he donated to Saint Germain Atelier. He prepared 620 photos, 3 big maps of Iran, a complete map of north of Iran and a map of Kurdistan.

In 1889 he went back to Iran again as the Director General of the French Archaeological Mission, and continued with excavations in Susa, and established the first excavations installations. He sent valuable objects back to France and induced his government to enter into negotiations with the sick and penniless Mozaffareddin Shah. So the exclusive excavation concession was granted to France in 1900. De Morgan was the head of French mission in Iran for 15 years.

His main program was identification of archaeological monuments and relics. In order to attain his objectives he brought a number of his former colleagues in Egypt to Iran. But because he was suspected of stealing, so he resigned as the head of the French mission in October 1912. But his colleagues like Vincent Schiel and Roland de Maknem continued with the work. In 1927, Reza Shah canceled the concession, that is the exclusive right of excavations was not taken away from the French, but it was restricted to Susa. The government agreed to establish a museum and a library in Tehran and to appoint a French man as the director for 5 years. According to this contract, Andre Goddard, an architect came to Iran.

Andre Goddard who was relatively fully familiar with the Islamic arts was directly in charge of the archaeological department from 1927 to 1960. In order to know Goddard and his archaeological research, interested readers are advised to read Rashid Kaikhosravi’s book entitled: “The Era of Oblivion or the Plunder of the Iranian Cultural Works.” This book shows how Andre Goddard and his colleagues plundered Zivieh treasures of Seqqez and how they accused the villagers of stealing.

It is interesting to note that in 1958 the Louvre Museum of Paris bought 500 pieces of Lorestan bronze which belonged to Jacques Coiffard, the French Ambassador in Tehran, and displayed them in the halls of the museum. But no one raised his voice and nobody asked how these bronze pieces had come into possession of the ambassador.

In 1970s on account of the rise of oil price a number of wealthy people of the former regime started collecting antiques, and some symbols of the culture and civilization of Iran were restored to the country. But the fever did not last long. During the same period some useful actions were taken, for example the purchase of “Mahbubian” collection against the sum of 2 million dollars, as a result of which Reza Abbasi Museum was set up, and also the purchase of a private collection which gave rise to Negaresh Museum.

In any case, Iranians will be able to understand the extent of plundering of their artistic, cultural and civilization heritage by Europeans, if only they are able to pay visits to museums of Europe and America, or if they can prepare a list of the works kept in private collections. In that case the Iranians will be able to see what the westerners have done with our cultural heritage.