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Shi'ite Shrine At Persepolis Sparks Row Over Iran's Heritage

The ancient ruins of Persepolis is one of Iran's 22 UNESCO World Heritage sites. (file photo)

With more than 10,000 religious shrines dotting Iran to mark where descendants of Shi'ite Islam's most revered imams are said to have been buried, many of them go unnoticed.

But one of these so-called imamzadeh sanctums recently caught the eye of a passerby who, in a video, questioned its proximity to a globally recognized legacy of Iran's pre-Islamic past, the ruins of Persepolis.

His video and the resulting debate highlighted the pride that Iranians take in their culture's ancient past and apparent distrust of a clerical and political establishment that some accuse of highlighting the Islamic era at the expense of Iran's pre-Islamic history.

The clip shows the shrine, known as Imamzadeh Ebrahim, and suggests that it was built only recently.

"This is the beginning of the [Persepolis] road. As you can see, [authorities] have built an imamzadeh here in the past few days," the man is heard saying in the video. "When we lived here, this wasn't here; they’ve set it up recently."

"I really don’t know what [authorities] think of us that they simply do such things. I hope that these measures end."

WATCH: Video From A Shi'ite Shrine Near Persepolis (in Persian, no subtitles)

Concerned Iranians responded by calling the imamzadeh a threat to Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire that was built by Cyrus the Great, saying it could cost the 2,500-year-old site its UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Officials in Marvdasht in Fars Province, where the shrine is located in southwest Iran, have issued a rebuttal.

"This video a sheer lie," Alireza Manuchehri, head of the Office of Endowment and Charity Affairs in Fars, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency. "Imamzadeh Ebrahim, whose grave is next to Persepolis, is among the descendants of [Seventh Shi'ite] Imam Musa Kazem and his sacred tomb has been in that location from the old days."

"The old sign had been worn out [and] a new sign was installed six months ago," he said.

'Suspicious' Intentions

Government news agency IRNA quoted officials from the shrine and residents of a nearby village saying it had been there for many decades.

Thirteen of Iran's 22 UNESCO World Heritage sites won their listings in the past decade, and Iranian authorities appear to have worked hard in recent years to preserve ancient sites.

But a Tehran journalist who requested anonymity because he feared official reaction said some Iranians remain suspicious of authorities' intentions.

"Many believe that the ruling establishment does not value the [country's] cultural heritage," the journalist said. "So when an imamzadeh appears next to such a prominent, historic site, understandably people who are sensitive about their ancient history become worried."

Elias Ziarati, an official with the Fars Office Of Endowment and Charity Affairs, was quoted by as saying a plan that "has now become operational" to rebuild the tomb of Imamzadeh Ebrahim and restoration work would comply with "Persepolis's world's heritage criteria."

Farhad Azizi, a member of Persepolis Technical Council, told the Iranian daily that authorities were simply hoping to cash in on visitors to the ancient ruins, particularly ahead of Persian New Year's celebrations in March.

There were other certified imamzadehs around Persepolis, Azizi added, "but the Endowment Office didn't invest in them because they’re far away and not located on the tourist route."

Shoehorning Religion Into Everything?

Imamzadehs are visited by many Iranians for prayers and religious rituals, but they are also seen by some as a callous attempt to shoehorn religion into every aspect of society.

Reliable numbers are hard to find, but a spokesman for Iran's Office for Endowment and Charity Affairs told the reformist Shargh daily in 2013 that the number of imamzadeh shrines had grown sevenfold since 1979.

Berlin-based researcher Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, who had a religious education, said Islamic guidelines and traditions do not encourage the erecting of such shrines.

"Establishments that are religious or consider themselves religious, such as the Islamic republic, they reinforce these beliefs to create religious legitimacy or sacredness for themselves," he said.

Eskevari accused Iranian authorities of using religion to downplay Iran’s ancient past.

Iranian conservatives expressed anger over a large commemorative gathering in 2016 at the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the first king of Persia. Senior cleric Nuri Hamedani blasted the Cyrus Day event as the work of "counterrevolutionaries" and said participants chanted slogans normally reserved for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Last year, authorities appeared to take measures to prevent citizens from gathering and celebrating Cyrus at his tomb, including reports of a fence being erected and restrictions being imposed on the number of people who could visit the site.

Radio Farda Broadcaster Javad Kooroshy contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.