Ilam silent watcher of Iran's past

Sassanid bridge, Ilam
Ilam Province is an area rich in Bronze and Iron Age archeological sites, mostly in the form of cemeteries.

The city of Ilam, the provincial center, is located 710 kilometers from Tehran and surrounded by forest-covered mountains.

Because what is today known as Ilam linked the Iranian plateau and Mesopotamia, it is of great importance in uncovering the mysteries of the past.

Historical evidence shows Ilam, which was called Alamto or Alam meaning 'mountains' or 'the country of sunrise' in Elamite and Babylonian inscriptions, was an important center in the Elamite civilization.

Cemeteries and burial sites are excellent resources in elucidating the mysteries surrounding the religious and cultural practices of the ancients. They supply invaluable ethnographical and chronological information on social and economic relations.

While no major research has been undertaken on the prehistoric funerary rites and rituals of the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau, a Belgian study revealed that most of Ilam's gravesites belonged to nomadic tribes, which settled in the region around the first millennium BC.

Three of the most famous cemeteries in Ilam are:

Chenar Graveyard, a site datable to the first millennium BC and located in the Chenarbash region, contains graves in which the dead were buried in small or large earthenware jars along with their possessions.

Kian-e-Gonbad Graveyard, which archaeological studies suggest dates to 2500-2600 BC, is located 30 kilometers southeast of Ilam.

Pelkeh Kan Graveyard, where numerous artifacts belonging to Stone Age hunters have been discovered, is located in the historical Halilan area

The location of a grave, along with its contents and internal decoration present clear evidence of the concerns and beliefs of the living about the dead and whether the worlds of the living and the dead were regarded as separate and hostile to each other or as part of a continuum.

Historical and anthropological investigation reveals that burial rituals reflect a society's view of not only the nature of death but also the totality of human existence in relation to the cosmos.

Equipment found in the earliest graves suggests that humans may have always been unable to accept physical death as the end of life, and that they believed in an afterlife similar to the one they knew on earth.

Archeologists believe that during a certain period people were buried based on the position of the sun in the sky at the time of their deaths; if a person died at sunrise or sunset, they were buried facing the east or west, as found in the Iron Age cemetery near Sarab Karzan village in the Shirvan region.

The Sarab Karzan graves are covered with huge gravestones, each weighing about one to five tons, which have been placed on top of each other in a conical shape without any mortar.

The pile of stones above the graves may have served as a means to keep the dead within, to warn the living that the site belonged to the dead and perhaps as a simple form of remembrance of the dead contained there.

The graves in the Poshtkoh region are mostly quadrangular with stone covers and though the bones have not survived due to the acidity of the earth, the sites contain spearheads, earthen vessels, teapots, jewelry and many other revealing artifacts.

Smaller quadrangular graves evidence that children were buried along with adults.

Up to the third millennium BC (the early to Middle Bronze Age), the dead were usually buried under the familial abode. Fetal burials, the covering of bodies with red ocher (a substitute for blood as the symbol of life) and gifts placed in the grave are characteristics of the funerary rites of this era.

Wealth and social status played an important part in the objects placed in graves; the poor were buried with simple earthen vessels while jewelry was found in the graves of the wealthy.

The Iron Age is of great importance in explaining the origins of what came to be known as the unique Persian culture.

A survey of gravesite relics from this era shows that the social, cultural, economical and racial structures gradually evolved, leading to the emergence of Monotheism.

Until the end of the Bronze Age, burial rites remained unchanged and the dead who were the subject of affection or reverence continued to be buried within the house or the family compounds.

However, with the development of urbanism, the old custom was abandoned and cemeteries gained popularity.

As the dead were now viewed as objects of fear, and death was thought to contaminate the living, the burial sites, which were seen as belonging to the dead, were built far from the place of the living.

Many cultures had the desire to draw a pronounced line between the world of the living and the dead and tried to hasten their departure by showing kindness to the dead so they would not harm the living.

The modern cemetery could be seen as the continuity of the necropolis (city of the dead) belief.

Burial in the earth is in a way the recognition of the cycle of life and death in which man as part of nature takes part in.

Humans created from clay would return to the place that had once brought them forth.

In cultures which regarded the earth as a female principal, humans were received back into the mother who gave birth to them.

Evidence of the use of exposure of the dead to the elements, cremation and cave burials testifies to the fact that geography and living conditions dictated the mode of disposing of the dead.

The complex history of funerary architecture and art seems to indicate a gradual shift in emphasis from the internal, timeless world of the grave to the temporal world of the living.

While in the prehistoric period much time was spent on decorating the interior of the grave, which served to enclose the dead within their world with the goods they might need there, in later periods grave furnishings became less ornate and the exterior of the grave became increasingly elaborate.

Ilam, the silent watcher, has witnessed the rise and fall of countless civilizations through out the millennia, remaining a faithful guardian of their secrets.

The key to this treasure chest lies within the cemeterial rites performed by the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau, the further study of which could shed light on the lifestyle of the ancients and the development of the Persian culture.

Press TV
15 Jan 2008