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Paying with the Past

Lawyers for victims of two 20th-century terrorist bombings are trying to force the sale of a cache of 2,500-year-old Persian tablets currently on loan to Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

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The ruins of Persepolis, situated in what is today southwestern Iran; here, in 1933, laborers discovered ancient clay tablets stored inside a fortification wall.


In March 1933, an archaeological expedition from the Oriental Institute, a division of the University of Chicago, was working in southwestern Iran among the ruins of Persepolis, the onetime capital of the ancient Persian Empire. While building a road for trucks to bring in drinking water, laborers accidentally uncovered a huge archive of 2,500-year-old clay tablets, inscribed with wedge-shaped cuneiform characters, that had been stored inside a fortification wall. 

Five decades later, in October 1983, a terrorist drove a Mercedes truck loaded with explosives into the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut and killed 241 American servicemen. Fourteen years after that, in September 1997, terrorists set off suitcase bombs at Ben Yehuda, a popular pedestrian shopping mall in Jerusalem, killing five people and wounding nearly 200. Claiming that Iran underwrote both bombings, the U.S. survivors and family members of those who were killed sued that country in separate federal lawsuits in Washington, D.C., in 2001. Iran did not make an appearance, and the plaintiffs won a total of more than $3 billion in default judgments.

The tablets, basically an administrative record, chronicle the distribution of food within Persepolis and the surrounding region.

Now these disparate elements are coming together in a Chicago courtroom. The plaintiffs in the bombing cases say that the only way they can collect what is owed to them is to force the sale of the Persepolis tablets, currently at the University of Chicago on loan from Iran, and they have filed lawsuits demanding that the archive go on the auction block.

If the plaintiffs succeed, it would be the first time that most of them had received compensation for the injuries and losses they have suffered because they or their loved ones were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such a ruling, however, could also mean the loss of a cultural treasure that is an irreplaceable window into the past simply because it, too, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Whatever the outcome in Chicago, the lawsuits, now before U.S. District Court judge Blanche M. Manning, are expected to wend their way through the appeals process and, in all likelihood, on to the U.S. Supreme Court. And as they do so, they will continue to raise complex and troubling questions about how to weigh the claims of the blameless victims of terrorism against those of equally blameless scholars and museums.

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Photograph: (Image 1) © Aliki Sapountzi/Aliki Image Library/Alamy; (Image 2) Courtesy of the Oriental Institute



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