The History of the National Archives
In 1970, the National Archives Organization of Iran, affiliated with the Administrative and Employment Affairs Organization, was established to “collect and preserve national Iranian records under a single umbrella and provide appropriate conditions and facilities for public access to them and to economize the costs of administration by centralizing noncurrent records of the Ministries and governmental institutions destroying redundant papers. In 2002, the National Archives Organization was merged with the National Library of Iran.
In ancient Persia, like other old civilizations, documents would be stored in archives and given great importance. During the Achaemenid Empire, the royal archives formed the base of the administrative organization of the state. The head of the state organization apparatus was the head of the royal archives who conveyed the king’s decrees to the lower strata of power. He was responsible for recording state correspondence, royal decrees and other important events of the day. The Old Testament, Chapters 5 and 6 of the Book of Azrael, referring to an archival record, describes the petition of the Jews to Darius: “Thence, if the kings deems appropriate, the archive of the king in Babylon will be searched to see if indeed such a decree was issued by Cyrus the King … . The Library of Babylon which housed the archives was searched and in the Ehemta Palace standing in the territory of the Medes, a petition was found and the memento in the documents read as follows.”
This decree is the oldest one of the Persian kings, issued by Cyrus in 538 AD, called popularly as the Babylon Cylinder. It was found in excavation of Babylon in 1879 and is now kept at the British Museum in London. In Achaemenid Iran, leather and papyrus were used for state correspondence. These have almost entirely perished, but some have fortunately been found in the Egyptian deserts. One of these is a pouch with several letters inside which, for whatever reason, was not delivered. The letters carry decrees issued during 410 and 411 AD. In this period, important state documents were stored in the city of Estakhr and at a location called Dejnebesht meaning the documents castle. It has been claimed that even the Avesta was kept there.
It seems that the archival troves of Iran, in this era, were located in Ecbatana, Babylon, Shush, Persepolis, and the other seats of the Persian kings. After the invasion of Persia by the Greeks, Alexander developed his royal archives inspired by the archival methods and structures of the Persians. Documents storage was so important for him that once, some of his documents perished in a fire incident; he had them re-written from the copies already kept by his military command. A large number of documents belonging to the Ashkanid Empire were found by M.E. Massen, the Russian archaeologist, in his excavations of 1946-50 in the Iranian city of Nessa. This is another proof of a well-developed state archival system in ancient Persia. These documents, written in the Parthian alphabet of the 2nd century BC, include invoices, purchase deeds, transaction papers, and the so-called “procurement” documents of the Ashkanid courts. 2500 documents were found in this archive.
During the Sassanids, the storage of state documents and their copies in the state archives obtained paramount importance. In this period, “whenever the king issued a decree, a special secretary (Iran Devirbaz) would put the decree on paper in the presence of the king; another servant would register it in a separate gazette. The gazette would be put in good order at the end of each month, sealed by the king and submitted to the royal archives … . If the document was about the commitments of the Persian Empire to another State - subjugated to Persia or independent of it - it would be delivered to the other head of State, accompanied by a sealed pouch of salt, which signified faithfulness towards and respect of the pledge made by the Persian king”. Furthermore, important state reports would be stored in collections called “Annual Diaries”, which were officially guarded by the same guards of the Royal Archives. Evidences found by archaeologists show that the Sassanids classified their archival documents by subject. One of the discovered document collections belonging to that period is the Sogdian archives of the Magi Mountain comprising political and administrative correspondence, reports, judicial documents, and tax bills. The collection was found in the city of Panj Kand in Sogdiana and belongs to the 5th and 6th centuries AD.
After the fall of the Sassanids, Persian archiving methods attracted the attention of ensuing regimes. In all those regimes, the Archives were always called the Treasury (khazaneh in Persian) in imitation of the Persian system. In the Islamic era, the documents treasury was part of the correspondence divan of the court. In the translated edition of the Yamini History, we read: “… the correspondence divan is a trove of secrets ….” During the Qaznavid Era, when the kings were mostly on travel trails or in military camps, hence not enjoying a permanent capital, state documents were usually carried along the royal tour. In this period, the state documents treasury would be called “the evidence treasury” and the official responsible for it “Divan Ban” (the guardian of the divan). Bayhaghi uses these labels with special care and sensitivity when writing about them in his History: “… then he came back to the Divan and Bolfath Khatami, the Deputy Postman, gave the letters to me and told me to seal them and place them in the treasury.” Somewhere else in the History, he writes: “the Emir read the letters, and ordered them to be kept secret, so that others would not find out about them. He said he would do so, and brought the letters and gave them to me and I read them and sealed them and handed them over to the Divan Ban.” Jovayni refers to the archival system during the reign of the Mongol Ilkhans in Iran: “… With regard to the discount of the alimony of the subjects, he ordered to register a copy of his decree in the treasuries ….”. In this period, copies of state decrees would be registered in a special notebook, as did the Sassanids. Then, a separate notebook, for each year, would be kept and stored in the documents treasury. The Gazan History and Jame’o Ttavarikh Rashidi (The Comprehensive History by Rashidi), indicate that during the reign of Gazan Khan in Iran, a treasury had been set up in each Iranian State to store its relevant official documents and the main documents centre was in the Khan’s great divan. Part of the decree of Gazan Khan in this respect reads as follows:
“… And should any problem arise henceforth, they shall look into them [the archival documents] and if anyone had had a letter of respite from us, which has been destroyed, they shall give them a copy from the treasury and copy shall be stored in the Great Divan and within each State, we have given copies to the Judges and the Masters of our subjects.” The Jalayerid Dynasty had followed the Ilkhans in setting up documents centers which they would refer to whenever necessary. In this period, the notebooks and documents trove was a major part of the Great Divan which was run by one book keeper, several secretaries and scribes. About the importance and applications of archival documents in this period, the History of the Jalayerid Dynasty reads: “The Great Divan had a book keeper at all times. Anyone who would fall in need of the archives from any city or State would refer to him and he would require the notebooks of the States, and would produce the real list [of archival documents] to the Vizier and his company, so that no one would be left with any doubts.”
For the Safavid Dynasty, as can be seen from histories about the era, such as Tazkaratol Molouk (The Biography of the Kings), official documents enjoyed paramount importance. This book lists the different types of official documents archived by the Safavid government: letters, decrees, historical accounts, licenses, and stipulations. Even copies of state correspondence of previous regimes would be recorded in special notebooks called “Heavens Notebooks”. These notebooks would be kept in a place called “the High Divan Secretariat” and the official in charge of it: “the Book Keeper”. The management of these books have been described thus in Tazkaratol Molouk:
“… The books of previous years which were not referred to frequently, were kept in the warehouse of the Secretariat and the book keeper was responsible to keep records of the books.” In the Safavid Dynasty, the transcription and dispatch of state documents was the responsibility of the “State Secretary” and letter writers, decree scribes, and seal keepers would co-operate with them. Due to their high number and variety, the documents of the period were categorized according to their subjects, geographical origins, and dates of creation. The lists and specifications of each category would be recorded in separate books called “Head Subject”. Describing the job of the State Accountant, Sarkar Fayz in his "Dastourol Molouk" writes: “His job was to record the categories of landed property, rentals, products, etc with the help of his several scribes.”
The archive building of the Safavids was part of the "Chehel Sotoun Palace". During the Qajar Dynasty, the state archive was part of the Court organization but during the reign of Nassereddin Shah, due to the expansion of state bureaucracy, apart from the Court’s archive, political records were kept by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the financial records were moved to the State Accountant (Ministry of Finance). Like the previous eras, copies of important documents were also recorded in books for later reference. Abdollah Mostowfi has written about the state correspondence and copying documents in the early Qajar period: “In secretarial jargon and decree transcription, the Qajars imitated the Safavids and made it compulsory that the Chancellor, the State Accountant and the State Secretary (Head of the Special Book) and Divan Master would sign and seal the back cover of decrees and state payment bills. Other accountants would then follow their own separate investigations and inspections and each one would make a copy of the decrees and bills to be recorded, so that no breach of law would take place and no right be trodden.”
After completing the copying of one year’s documents, the papers would be placed between two wooden boards and tight roped. In this period, Iranian embassies did not still have a permanent archival system and each Ambassador at the end of his mission, had to carry along all his correspondence and documents to his new position. Finally, in 1938, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs established a disciplined, permanent archives at all its embassies abroad. With the expansion of administrative organizations in Iran and the production of massive volumes of noncurrent records and dossiers, the creation of a national archive and stagnant filing centre for the whole country became an absolute necessity.
During 1901-1930, a French-Belgian mission proposed and put into action a plan to improve the state filing system of Iran. In this plan, all government offices were obliged to have index and letter reference books. This system continues to be used to date. After this development, the idea of the creation of a state records centre was passed in a bill of the Council of Ministers in 1930. By virtue of this bill, it was decided that all contracts, licenses, and documents for the establishment of state institutions or governmental stocks, title-deeds, and royal lands, etc except for political treaties should be kept in a chamber set up by the Ministry of Finance in Golestan Palace. After this date, no action was taken to create a national records centre in the country until 1950. Although several studies were made by governmental organizations and a draft law was devised for the destruction of redundant state papers, the bill was not presented to the parliament due to flaws discerned in its structure. In 1953, the government started provisional studies on the increasing problem of redundant document accumulation. The result was put to debate in the parliament. The first bill to acquire legal permission for the destruction of redundant papers was presented to the Senate in 1956 but was not passed. In 1963, the High Administrative Council debated the massive corpus of redundant dossiers. In 1964, a research study was carried out whose findings were thus: “In 36 Ministries and state institutions, nearly 2 million noncurrent dossiers are being kept in 270 storage rooms and warehouses that have occupied 12,000 square meters of space and cost the government 38 million Rials per annum.”
With this background, a bill for the creation of the Iran National Archives Organization was drafted in 1966 and after finalisation, passed by the parliament in 1970.
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