An old Persian cuneiform inscription on a tomb in the Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City.

Author:Schmitt, Rudiger
Position:Tomb of Phirozshaw D. Saklatvala and his family - Report

Inauthentic ancient inscriptions have been composed to serve assorted purposes from antiquity on, from the Cruciform Monument of Manishtushu through the Donation of Constantine into the present. Inauthentic texts in Old Persian cuneiform script and in more or less accurate Old Persian language are also attested. Because the corpus of Achaemenid royal inscriptions is so small, inauthentic texts have drawn attention and scrutiny since at least the late nineteenth century. The first comprehensive collection of such Old Persian artifacts sorted them into inauthentic inscriptions of Achaemenid date, forgeries, and modern imitations. (1) It strove to list all known examples with full philological and linguistic commentary, but the number of inauthentic inscriptions continues to grow.

Many of these texts are outright forgeries, composed to make inscribed objects appear authentic, that is, to create fakes that are valuable to the composer of the text or his client, to sellers and collectors. Other modern inscriptions in Old Persian script and/or language were written not to deceive, but to entertain or commemorate. The earliest example known so far is a limestone tablet, on one side of which the English artist and traveler Robert Ker Porter (1777-1842) engraved what he considered to be the ancient name of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] or Taht-i Gamsid (both written on the opposite face), i'-s-t-a-x-r "Istahr" (2) (actually written [??]-s-t-a-x-r). Roland Kent listed a "jesting composition" composed by F. H. Weissbach among spurious texts in his bibliography of Old Persian inscriptions. (3) Several other pieces of this kind were created by Reverend Ralph Norman Sharp (1896-1995), who for decades lived in Shiraz and dealt now and then with Old Persian texts. (4)

Another modern composition, presented and discussed here, is cut on the front of a tomb in the Myosotis section of the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York, built between 1922 and 1924 by the Presbrey-Leland Company for the family of Phirozshaw D. Saklatvala. (5) It is the first known such composition inscribed on a tomb, and the first noticed in America.


The Presbrey-Leland Company, now located in Valhalla, New York, had its primary offices in New York City when the tomb was undertaken in 1922. The specifications call for the building to be constructed of Dummerston, Vermont, granite, exposed surfaces of the interior to be lined with polished Pink Tennessee Marble, and four interior "catacombs," chambers designed to hold the remains of four individuals, to be made of Bangor, Pennsylvania, slate. The exterior decoration was to follow full-sized plaster models provided, and the name SAKLATVALA was to be incised above the door. The blueprints show the letters of the name formed with cuneiform-like wedges, as they appear on the built facade. The specifications refer to inscription slabs to be put in front of the catacombs, presumably to identify the individual remains, but they mention no other inscription on the exterior and the blueprints show no inscription or area prepared for inscription on the facade.

The clients in the Presbrey-Leland Company's records and the lot owners in the Woodlawn Cemetery's records are Phirozshaw D. Saklatvala and his wife Mae B. Saklatvala. Their remains were placed in the tomb in 1934 and 1939, respectively. The other two catacombs were occupied by the remains of their infant daughter Jerbai Stella Saklatvala, born 1920 and deceased at the age of seven months, before the tomb was built, and the first to be interred, and the remains of Behram D. Saklatwalla, brother of P. D. Saklatvala, interred in 1944.

The father of the Saklatvala brothers, Dorabji (called Darayavahus, Darius, in the inscription), was a Bombay merchant (6) and their mother, also named Jerbai (called Zari in the inscription), was the sister of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904), the founder of the modern Tata industrial group. The Tatas and Saklatvalas were related by marriage in previous generations, and J. N. Tata took the Saklatvala family into his home and raised the Saklatvala children with his own.

Phirozshaw Dorabji Saklatvala (also referred to as Phiroz or Phiroze, called Piruji in the inscription), born in Bombay in 1875, came to the United States in 1904 to represent the interests of the Tata family. (7) He became a U.S. citizen in (1916). He was president of the Middle States Oil Corporation, acquiring the sobriquet "the Parsi Oil King." He died in New York in 1934. His secretary, who became his wife (called Mai in the inscription), was born Mae Bradley, in Ohio in 1882 and died in 1939. (8)

His younger brother Behram Dorabji Saklatwalla (the first name sometimes spelled Beram or Byramji, the last name occasionally spelled Saklatvala) was born in 1881. He was "undoubtedly the brains of his generation," (9) educated in metallurgical science in Bombay, Berlin, and London, before coming to the United States in 1908. He became an executive of the American Vanadium Company and later co-founded the Alloys Development Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received the Grasselli Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1924 and gave the Richards Memorial Lecture at the Electrochemical Society in 1943. (10) He collected contemporary art, supported the Downtown Gallery in New York, and served as president of a short-lived quarterly magazine of contemporary art, Space, founded in 1930. (11) He died in the crash of TWA flight 8 in northern California on November 4, 1944. His wife, Ann R. Saklatwalla, born in Pennsylvania in 1901, died in California in 1958.

The older brother of the American Saklatvalas, Shapurji Dorabji Saklatvala (1874-1936), followed a different course. In the first years of the twentieth century he prospected for coal and iron in central India, then in 1905 moved to England for reasons of health, because of personal conflict and professional disagreements with his cousin Dorabji Tata, the eldest of the Tata sons, and because of nascent political differences with the Tata family. (12) After preparing briefly for the bar, he entered politics. He was the third Indian-born Member of Parliament, for Battersea North, first in the Labour caucus and then as a Communist, between 1922 and 1929. (13)

Jerbai, the mother of the Saklatvala brothers, died in New York in November, 1907, during a visit to her American sons. Her remains were returned to London and interred in the Zoroastrian section of the Brookwood Cemetery in Woking. (14) She was also commemorated with a seventeenth-century Japanese statue of a young girl placed in the garden of the estate that Phiroz Saklatvala bought in 1907, in Plainfield, New Jersey. (15)

Phiroz Saklatvala's espousal of Zoroastrian identity, explicit in the text of his tomb inscription, is reflected in his sponsorship of the first North American Zoroastrian association, organized at his New York City residence in November...

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