our aging Iran Air jumbo jet approaches Tehran in the dead
of night, the announcement to prepare for landing provokes
both the fastening of seat belts and the changing of
clothes. Designer outfits are cloaked under sober gowns.
Vivacious hairstyles disappear beneath dark cowls.
all the clichs that surround Iran, this is perhaps the
only true one: that all women, even visitors, must wear
the chador, or traditional cloak and veil, at all times.
But just as the chador often masks spectacular fashions
underneath, the 444 days of the 1979 hostage crisis still
cast a dark shadow over the richness of this
3,000-year-old nation that is one of the cradles of
a journalist, I was visiting Iran to make sense of its
troubled relations with the United States. As someone of
Persian lineage and the ancient Zoroastrian faith, often
considered the world's oldest revealed religion, I was
looking to learn something of Iran's past -- and
discovery of Iran, or Persia as it was called before 1936,
must commence at Pasargadae and Persepolis. It was here
that Cyrus the Great founded what philosopher Georg Hegel
called the "world's first real empire" in 550
BC. Set on the immense Marv Dasht plain and surrounded by
the Mountains of Rahmat, or Mercy, these abandoned cities
Persians entered the historical realm as much for their
military prowess as their humanistic conception of the
world. Most followed the teachings of the
philosopher-prophet Zoroaster (also known as
Zarathushtra), who taught that life was a constant
struggle between good and evil.
greatly influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In
the Bible, Cyrus is extolled as "God's chosen . . .
the anointed one" because he freed the Jewish slaves
from Babylon, returned them to their lands, and rebuilt
the First Temple. Today, his tomb at Pasargadae is the
only tangible remainder from his time.
simple, square, 35-foot-high structure, it is set on a
plinth with six receding steps leading to a gabled tomb
chamber. Framed against a clear blue sky, it exudes an
Persepolis, called Parsa by the Persians, the buildings
are designed to convey the majesty of Persian power and
ideas. The complex sits atop a 40-foot-tall stone platform
that sets it high against a fold in the mountains. It
takes little imagination to reassemble the wreckage of
scattered columns and bas-reliefs into fabled structures
like the Gate of Nations and the Tripylon Palace.
still mourn these ruins," Mohammad, my guide, says as
he tells how a drunken Alexander, whom he steadfastly
refuses to call "the Great," destroyed
Persepolis in 331 BC to please a woman. (Or perhaps to
avenge the destruction of Athens' temples by the Persians
in 480 BC.)
dusk, the vermilion light gives the ruined city a mystic
feel, as if its soul is still alight, which is why locals
call it Takht-e-Jamshid, palace of the mythical King
Jamshid, who lived in a time before time.
Persians soon expelled the Greeks, and it wasn't until
1,000 years later, in AD 641, that their empire fell to
the Arabs. Swayed by the religious passions of the newly
Islamized Arabs, Zoroastrianism declined. Some
Zoroastrians, including my ancestors, fled to India.
Others went underground, maintaining their faith against
overwhelming odds. Today, there are about 125,000
Zoroastrians worldwide: 60,000 in India, 30,000 in Iran,
and 35,000 elsewhere, mainly in North America and
was in the mountains around the desert city of Yazd, now a
shuddering six-hour bus ride north of Pasargadae, where
most Iranian Zoroastrians secretly nurtured their
is the quintessential desert city. Founded in 325 BC, it
is recognized by UNESCO as having the second-oldest
architecture in the world after Venice's. Soaring azure
minarets and badgirs, or wind towers, punctuate the brown
sprawl of the city and glimmer in the noonday sun like
shafts of crystal. An ingenious system of underground
water canals, called qanats, once irrigated the area but
now run dry.
lies Sharifabad, a tiny Zoroastrian village. Within the
courtyards of its mud homes, women clad in risaris, a
colorful tribal dress, busily weave kustis, a religious
woolen thread worn around the waist, while men in
skullcaps discuss crop prices.
these cheery inhabitants learn that I am a Parsi, as
Zoroastrians are called in India, they invite me into
their homes for a rustic and charming lunch of rice cooked
in a casing of goat stomach. When I cautiously mention
that I live in America, they seem overjoyed. Most
Iranians, particularly the young, have real affection for
America and are eager to hear of my life and tell me about
is [the Islamic government] that is scared of us,"
one of them told me as he drove me to Pir-e Herisht and
Pir-e Sabz, two holy shrines tucked away in the mountains.
"They know Iranians are tired of their nonsense. . .
. Many people would convert [back into Zoroastrianism] if
bans conversion (it is punishable by death), but there is
no doubt that Iranians retain an immutable connection to
their past. I ask about this while visiting Yazd's grand
Jame Mosque. An old man with a face so timeless that it
might have gazed upon Marco Polo when he came here in 1212
seeking silks and carpets, beckoned me to follow him into
the mosque. There, surrounded by the delicate beauty of
the inlaid tiles, he spoke to me in whispers.
is a fundamental duality in our blood," he said in
elegiac rhythms that belied his simple appearance.
"It's almost like it wants to swim in opposite
is in the cities of Shiraz and Esfahan where Iran's
syncretic nature -- synthesizing Persian ethnicity,
culture, and beliefs with Islam -- is best revealed.
1,200-year-old Jame Mosque was the first one built by the
Arabs in Iran, and every successive dynasty added to the
complex, making it a physical chronicle of time. The
Si-o-Se-Pol bridge in the center of the city is an elegant
example of Persia's Islamic architecture, and at dusk,
people gather under its arcs to sing and picnic. In
Shiraz, it was through the mystic poets Hafez and Saadi,
as well as Ferdowsi and Rumi, that Iranian Islam was
massaged with ancient Persian thought. With poems
unabashedly Zoroastrian in content, these men created
Sufism, a mystical brand of Islam. (It is banned in Saudi
Arabia.) So beloved are these poets that parents give
children one line of their writing to memorize every day.
Shiraz and Esfahan wear the gritty look of all modern
Iranian cities, but their tree-lined avenues and gardens
imbue them with a cultivated feel. Roaming their streets
and bazaars is a great way to shop for carpets,
handicrafts in silver, camel bone, and wood, and local
candies like Sohan and Gaz.
into the humdrum of everyday life makes it easy to see the
toll two decades of Islamic rule and US sanctions have
taken. Buildings appear derelict, and storefronts sport
faded name-boards. More than half the cars on the street
are decades old.
shield common folk from its economic failures, the Iranian
government heavily subsidizes basic items like food and
transportation. That's why the 45-minute flight to Tehran
costs only about $15.
the complex beauty of Iran's ancient cities, the urban
intensity of this city, which Paul Theroux, the author and
travel writer, called "a boom town grafted onto a
village," seems bland. Tehran's only compensation for
its lack of historical interest is its scent of political
intrigue. After satisfying the intrinsic urge to visit the
US Embassy, one can visit the Sadabad Palace, once home to
the exiled late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-80). The
more politically inclined also can make a day trip to Qom,
a theological center of Shi'ite Islam, and home to the
has an excellent highway system, and a battered Paykan
taxi, a local variant of a 1950s British Vauxhall, will
get you to Qom in about an hour. The buildings crowded
along Qom's narrow streets appear so dilapidated that they
seem to be held together solely by the prayers of the
faithful echoing out of the Hazrat-e Masumeh mausoleum,
the central monument in the city.
in Tehran, evidence of Iran's continuing romance with its
Persian-ness is everywhere. Stone carvings and pictures
from Persepolis adorn homes, offices, and restaurants.
Farohars, or Persian angels, are painted onto the sides of
buses and taxis.
marketers have begun to tap into the trend, and the
locally made Peugeot sedans that hurtle crazily through
the streets have been named Pars. Consumer products with
names like Parsian line the shelves of Tehran's tiny
street stores. On my drive back to the airport, I mull how
Iran's resurgent interest in its pre-Islamic past might
shape it during this time, when the nation is seeking to
move away from radical Islam and reimagine itself.
point of departure answers the question somewhat. Tehran's
airport is named Mehrabad, or Mithra's Abode. Mithra is a
Zarathusti archangel who, among other things, inspired the
seven-pointed halo crowning the Statue of Liberty.
the gateways to both the United States and Iran should
draw inspiration from the same source might surprise, but
inquiring into the history of various civilizations forces
one to reject worn clichs and form independent opinions on
questions of religion and history. It may just be that the
country my forefathers were forced to flee 1,400 years ago
and the country I have made my home have more in common
than they realize.