TEHRAN - As 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.
Of 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 civilization.
As 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 mine.
Any 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 invite contemplation.
The 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.
Zoroastrianism 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.
A 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 uncommon tranquillity.
At 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.
"We 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.)
At 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.
The 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 Britain.
It 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 religion.
Yazd 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.
Nearby 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.
When 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 theirs.
"It 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 they could."
Islam 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.
"There 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 ways."
It is in the cities of Shiraz and Esfahan where Iran's syncretic nature -- synthesizing Persian ethnicity, culture, and beliefs with Islam -- is best revealed.
Esfahan's 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.
Both 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.
Descending 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.
To 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.
After 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 Islamic revolution.
Iran 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.
Back 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.
Savvy marketers have begun to tap into the trend, and the locally made
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.
My 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.
That 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.
Jehangir Pocha writes for the Globe from Beijing.