National Geographic has a feature this month on the continuing pull exerted on Iranian culture by the Persian Empire of 2500 years ago. Because it’s National Geographic, the pictures are wonderful. And although (or perhaps because) I know almost nothing about the ancient Persian Empire or modern Iranian culture, I found the article fascinating as well.
I had never heard, for example, of the “Cyrus Cylinder,”
a decree that has been described as the first charter of human rights—predating the Magna Carta by nearly two millennia. It can be read as a call for religious and ethnic freedom; it banned slavery and oppression of any kind, the taking of property by force or without compensation; and it gave member states the right to subject themselves to Cyrus’s crown, or not. “I never resolve on war to reign.”
Nor was I aware of the Islamic revolutionaries’ open hostility toward this past, or of the fact that modern Iranians still resent the Arab influence that is now well into its second millennium.
[A] friend I made here, an English teacher named Ali, spoke of how the loss of the empire still weighed on the national consciousness. “Before they came, we were a great and civilized power,” he said, as we drove to his home on the outskirts of Shiraz, dodging motorcycles and tailgaters. Echoing commonly stated (though disputed) lore, he added: “They burned our books and raped our women, and we couldn’t speak Farsi in public for 300 years, or they took out our tongues.”
There is some modern history here as well, including a brief discussion of the 1953 CIA-backed overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. All in all, I’m unqualified to say whether any of it is true, but it did stretch me, which is almost always a good thing. Maybe one of my Persian friends will comment with more authority.