On the Path of Persian History : The Islamic Republic of Iran May Impose Its Will on a Reluctant Population, but This Does Not Deny Its Glorious Past as One of the Greatest Empires History Has Known

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Bundled up from top to toe, all female passengers put on head scarves before leaving the aircraft. We arrived in Tehran at 3:00 a.m., but the law of the Islamic Republic of Iran demands that women be completely and shapelessly covered up at all times in public, even if it's pitch black outside, with only the hands and face showing.

As I pulled the voluminous scarf down over my face, I wondered what the great men who came, conquered, and settled here would have thought, seeing women masquerading as black tents, or wearing long, loose coats, to spare the men from temptation.

Thus properly attired, we traveled in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus to see what remains of this vast empire. Especially focusing on the past glory of pre-Islamic Persia, we visited ancient sites, not in the chronological order of Persian history, but following a large circle that is framed by mountains to the east, north, and west and bordered by a hot desert plateau to the south. Mojga, our Iranian guide, warned us that we would travel over three thousand miles to meet the "ancients." She broke the tedium of long bus drives by serving coffee, tea, and delicious sweets she called "yummies," morning and afternoon.

People have lived within these boundaries for at least three thousand years. The last arrivals were Aryans, who came from central Asia between the ninth and sixth centuries b.c. (Iran means "Land of Aryans.") The first Aryans were the Medeans, settling in the area of today's city of Hamadan around 900 b.c. The Persians followed one hundred years later, moving down the plateau to Fars. Finally came the Parthians, who remained in the country's northeast corner.

The Medeans and Persians were united by Cyrus I, who established the Achaemenian dynasty and laid the foundation of the Persian Empire in 630 b.c.

His grandson Cyrus the Great beat the legendary Croesus, the wealthy king of Lydia, with charging camels that spooked Croesus' horses and terrified the enemy soldiers. Cyrus the Great conquered much of Greece, Lydia, the Anatolian plateau of Turkey, Iraq (Babylonia), Syria, and Palestine; his empire covered the Near East from the Aegean to the Indus River.

After his conquests, he built a capital employing Greek artists and builders at Pasargadae, near Shiraz, in 546 b.c. I had to search in my mind's eye for any Hellenistic influence. The long drive to Pasargadae brought little reward: it is in total ruins today, and its famed rose garden is a parched desert. For himself, Cyrus built a majestic but simple tomb nearby. Inside his gold coffin was the inscription: "I am Cyrus, who founded the Empire of Persia, and was King of Asia. Grudge me not therefore this monument." When Alexander the Great opened this grave 150 years later, he read the inscription and sealed it up again. Seeing this edifice, it was easy to imagine that Alexander was awed both by this imposing building and a kindred spirit's claim to greatness.

From tents to palaces

The next great Achaemenian ruler was Darius, who started building the new capital, Persepolis, with numerous palaces, stables, a treasury, and the great Apadana--a reception hall for ten thousand people.

Two staircases and a long wall led to the Apadana. More than five thousand carved figures seemed to move in slow procession on the wall, with delegations from the conquered nations bringing tribute to the king. Their jewels and gold ornaments were long gone, as the city is uninhabited, but dressed in their national costumes and leading their camels, horses, and even lions, they looked dignified, if not consenting and contented.

Cyrus the Great and Darius were far more than military leaders. Part of their success lay in dividing an enormous and ethnically diverse empire into twenty-eight satrapies: smaller, semi-independent provinces that received laws and protection in exchange for loyalty and taxes.

Darius, in particular, believed in just rule. …