Modern Iran is an endless valley of contradictions. At once, an origin of civilization with little left to show for its rich cultural linage. The land is either arid or lush while its people are both outgoing and secretive. Women must wear headscarves, but dominate university enrollment. Alcohol is forbidden except among ethnic minorities, but Iran has the third highest alcohol consumption in the Middle East after Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Despite anti-Zionist fervor among some clerics, Jews move freely from home to shops and synagogues.
Smooth surfaced, well-lighted and clearly posted highways are eventually choked by miles of traffic and consequent smog enveloping the main cities. Expressive and well educated, Iranians delight in hospitality towards foreigners, especially Americans, in obvious contrast to government statements about western infidels and Satanists.
Iran’s Cyrus the Great in the first millennium BC and his distant cousin, Darius, three decades later built an empire that reached from today’s central Russia to Morocco. Their imposing palaces at Persepolis and tombs in the limestone Zagros Mountains radiated beauty and endurance. Almost inexplicably, very little is left to see. The remaining ruins were scared during the past one hundred years by cement from indiscriminate mason’s trowels.
Early Persian artisans through successive generations embraced sophisticated design and craftsmanship in carpet weaving, textiles, wood inlays, glass blowing, ceramics, silver filigree, enamel ware and miniature painting to illustrate religious texts. In the past ten years, a revitalization of these crafts has begun to take hold. But, much of what was created in-between was lost to centuries of hostile invasions and neglect.
The cities of Shiraz, Yazd, Esfahan and Tabriz are the centers of a new cultural awakening. Tehran is a hot bed of contemporary fine artists working in a myriad of mixed media achieving high international standards. Prices for the works of a few painters at auction fetch in the million-dollar range.
Unlike neighboring Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus before its recent destruction, Samarkand and Jerusalem, little remains of the old cities of Iran. The nomads of Quashgai, Bachtiari and Kurds in the north are many fewer than their festive clad forbearers who herded sheep and wandered.
As Iran makes its way back towards recovering its revered past, today’s historians look to the Ancient Greek writer, Herodotus for direction. It was legacy left by Cyrus the Great that inspired world conqueror Alexander of Macedonia to show compassion to those he defeated. It was also Alexander who burned Persepolis to ruins.