Descendants of Cyrus introduces readers to ordinary Iranians living lives far different from what is shown on Western television. Thornton takes us through the cities of Iran, where he encounters robust, barely hidden black markets filled with American movies and music; sees the women of Shiraz explore modern fashion and beauty products with no fear of reprisal from a weakened regime; and meets the students populating the university town of Hamadan, where a generation of activists is finding its voice.
Thornton draws from the past and present alike on each stop of this fascinating travelogue, using history to inform his conversations with citizens from all walks of life. Unexpected variety comes to light, embodying surprising religious and ethnic diversity, intellectual curiosity, a thirst for Western culture, and the desire to live a modern, secular life.
A firsthand look at one of the least understood and yet most politically significant countries on earth, Descendants of Cyrus taps into the hidden pulse of a culture and a generation that promises to reshape Iran in a way few Westerners can anticipate.
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About the Author
Christopher Thornton is a professor of writing at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. He has worked as a special correspondent to the U.S. State Department’s International Information Program, writing feature stories on Arab and Muslim life in the United States for the department’s website. His essays on Iran have also appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, Commonweal, and Confrontation.
Read an Excerpt
Tehran Two Tales from One City
There is not a single school or town that is excluded from the happiness of the holy defense of the nation, from drinking the exquisite elixir of martyrdom, or from the sweet death of the martyr, who dies in order to live forever in paradise.
— Etalaat newspaper, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War
In a scene near the beginning of the film Argo, about the rescue of the U.S. diplomats held hostage at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, there is a shot of the Tehran skyline with a backdrop of the snowcapped Alborz Mountains. It is reminiscent of similar shots of Boulder, Colorado, set against the panorama of the American Rockies. Like the Rockies, the Alborz are suffused with mythology, which would be expected of any natural feature in an ancient land. According to Indian philosophy, all of the continents were connected by a single mountain range. Ancient Persian thinkers took this a step further, believing that the Earth's mountains rose from a round, flat plain, and beneath the surface they were linked together like plants joined at their roots, and this union formed a unifying force. Above ground the mountains were drawn together by a single peak. In the case of the Alborz this would be Mount Damavand, at 15,312 feet the highest in the Middle East. Some historians believe that this line of thinking paved the way for Zoroastrianism and the concept of monotheism.
The shot from Argo, and any of Tehran that feature the backdrop of the Alborz, as most do, is an apt metaphor of life in Iran today. One only needs to imagine the mountains as the Islamic regime: It is a looming fact of daily life, always present and never to be ignored. At times it may seem to disappear, just as the mountains are occasionally shrouded by the Tehran smog, but always it returns, as fixed and immobile as the mountains themselves.
The mountains have been a fixture of the landscape longer than the city they tower over. Tehran is not one of the great capitals of the Middle East, like Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad. As Middle Eastern cities go, Tehran is an upstart. Until the end of the first millennium the dominant city south of the Caspian Sea was Rey, or Raghes in its ancient form. But Rey was not meant to last. It was attacked, destroyed, and rebuilt after invasions by the Arabs in the seventh century and the Turks in the eleventh. In the thirteenth century the Mongols provided the death blow, razing the city and slaughtering most of the residents. Nearby Tehran, previously known only for agricultural production, primarily pomegranates, became a convenient alternative for urban settlement. It slowly grew into a small city, and by the sixteenth century it became an important administrative center of the Safavid dynasty. In 1796 Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar chose to make it his capital.
To say that Persian rulers have been fickle in their choice of capitals is an understatement. Tehran is the thirty-second in the history of the empire. Agha Mohammad Khan's reasoning, like that of his predecessors, was strategic. Tehran was close to the Caucasus region, then under Persian rule but threatened by imperial Russia, and it was a safe distance from an aggressive Ottoman Empire to the northwest. Also, by choosing Tehran as his capital he stayed clear of the regional rivalries in Shiraz and Esfahan and local leaders who might rebel against him. Tehran was, in many ways, a safe pick.
In 1850 the city had only eighty thousand inhabitants, but in 1878 a new plan expanded the city walls, and in the 1920s and 1930s Reza Shah Pahlavi rebuilt the city in quasi-European style, cutting wide boulevards through dense neighborhoods and laying out streets in the grid pattern copied from the Europeans. New buildings combined Western and traditional Persian designs, as Iran began to look westward for cultural influence. The modernization trend accelerated under Pahlavi's son, Mohammad Reza Shah, who aimed to tilt Iran further westward. New universities and research centers opened, again mimicking European architectural styles but with a hint of Persian classicism. Tehran became the capital of not only the Iranian government but a thriving cultural scene. The population swelled.
This is the Tehran that greets visitors today — along with the backdrop of the Alborz Mountains. The circumstances of my first visit were unique. It was June 2009, a few days after the contested election that saw firebrand hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to power through what many still believe were rigged voting results. Within hours of hearing the election results protestors poured into the broad avenues and squares that Reza Shah had built, waving placards that demanded, "Where is my vote?" Forces of the Revolutionary Guard and riot police were dispatched to intimidate dissenters, but the dissenters were not to be intimidated.
A little background on travel to Iran: Americans, Canadians, and citizens of the United Kingdom are not allowed to wander freely in the country. They must be accompanied by a licensed tour guide, and their visas and itineraries must be approved by a special office within the foreign ministry. New arrivals are met at the airport by their assigned guide, and I was greeted by mine — Sohrab — who had driven up to Tehran from his home in Shiraz the day before. But he almost didn't make it. He spent most of the night at a police station, after being stopped at a checkpoint that had been set up to keep the ranks of protestors from growing. Once he produced the documents proving that he had been appointed as my guide for the next two weeks he was allowed to leave, but only after these were verified by the foreign ministry, when the office opened in the morning.
Sohrab was a self-described "cool guy" who had a wife and two sons, but "I play around," he acknowledged, with casual bravado. He had lived in the U.S. for ten years, first in Florida, where he earned degrees in business and computer technology, and then in San Jose, California, working in the IT industry and riding his Harley-Davidson through the hills of Silicon Valley. "Illegal" CDs — John Coltrane, Chet Baker in Tokyo — rattled in the side-door pocket of his Volvo sedan.
He asked: Did I want to go straight to my hotel, or was I ready to start sightseeing? The question was a nonstarter. I wanted to plunge right in, and so we did. Our first stop was the most significant symbol of cultural, social, and political life in Iran today. It was the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, conveniently situated, for arriving visitors, on the highway that connects Imam Khomeini International Airport with the center of Tehran. At night the brilliantly lit, garish green dome is the brightest beacon on the road, a draw for the Shiite faithful and those who still revere Khomeini as their spiritual guide and political prophet, one sent by God to guide the Iranian nation back onto a heavenly path and away from the more secular-minded rule of Mohammad Reza Shah.
Khomeini's true believers are regular visitors to the shrine, and their cars nearly filled the parking lot when we pulled in. A mural-size painting of Khomeini and current supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei stretched across the entrance. We passed through a series of brightly lit prayer halls with pilgrims lounging, while others sat cross-legged on the thick carpets as they flipped through dog-eared Qurans. Others drowsed in the sleepy hours of midafternoon, combining their midday nap with a moment of spiritual reverie. Finally we reached the room that contained the bier of Khomeini. It was brightly lit but far more modest than I expected, just a single bier elevated a few inches from the ground and draped with a gold and green cloth.
The faithful, sitting propped against the wall and sprawled on the carpet, paid no attention to me, which was deeply satisfying. I didn't want to be a spectacle, just another invisible visitor passing through, as thousands did each day. A few restless eyes were directed my way, but they soon returned to the Qurans spread across their laps or the bier of Khomeini. What was surprising was that there was no buildup, no air of ceremonial suspense in the approach to the final resting place of arguably the most influential Shiite leader of modern times. Politics aside, the small room represented the common touch that enabled Khomeini to connect with the common people. After a few minutes Sohrab and I wound our way back through the prayer halls and back to the entrance that led to the parking lot and twenty-first-century Tehran.
Sohrab asked again, Did I want to head to the hotel? He was not prodding or pushing, just expressing classic Persian hospitality. Still, again my answer was no — better to see the city in full swing, protests or not. It might take a little doing, Sohrab said, to wind our way around the streets and squares where demonstrations were taking place, which may or may not be blocked. And there was no way to know what was the easiest path through the city because the internet and mobile phone network had been cut. We'll find a way, I told him, and we did, first to the Abgineh Museum, housed in a nineteenth-century villa on Tir Street. Also known as the glass museum, the Abgineh could become a tragic mountain of shattered shards if a major earthquake were to strike this part of Tehran. Fortunately, this has yet to happen, so the collection of glasswork and ceramic ware, with some items dating back nearly a thousand years, stands secure on shelves and shielded within protective display cases for visitors to ogle. After gazing at the glass, there is the building itself, where a red-carpeted circular staircase connects the floors where former salons and reception rooms have been converted into exhibition halls. After touring the interior of the building one can wander in the surrounding garden, which offers no radiant glasswork or nineteenth-century décor but neatly kept lawns and towering greenery that create a rustic retreat in the center of the city.
Next was the National Jewels Museum — if we could get there, Sohrab said — and we did, after being rerouted a few times to keep us away from political trouble, or potential trouble. This meant being stuck in a traffic jam or two, but that is the smoothest of smooth driving in downtown Tehran.
Adjacent to the Central Bank of Iran, the Jewels Museum is a bombproof, heavily armed, guarded vault that contains more emeralds and sapphires, rubies and diamonds, than any single pair of eyes has ever seen, piled in pyramids within bulletproof display cases. Nowhere in Iran is the wealth of the Persian Empire more ostentatiously displayed, and nowhere is the contradiction between the Iranian past and present so vividly on display. The visitors — Iranian, Western, Asian, and others — pause to gape at the piles of jewels and the wealth they represent, but the message is a mixed one. From one perspective they stand for the enormous wealth that the empire accumulated all the way through the final Pahlavi dynasty. From another they illustrate the material self-indulgence of the monarchies that culminated in the Pahlavi dynasty, which the Islamic Revolution aimed to end, to return Iran to "the path to God." These included thirty diamond-studded tiaras, shields and swords encrusted with jewels, and the showpiece of the collection, the Koh-i Noor diamond, one of the largest in the world. It was Mohammad Reza Shah who brought them to the attention of the world by trotting them out at state functions and other formal ceremonies, raising the question of whether they were meant to reflect the glory of the Iranian nation or the monarch himself. And it was this creeping perception of megalomania that contributed to his downfall.
With all the commotion out on the street, it was a day for museum hopping. On our way north we had stopped at the Museum of Reza Abbassi. On display were ceramics and metalwork, tiles and silver coins from the ancient Achaemenid period, textiles and jewelry, a golden rhyton from the seventh-century dynasty — in other words, the treasure trove of an attic labeled "Persian history," dusted off, and scattered through the museum's floors. But the galleries had few visitors. The locals were trying to catch what bits of news they could, and most of the tourists who had not fled the country were staying close to their hotels. Sohrab and I had almost free run of the place, until an itchy guard appeared to tell us that the museum was closing — early.
It was edging past midafternoon but time enough for another stop, if we could zigzag around the blocked-off streets. We did, and pulled up in front of the National Carpet Museum, with enough time for a peak before closing. Sohrab dropped me off at the entrance, and I began wandering through the two floors of kilims and gabbehs, soumaks, and souzanis, some recently woven, others hundreds of years old, classic works whose age only added to their value.
Probably no craft art is more associated with Iran than the production of carpets, and a finely woven Persian carpet will fit more snugly into the category of art than craft. The best take not weeks or months but years to produce, and families purchase them not only to provide decoration for the house but to serve as investments that will appreciate in value if they are well looked after. I was getting a short course in the history of carpet making just by reading the display cards propped around the museum: about the variety of knots that go into the weaving; the source of the colors that produce the natural dyes; the many styles of carpets that result, from ghali to ghalitcheh, zaronim to sedjadeh, kelleghi to kenareh; and the regions of Iran that have developed their own patterns — Kerman and Khuzestan, Tabriz, Mashhad, and Esfahan, Shiraz, Kashan, and Qom — much like wine regions of France that have cultivated their own vintages. But then the visit was cut short.
Suddenly a guard was making the rounds, announcing that it was closing time. But it was only 4:15 — forty-five minutes should have been left for stragglers to wander. Still, he was fidgety, nervous, insistent, and when I stepped outside I found out why. The corner of Fatemi and Karegar Avenues was shrouded in tear gas. The shouts of protestors could be heard on the other side of the bushes that separated the museum from the street. Police vans filled the intersection. Protestors were being thrown inside.
Sohrab appeared, holding a plastic trash bag.
"Take this — put it over your face."
We threaded through knots of protestors, their eyes red and faces running with tears. In the middle of the street an old woman in a black chador was shouting in a frenzy.
"What's she saying?" I asked.
"She's cursing the government," Sohrab replied.
"But what's she saying?"
"'Fucking bastards, beating your own people!'"
We reached the car and zigged and zagged in the direction of the hotel wherever the path was clear. Tehranis not battling with riot police were heading home from work, hailing taxis, and descending the steps of metro stations, maintaining an appearance of calm, even if the pace was brisker.
My hotel was the Kosar, off Vali Asr Square. Outside a crowd of protestors filled the narrow street, sprouting green streamers, green wristbands, green T-shirts, green bandanas — waving the color of the antigovernment green movement. One of the desk clerks had emerged from the reception area to watch, then motioned for me to stand back under the cover of the parking area, out of range of snipers who might be planted on the rooftops. Without warning, a team of basij militiamen raced the length of the block on motorbikes, clubs raised.
Shortly after the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini saw that the regime could hold on to power only by maintaining an army of grassroots enforcers to quell dissent and to serve as riot police should protests erupt. So he formed the basij, or "guardians of the revolution." Today their forces number over a million, spread over the entire country. Its ranks, both men and women, are drawn almost exclusively from the marginalized working class and others without a clear path to advance in Iranian society. For their service they are rewarded with perks such as preferences in hiring, job promotions, and admission to universities. These were the young men now revving their engines and waving their truncheons, challenging the crowd. Some, no doubt, were true believers in the Islamic regime, others little more than hired guns but using the moment to make the most of their show of force.
The crowd gathered in front of the Kosar and headed toward Vali Asr Square, where several hundred riot police had massed. A column of Revolutionary Guard troops were marching down Vali Asr Street, while several dozen basiji swirled into the roundabout on motorbikes, weaving defiantly in and out of the rush-hour traffic. Around the square people had gathered on sidewalks and squeezed between the parked cars to watch the militiamen on the other side, waiting for — neither knew what.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Descendants of Cyrus"
Copyright © 2019 Christopher Thornton.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Tehran: Two Tales from One City
2. Tabriz: Seat of a Revolution
3. The Caspian Shore: Rice and Spice and Other Things Nice
4. Mashhad: Shrines of All Kinds
5. Kermanshah: Kurdish Lands and Warrior King
6. Hamedan: City of the Jewish Queen
7. Kashan: Court of the Qajars
8. Abyaneh: Heading for the Hills
9. Esfahan: Bridges to Everywhere
10. Yazd: Land of Fire and Ice
11. Persepolis: Shadow of an Empire
12. Shiraz: Of Senses and Sensibilities