At Persepolis, Iran's Grand Past Overshadows Its Frustrating Present | WYPR

At Persepolis, Iran's Grand Past Overshadows Its Frustrating Present

Feb 19, 2016
Originally published on February 19, 2016 11:26 am

Why would Iranians visit their country's most spectacular ancient sites and come away disappointed?

We talked with 10 Iranian visitors to Persepolis, the ruins of an ancient Persian capital, and found a collective sense of unease — less with the ruins themselves than with what they imply about the world around them.

Consider a young woman who took a selfie amid the stones. "This is so beautiful," she said as she stood near 2,500-year-old limestone columns. She'd come with her husband on vacation and had dressed up for the occasion in a gold-colored coat, designer scarf and sunglasses. She loved Persepolis.

But then her tone shifted.

"Everything we have belongs to a long time ago," she said. "We have nothing new that makes us special in the world."

That was a common sentiment at this spectacular site, to which Iran wants to attract more foreign tourists now that a nuclear deal has created the possibility of greater openness.

What attracted us was the chance to meet Iranian visitors, of whom there were many. On this sunny morning, a student group wandered past a sculpture of a two-headed griffin, each head distinguished by its birdlike beak. Soldiers in uniform toured the ruins. It's commonly part of their training to be reminded of ancient times when Persia was the center of a powerful empire.

Mohammad Reza Mahdian brought his family to the ruins. He wore the brown robes and white turban of a Shiite Muslim cleric. Holding his 1-year-old daughter as he spoke, the cleric said the ruins are a good reminder: "All kings and rulers will die someday," he said. "Nothing will remain of them but their good works."

The ruins prompted other visitors to ponder the leaders of today. We repeatedly heard people express this sense that life must have been better 2,500 years ago.

"I think that time was better than now," said one man as he studied the ruins.

Surely he was wrong. Surely life was short and brutal back then, unless you were actually king. But what he saw was the residual grandeur of another age. He compared it with the country where he lives today, with its sagging economy and still-limited freedom of dissent.

In fact, we're not naming this man, or several other people we met, since they clearly became uneasy that they had said too much.

The man was not actually inside the ruined city itself. One must pay to walk inside. Instead he had come with his wife and toddler to sit on a blanket near the entrance. They do this a lot, eating a snack and studying the ancient stone.

"I think people had more freedom than now. This [is a] sort of dictatorship," he said. "We used to be more connected with the world."

He said he was educated as an engineer but was stuck in a menial job in a food processing plant.

His wife, wearing a bright green headscarf that billowed in the breeze, listened to all of this while tending to their toddler. She said she also had a college education.

"My major is electrical [engineering]," she said. "But no jobs. I'm forced to be a housewife."

The husband had a long-term plan to get out.

"If I work in that factory for 10 more years, I'll have the money to move my family to Canada," he said. "I like the cold," he added.

"I want to become a Canadian citizen," he said, "not some refugee." He's giving himself 10 years to earn enough money. "Whatever the situation will be, when you spend money it will be solved," he said. "I'm going to take huge money with me to feel comfortable."

His wife, listening to him, said she'd rather stay in Iran with her family. But for now, the husband said, leaving is their plan.

For him, the past is here in Iran. The future lies somewhere else.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are near the end of our journey through Iran. We traveled there after economic sanctions were lifted. We sought clues to the future by talking with people everywhere from subway trains to religious shrines. We also looked back at the distant past at the ruins of an ancient Persian capital. You're hearing us as we descended wooden steps. They were on a rickety steel frame and bent beneath our feet. They led downhill from the carved stone face of a tomb. Below us spread the remnants of the ceremonial city of Persepolis. Limestone columns still stand where Persian kings built a palace complex 2,500 years ago. Iran wants to attract more foreign tourists to this place, although what attracted us was Iranians who came to stare in wonder.

Who's in pink here?

MOHAMMAD REZA MAHDIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: It with a baby girl in the arms of her father who'd brought his family to the ruins.

MAHDIAN: (Foreign language spoken), almost one year.

INSKEEP: The father of the 1-year-old was Mohammad Reza Mahdian. He wore the brown robes and white turban of a Shiite Muslim cleric.

And what do you think?

MAHDIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: With the baby in his arms, he said the ruins remind him that all kings and rulers will die one day. Nothing will remain, he said, but their good works.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: A short distance away, students wandered past a sculpture. It was a two-headed griffin, each head distinguished by its bird-like beak. Iranian soldiers passed it, too. It's part of their training to learn of this time when Persia controlled a great empire. A young married couple studied stone carvings of a man with wings. She had dressed up for this occasion in a gold-colored coat, designer scarf and sunglasses. She took a selfie in front of an ancient column.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "It's so beautiful," she said. Yet that emotion was mixed with disappointment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "Everything we have belongs to a long time ago," she said. "We have nothing new that makes us special in the world." We interviewed 10 Iranians at Persepolis, and we repeatedly heard that sense that life must have been better 2,500 years ago. Surely they were wrong. Surely day-to-day life was short and brutal back then, unless you were actually king. But what the visitors saw was the residual grandeur. They compared it with their country today, its staggering economy and still-limited freedom of dissent. In fact, we are not naming the young woman because she told us she worried she'd said too much.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) And the palace is here.

INSKEEP: We're also not aiming the family we met as we walked out of Persepolis. We arrived at an expansive concrete near a few shops shuttered for the season. On the concrete lay a blanket, and on the blanket set a family of three, a mother, father and toddler. From out here they could contemplate the ruins without having to pay to go in. The father spoke with us through an interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) I think that time was better than now.

INSKEEP: How?

"We used to be more connected with the world," the husband said.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) I think people had more freedom than now. This is sort of dictatorship.

INSKEEP: The husband who spoke of dictatorship in Iran said he worked in a food processing plant. He said he was educated as an engineer but was stuck in a menial job. His wife said she also had a college education.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My major is electrical but no jobs.

INSKEEP: "I'm forced to be a housewife," she said. The husband said he had long-term plan to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "If I work in that factory for 10 more years," he said, "I'll have the money to move my family to Canada."

Is it also that you don't think Canada would be like a dictatorship?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) Whatever the situation will be, when you spend money, it will be solved.

INSKEEP: That is the only reason he's waiting 10 years to go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) I'm going to take huge money with me to feel comfortable.

INSKEEP: He said, "I want to become a Canadian citizen, not some refugee." His wife listened to all this while tending to their little girl. She said she'd rather stay in Iran with her family.

Well, you have 10 years to talk him out of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

INSKEEP: But for now the husband plans for the family to leave. For him, the past is here in Iran at Persepolis. The future lies somewhere else. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.