What's so striking about the ruins of Persepolis in southern Iran, an ancient capital of the Persian Empire that was burned down after being conquered by Alexander the Great, is the absence of violent imagery on what's left of its stone walls. Among the carvings there are soldiers, but they're not fighting; there are weapons, but they're not drawn. Mainly you see emblems suggesting that something humane went on here instead—people of different nations gathering peacefully, bearing gifts, draping their hands amiably on one another's shoulders. In an era noted for its barbarity, Persepolis, it seems, was a relatively cosmopolitan place—and for many Iranians today its ruins are a breathtaking reminder of who their Persian ancestors were and what they did.
The recorded history of the country itself spans some 2,500 years, culminating in today's Islamic Republic of Iran, formed in 1979 after a revolution inspired in part by conservative clerics cast out the Western-backed shah. It's arguably the world's first modern constitutional theocracy and a grand experiment: Can a country be run effectively by holy men imposing an extreme version of Islam on a people soaked in such a rich Persian past?
Persia was a conquering empire but also regarded in some ways as one of the more glorious and benevolent civilizations of antiquity, and I wondered how strongly people might still identify with the part of their history that's illustrated in those surviving friezes. So I set out to explore what "Persian" means to Iranians, who at the time of my two visits last year were being shunned by the international community, their culture demonized in Western cinema, and their leaders cast, in an escalating war of words with Washington, D.C., as menacing would-be terrorists out to build the bomb.