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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2006, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Uncovering Iran's ancient past
When the BBC's Zahid Warley arrived in Iran for a special Radio 4 programme, it was not his first visit - that was in the 70s when Tehran was a stop-off on the hippy trail.

The Jamkaran mosque outside the religious city of Qom
The colourful mosques are among the unforgettable sights of Iran

The images that surface from that first visit are fragmentary but vivid: the deep red of the pomegranate juice served to us from a bucket by a street vendor; the fresh laundry smell of the steamed rice and kebabs that we ate pretty well every day, and a truly hallucinatory hotel where, as we were waiting to check in, I turned and saw - or thought I saw - a goat munching sugar from one of the bowls in the restaurant.

There are other more typical impressions, of course: the turquoise and apricot coloured domes of the mosques in Isfahan and the insanity of the traffic in Tehran.

I am glad to say that I saw nothing of the goat this time but the mosques and the traffic were much the same.

It is estimated that there are something like 14 million people in Tehran, and when you try to cross the road it can seem as if they are all queuing up to roar past.

Red can mean stop and green can mean go but traffic lights seem to be merely advisory and there is no right or wrong side of the road.

I was delighted to learn that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's President and a one time mayor of Tehran has a degree in traffic management. Make of that what you will.

Three moments

Luckily, I was never called upon to take the wheel.

This was the responsibility of our driver, Mr Dashti, who drove his four-wheel-drive in and out of all the obstacles placed in his path with the skill of Michael Schumacher.

This left me free to consider the purpose of my visit - to make a programme with the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, about Iran's ancient past and how it affects a modern Iranian's sense of identity.

ANCIENT AND MODERN
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, investigates Iran's archaeological and cultural past
BBC Radio 4, Wednesday, 27 September at 1100 BST

We decided to focus on three moments when Iranian identity seemed to crystallise: The birth of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, the foundation of a Shia state under Shah Abbas in the 16th Century and the empire of language and letters established by the 14th Century poet, Hafez.

A road journey across a featureless plain surrounded by the Zagros mountains took us to the tomb of Cyrus, a kind of stepped pyramid surmounted by a stone ark.

There is not much more to be seen even though the place - Pasargadae - was once the capital of Persia's first ruler.

It made me think of Ozymandias, the heat reducing everything to dust and a buffeting wind blowing it all away.

The achievements of Cyrus are more durable, though.

He is remembered not just for uniting the Medes and the Persians but also for formulating what has been called the first declaration of human rights.

Beautiful lens

The next stage of our journey took us several hundred miles north to another city - the Isfahan of Shah Abbas.

Isfahan
The city of Isfahan contains a number of Islamic architectural sites
Isfahan is the beautiful lens through which Persian culture is most often seen.

English poet Vita Sackville West thought it was built out of light itself, and I could not keep this thought out of my mind when I stood recording with Neil MacGregor in Imam Square.

Dusk was falling and the sky was turning from pale blue to violet.

Horse-drawn carriages were tinkling round the periphery and families were spreading their picnic rugs.

Kettles hissed on primus stoves and the air turned spicy with the smell of food.

There could be no better symbol of Shah Abbas and his aspirations - spiritual and temporal power in harmony and the people held in the benign civic embrace of a society deriving its strength from Shi'ism.

Mystical understanding

Our examination of the third aspect of Persia's imperial past involved a trip further south to Shiraz and the tomb of the poet, Hafez.

A street scene in Shiraz Iran
Shiraz in the south west of Iran is the home of the tomb of Hafez
Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw.

There were hundreds and hundreds of people milling about.

If you can imagine a large formal garden surrounding Wordsworth's Dove Cottage with a tea house to one side where you can eat rose petal ice cream and smoke a hubble bubble then you get the idea.

The Persian language, it seems, is still very much the same as it was in the 14th Century.

And Hafez has a mystical, tolerant understanding of Islam which is well-suited to his graceful idiom.

A couple of days later as I waited for Mr Dashti to turn up with the car and barge a passage to the airport and the plane to take us home, I turned over what we had heard from the people we had met.

There was no doubt that Hafez, Cyrus and Shah Abbas colour the way that modern Iranians think of themselves.

But what they stand for left me with a question which I have not been able to resolve.

Why do the leaders of today's Islamic Republic of Iran appear so unbending in the West when Shah Abbas and Cyrus were so renowned for their tolerance?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 21 September, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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