The door I knocked on was 3,000 years old. We were in Takhteh Jamsheed, known to Americans as Persepolis, the acropolis of a city that was once the capitol of the Persian Empire.
Of course, my knock on that door was symbolic, for it no longer existed. Shortly after Persepolis was built up, it was burned down by Alexander the Great. All the doors were wooden. But the marble pillars still stand. Until my visit to Persepolis in the summer of 2009, I knew the ancient world as just that; a donya of war, slavery, and bloodthirsty, almighty rulers. So when our tour guide told us women weren’t welcome in Persepolis, I wasn’t surprised.
But then the guide, a chic young lady with red, heart-shaped lips said, “Valee een harf ghalatast. Darahye Takhteh Jamsheed beh zanahye Irani hameesheh bahz bood, amah shah-hayeh Irani ejazeh nemeedadan zanahye kharab beeyon too.” My jaw might as well have been on the floor. She’d just told us the fact that would forever change my life. “But this belief is untrue,” she’d said, “The doors of Persepolis were always open to women. It was the prostitutes Iranian kings barred from the palace walls.”
Alexander the Great was notorious for bedding every elite woman in Macedon. Genghis Khan had more wives then he had digits; more children than he had hairs on his head. Then why on earth were the Persians, of all people, the exception to the rule?
“Because,” my tour guide replied when I’d asked her, “Mardaye Irani, ghablaz dorahne Eslam, zanaro hamghad meedeedan.” Before Iran’s Islamic era, Iranian men saw women as their equals, and therefore refused to treat them like property.
Before that moment, I had a stereotypical image of Iran, as untrue and trivial as any non-Iranian. Years of watching daytime news had made me think what my country is now is what it had always been.
“Did you know Iran is the birthplace of human rights?” asked the guide at the end of our tour. “Ironic isn’t it?” she added, smiling.
Visiting Persepolis gave me the opportunity to see Iran for what it had been for 1,500 years, not just what it is emrooz, today.
The ancient Persian motto, “Pendare neek, goftare neek, kerdare neek,” Good thoughts, good words, good deeds, hangs over the door of the United Nations headquarters today.
The grand wooden doors of Persepolis may have burnt to ash, the benevolent bodies of its rulers may have turned to dust, the Richest City Under the Sun may have been reduced to a handful of free-standing pillars, but every time the UN prevents war and promotes peace, Persepolis lives on. Every time, anywhere around the world, the rights of a minority are respected, Persepolis springs back to life. Every time a woman is seen equal to a man, every time people of different cultural backgrounds choose tolerance over intolerance, every time a person responds to hate with love, Persepolis comes alive before my eyes. Before we were blessed with MLK, Gandhi, and the Founding Fathers, we had Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who pioneered civil rights, to preserve our humanity.
Iranians are very superstitious people. Every time they feel fortunate, they knock on wood to ward away jinxes. That day in Persepolis, I knocked on a 3,000 year old door because I’d never felt luckier. Since then, I find myself knocking more and more every day I’m alive.
Anagran bahat bashad. May the light be with you too.