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Astronomy in Iran  

Mercury, January/February 2003 Table of Contents

The Moon rises over the ruins of Persepolis.
The Moon rises over the ruins of Persepolis. Courtesy of Oshin D. Zakarian.

by Mike Simmons

Astronomy is alive and well in this ancient land of contrasts and contradictions.

High atop the ancient royal Bahram Palace, a group of 50 people busily prepare for the evening's activities as twilight fades. Most are young women in dark, concealing Islamic attire. At the end of a 60-kilometer drive over unpaved roads through the surrounding desert, Bahram Palace is in northern Iran's Kavir (Desert) National Park, 150 kilometers southeast of the capital city, Tehran. It is the site's isolation that attracts this group, which has gathered on a schedule dictated by the phases of the Moon. But while a lunar calendar is used for religious purposes in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is the search for dark skies that brings this group here on this New Moon weekend.

Star parties and other astronomical activities take place in Iran just as they do in Western countries, though with accommodations to cultural differences and economic realities. A storied land of history and natural diversity, Iran was known as Persia from the time of its founding 2,500 years ago until the early 20th century, when the first Pahlavi Shah renamed it for its geographical location in order to better represent the many cultures that inhabit this crossroads of civilizations. The Iranian Plateau -- a label derived from the name of its first known settlers, the Aryans of central Asia -- rises from the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, through deserts and mountains, to the 4,000-meter peaks of Iran's north, with rainforests beyond abutting the Caspian Sea.

Repeatedly settled, traversed, and invaded -- and expanding into other lands when the Persian Empire was the world's greatest -- Iran is an amalgam of Asian, European, and African peoples and cultures. A land of contrasts and contradictions, the visitor to Iran is confronted with a bewildering and enthralling mix of old and new, traditional and modern, religious and secular. Iran is a place where Islam is still referred to as the "new" religion -- brought to Persia by invading Arab armies in the 7th century AD to largely (but not completely) replace Zoroastrianism. Iranians embrace modern, Western ideas while retaining proud traditions that predate Western civilization. Iranian society's ability to incorporate new ideas, cultures, and people may be the key to the country's longevity. Whether Alexander's army or Genghis Khan's Golden Horde, a new religion or new ideas, Persian society has always integrated and adapted them to produce a new and unique society that not only endures but thrives.


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