PASARGADAE—For the people protesting against it, a new dam near these sun-drenched ruins may be more than an environmental upheaval: in it they scent an affront to the country's pre-Islamic identity.
For 2,500 years, the tomb of Cyrus the Great has stood on the plain at Pasargadae in southern Iran, a simple but dignified monument to a king revered as the founder of the mighty Persian empire. But some fear the dam and reservoir pose a threat to the ancient structure.
They say the project may increase humidity in the arid area near the city of Shiraz, which they believe could damage the limestone mausoleum.
That may seem far-fetched—officials dismiss it—but the row highlights deep cultural fault lines in attitudes to the Islamic Republic's wealth of pre-Islamic relics. "This is an illegal project which will harm our historical heritage," said Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a lawyer campaigning against the Sivand Dam and an associate of Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
He accuses the authorities of not paying enough attention to sites dating from before the Arab Muslim invasion in the 7th century of what is now Iran: "They don't care about pre-Islamic history."
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially inaugurated the dam, some 4.5 miles away from Pasargadae, in April. Cyrus built the capital in the 6th century B.C. and is believed to be buried there.
Ringed by bare and tawny hills, Pasargadae is one of Iran's eight world heritage sites, though it is not as well-preserved or famous abroad as Persepolis, erected by Cyrus' successors closer to present-day Shiraz.
Many Iranians still see Cyrus as one of their greatest historical heroes, who arguably created the first world empire and showed tolerance towards different faiths of his era.
Cyrus conquered Babylon in today's Iraq in 539 B.C. and freed the Jews held in captivity there. He is also credited with authoring a decree inscribed on a clay cylinder which some have described as the first charter of human rights. "We are really proud of him. He was unique," said a man in Shiraz who gave his name as Reza Hosseini.
Government officials say the dam is needed to help farmers irrigate land to grow corn, rice, tomatoes and other agricultural produce. They have promised to closely monitor any climatic changes that result from the dam. Iranian Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, who heads the state culture and heritage organization, has suggested groups "opposing the Islamic Republic" are behind the protests.
"It is far from here," said one guard at the dam site, which is slowly filling up. "There will be no damage." People in the provincial capital Shiraz—renowned as a city of poets, roses and beautiful mosques, as well as for its imperial Persian ruins—are not so sure.
They complain of contradictory information about the dam's potential impact and say they do not know what to believe. "If there is even a tiny possibility of damage to historical monuments we have to be very careful," said shop owner Omid Nejati, selling hand-woven wool and silk carpets, one decorated with a motif of the tomb of Cyrus.
Near the dam itself, even one of the farmers it is supposed to help was skeptical.
"We don't have water problems," said the 35-year-old man, declining to give his name because of the issue's sensitivity as he took a break from working the land. "The dam was a project to create job opportunities for people from other areas."
Revered and Reviled
In the mountains in the distance lies the Bolaghi Gorge, which will be flooded as part of the project. International teams have in the past few years excavated the area, believed to form part of a Persian royal road and to hold other archaeological remains, ahead of the planned inundation.
Farzin Fardanesh, a consultant of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said nobody could tell for sure what the dam's impact might be. There was justified concern, but "no proven risk" to Pasargadae.
In his book The Soul of Iran, American-Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi describes how Cyrus was praised by the U.S.-backed Shah but criticized by the Muslim clerics and leftist revolutionaries who toppled him in 1979. After the Islamic revolution, one prominent ayatollah branded Cyrus a tyrant, liar and homosexual and even called for the destruction of his tomb as well as that of Persepolis. "Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed," Afshin wrote.
Even so, not much remains of Cyrus' Pasargadae: his multi-tiered tomb is the most impressive building even though it was looted and emptied long ago.
The parched surroundings make it hard to imagine that lush gardens once encircled the imposing cenotaph before Alexander the Great crushed the empire Cyrus had founded around 330 B.C, his armies sacking and burning Persepolis.
"Unfortunately the government didn't listen to us," said Dadkhah. But 4,000 people have signed his protest petition against the dam, he added: "I never give up."