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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pre-Islamic Relic Under Threat in Iran

PASARGADAE, Iran -- For the people protesting against it, a new dam near these sun-drenched ruins may be more than an environmental upheaval: In it they see 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 feud highlights deep cultural fault lines in attitudes toward 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.

He accuses the authorities of not paying enough attention to sites dating from before the Arab Muslim invasion of what is now Iran in the seventh century: "They don't care about pre-Islamic history."

Iranian Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, who heads the state culture and heritage organization, has suggested that groups "opposing the Islamic Republic" are behind the protests.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially inaugurated the dam, some seven kilometers away from Pasargadae, in April. Cyrus built the capital in the sixth 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 toward the 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.

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 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.

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 climactic changes that result from the dam.