Iran last week experienced its largest protest demonstration since 2009 rallies after disputed presidential elections. The demonstration occurred on Friday at the tomb of Cyrus the Great in the ancient city of Pasargad, near Shiraz, in southern Iran.

Aban 7th in the Persian calendar—which fell this year on October 28 –is unofficially known as “Cyrus Day” in Iran and is the anniversary of the day the great sixth century BC Persian king and conqueror is said to have entered the city of Babylon. Every year on that day, large numbers of Iranians travel to Pasargad to pay tribute to Cyrus, who is revered for his tolerance of religious and ethnic minorities as much as for his military and political victories.

Efforts this year to reduce the numbers at the tomb this year appear to have backfired.

Ahead of Cyrus Day, news circulated in the social media and elsewhere that Fereydoun Allahyari, Director of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism of Isfahan Province had written a memo barring tour operators from organizing visits to Pasargad from Oct. 18 through Oct. 28. 

Mosayeb Amiri, the Director of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism of Fars Province (of which Pasargad is a part and Shiraz is the capital) subsequently denied that officials intended to prohibit visits to Pasargad on or around Cyrus Day. Amiri went on to explain that the decision was mainly based on concerns about the arrival of very large groups to Pasargad at the same time. He said his office had “simply requested” that the travel agencies and tour organizers plan other activities for Oct. 28.

Despite the warnings, a huge crowd unofficially estimated to number between 10-15,000 showed up in Pasargad on Cyrus Day. The demonstrators, some of whom were wearing traditional Persian clothes, chanted slogans including: “Cyrus is our father, Iran is our homeland,” “Happy Birthday, O Prince!” (a reference to the birthday of Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah of Iran’s son, on Oct. 31), and “Happy Birthday, Arian Cyrus!” (although the birth date of Cyrus is unknown). Reports surfaced of some people chanting anti-Arab slogans, while others chanted slogans in Arabic in support of indigenous minorities for whom Arabic is their native tongue. Witnesses reported some participants chanting slogans against the Islamic regime and in support of the Pahlavi dynasty, which was ousted in the 1979 revolution.

 That same day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani published a semi-related post on his Instagram account, with a picture of himself in nearby Persepolis, accompanied with the note he had written in the guestbook on his visit there about eighteen months ago. The note praised Persepolis, Persian civilization, and the Iranian tradition of monotheism. 

On Friday evening, following the gathering, the son of Mohammad-Reza Alipayam, a well-known Iranian satirical poet who writes under the pseudonym “Halou,” posted a message on social media, reporting that his father, who had gone to Pasargad with the intention of participating in the demonstration, was beaten and arrested. Alipayam has been repeatedly jailed in recent years over charges related to his poems. The poet’s son asked anyone who might have witnessed and filmed his father’s beating and arrest to come forward and share it. He added that “Halou” had been in need of his blood pressure and epilepsy medications at the time he was detained. 

The day after the demonstration, a prominent Shi’ite cleric, Hossein Nouri-Hamedani, harshly criticized the tribute to Cyrus. Nouri-Hamedani quoted the founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as saying that, “Those with tendencies toward Cyrus are anti-revolutionary.” Nouri-Hamedani also posed a question, “Who has failed to do their job properly, resulting in this demonstration?” and added, “ It’s so surprising that despite the presence of IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and Basij forces, some people would go to Cyrus’ tomb and act like pilgrims, sobbing into their handkerchiefs in tribute. These people chanted the same slogans we chant in praise of the [Supreme] leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), while we are alive and well, sitting back and listening to them.”

Iranian judicial authorities were quick to respond to the demonstration. On Monday (Oct. 31), the Iranian judiciary announced, “After thorough investigation, the principal norm-breakers, the main organizers and leaders of the Pasargad demonstration have been detained.” The statement added that “their actions were being watched for some time by intelligence, security, and armed forces, leading to this event.” Ali Salehi, the district attorney of Shiraz, added that a case has been opened for the detainees and is currently in the court system,” but provided no further details. 

Iranian officials have exhibited ambivalence about the widespread veneration for Cyrus. While some see it as nostalgia for monarchy and a threat to the Islamic regime, others say it merely reflects Iranian nationalism and pride in the country’s ancient history and contributions to civilization.

Indeed, there have been calls for dedicating an official day to Cyrus in the Iranian calendar and naming it “Cyrus Day” for several years. In 2008, the administration of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to consider such a step. Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s vice president and head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, said  on Nov. 30of that year that although naming such a day wasn’t on the government’s agenda, it still could be taken under consideration. During the same talk, he added that extra care and attention should be, and would be, devoted to the upkeep of the tomb of Cyrus, describing the maintenance “a strategic necessity.

Mehrnaz Samimi is a journalist and simultaneous interpreter based in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @MehrnazSamimi