At first Sa’adat-Shahr seemed like any other rural village in Iran. This agricultural town of 16,000 sits amid an oasis of fruit trees and grape vines but the buildings and walls of brown and grey blend with the stark landscape of Iran’s southern desert. The passion of the citizens of Sa’adat-Shahr, however, is anything but typical. As we approached the town’s main intersection we were startled to behold a huge sign declaring – first in English and then in Farsi – “We welcome the arrival of the astronomers of the USA and Germany to our city.” This was just the beginning of an incredible day full of surprises. This most unusual small town in Iran is devoted to astronomy.

We had heard that many of the residents of Sa’adat-Shahr (pronounced sah-ah-dat-shawr) were interested in astronomy and that they were building an observatory. That seemed unusual enough but we weren’t prepared for the reception we would receive, not just from a small group of amateur astronomers but from the entire town. The educational center we were conducted to was adorned with another welcoming sign, this one placed by the local bazaari, the town’s business people. An excited crowd formed around us as we passed through the center’s courtyard and into a hall of perhaps 300 seats that quickly filled to standing room only. Seated in the front row, we were surrounded by photographers, autograph seekers and the curious. We learned later that our hosts from Tehran had nixed the townspeople’s plan to show their respect by slaughtering a cow in front of us. It was a great honor, to be sure, but something we were not prepared for (especially the vegetarians among us).

Opening ceremonies – begun shortly after the town’s important figures were escorted in – included a film depicting an array of natural and religious events, many of them astronomical. This is the Iranian way of thanking God for the wonders of this world and beyond at the beginning of important public gatherings. We had first seen this Islamic gratitude for important celestial events in 1999 when we heard prayer throughout the total solar eclipse (except during totality when the faithful rose to witness the event that had inspired their gratefulness). I was introduced and ushered to a podium adorned with the Iranian flag and a large photo of President Khatami for a presentation prepared by members of my local astronomy club, the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. As at previous presentations, the audience was curious about amateur projects in the US, amateur-professional cooperation and whether or not a government agency provides funding for amateur astronomy activities. Finally, as television cameras rolled, we were gathered on-stage and presented with gifts, local crafts and plaques commemorating our visit. We were true celebrities and genuinely welcome guests in Sa’adat-Shahr.

But the day was hardly over. After a pleasant lunch – we are fed continuously everywhere in Iran – we visited the construction site of the local observatory on a hillside a few hundred feet above the town. The road to the observatory through the outlying area of Ali Abad was lined with welcoming signs and a passage from the Koran related to the sky adorned a wall in English, Farsi (Persian) and the original Arabic. From the observatory’s hilltop location the view of the town with its orchards and vineyards surrounded by desert is striking. The tents and herds of a nomad encampment were seen on the slopes below. The 10-foot dome atop a small building is being readied for a Celestron 11-inch telescope. Sa’adat-Shahr doesn’t appear to be a town that could easily support such an endeavor but the funds for this project come not from the local government but from the residents, including women who sold their jewelry to help out. This was the greatest surprise – that this project is so important to the entire town, not just a minority with a particular interest in astronomy.

This rural town produces little light pollution and there are no other light sources nearby. Still, the astronomers will sometimes request the help of the town in dimming lights when a public star party is scheduled. The local government gave its assistance for one particularly important event – they simply cut the electricity to the entire town. This was an exception but it shows the unprecedented commitment to astronomy that this town has made.

Astronomy is integrated into the lifestyle of this small town. In Iranian mosques, noon prayer is followed by a short break and then the afternoon prayers, leaving the rest of the afternoon until sundown free for other activities. The time between prayers may be filled with religious commentary or other lectures. Celestial phenomena have always been a part of the teachings of Islam, as evidenced by the many important Islamic astronomers and other scientists of centuries past. But in Sa’adat-Shahr it has become much more. Here there are often astronomical slide shows in the mosque between prayers. I was surprised to hear that I had been scheduled to speak in the mosque between prayers but we had arrived later than planned and the noon services could not wait since they must begin at local apparent noon (when the Sun is at its highest point in the sky). Interesting astronomical events, such as the current planetary grouping, are announced by the prayer leader in the mosque to encourage people to go to the observatory site where portable telescopes are set up. The schools are also used to spread the word from teacher to pupils.

Asghar Kabiri is one such teacher. Now 33 years old, he has been an amateur astronomer for 18 years. But he is more than an interested teacher and amateur astronomer in Sa’adat-Shahr. Quiet and unassuming, he is one of the most active amateurs and popularizers of astronomy in Iran and the driving force behind his hometown’s astronomical activities. He has almost single-handedly lifted the citizenry’s eyes upward to the heavens, first through the schools and then through the town elders. In 2001, largely through Asghar’s efforts, the first national gathering of amateur astronomers ever held in Iran took place at the meeting hall in Sa’adat-Shahr. Asghar will be participating in a US-based international program of astronomy education, Permission to Dream (, bringing more hands-on astronomy to the young people of this town. As we have traveled Iran, enthusiasm has been the hallmark of those involved in astronomy. Nowhere is this exemplified more than by Asghar Kabiri and his town of Sa’adat-Shahr.

The author addresses a crowd in the meeting hall of the town’s educational center. Town leaders and television reporters are seated in front of the women’s side of the auditorium.

The town leaders listening to the author’s presentation. Asghar Kabiri, the teacher that has spearheaded the town’s astronomical activities, is seated far right (blue shirt, light pants).

A sign at the town’s main intersection welcomes the visitors to Sa’adat-Shahr.

A sundial in the courtyard of the educational center that uses a person as a gnomon. Welcoming signs are seen on the auditorium’s wall in the background.

A passage from the Koran painted on a wall along the road to the observatory in English, Farsi (Persian) and the original Arabic.

The town of Sa’adat-Shahr and surrounding irrigated fields as seen from the observatory site.

Townspeople and students in front of Sa’adat-Shahr’s observatory. Asghar Kabiri, teacher and leader in the project, is third from the left (blue shirt, light pants, directly behind the kneeling youth in the yellow shirt).

The author's wife, Sherri Simmons, is greeted by one of the schools that presented handmade crafts and commemorative plaques to the foreign visitors.

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