TEHRAN — Deep in the pit, liberated from its tomb beneath a thick slab of concrete, lay a mud-colored mummy. It was discovered near the shrine to a Shiite saint, Shah Abdol Azim, where kings and noblemen have been laid to rest. An excavator working nearby suddenly fell silent, and workers could be heard crying out in amazement.
Had this been Cairo, it would hardly have merited a mention in the local news media. But while Egypt is known for its mummies, Iran certainly is not. Here, the dead are buried in loose white cloth, and the bodies quickly decompose.
The operator of the excavator snapped a selfie with the mummified corpse last month and posted it on social media, where it spawned an enticing theory that spread widely: The remains must be those of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Cossack Brigade officer whom the British helped install as shah in 1925, beginning a family dynasty that lasted 54 years.
The excavator driver was brought in for questioning, family members told foreign-based satellite channels. Some people even said he had been arrested, but this could not be independently verified.
The excitement built as news of the mummy spread across the country, becoming a popular rallying point against Iran’s clerical government and quickly setting off alarms in high places. People started gathering at the shrine, calling out for Reza Shah. One video shows supporters of the Tehran soccer club Persepolis shouting, “Long live Reza Shah” during a game.
Persian-language satellite channels operating from abroad heralded the discovery of the mummy as a sign that the Islamic republic’s days were numbered. Reza Shah’s grandson, the crown prince Reza Pahlavi, who lives in the Washington suburbs, wrote a statement calling for an independent investigation. In all corners of Iran, at supermarkets, bus stops, clinics or wherever, the return of the shah was hotly debated.
“This is Reza Shah, no doubt,” said Akbar, who was selling Islamic jewelry in the bazaar near the shrine and who refused to give his family name to an inquisitive foreigner whose intentions were unclear. “We Iranians are superstitious, and I personally believe his return is a message. That message is: ‘Correct the mess.’ ”
In recent months, Iran has had protests over the lagging economy and against compulsory Islamic head scarves. At the same time, President Trump has hinted he wants to revisit the Iran nuclear agreement, which many Iranians had hoped would put the country on a “normal” path.
Instead, Iranians are caught in a seemingly perpetual limbo. There is nostalgia for the days before the Islamic Revolution, when President Jimmy Carter came to Iran to meet with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi — the son of Reza Shah — instead of weapons experts haggling over nuclear centrifuges. Of course, there is also a bit of amnesia about the shah’s despotic tendencies, and the abuses by his secret police, the Savak, which fueled the uprising that overthrew him in 1979.
While the authorities refused to say whether the recent discovery was, in fact, the mummified remains of Reza Shah, many Iranians took the official reluctance, the location of the find and the virtual absence of mummies in the country as proof positive.
“It has to be him,” my Iranian mother-in-law cried out during a debate at the kitchen table. “We Iranians don’t do mummies.”
Their reasoning went like this: When Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his family hurriedly left Iran on a sunny January day in 1979 as the Islamic Revolution was gathering force, they left behind two long-deceased relatives. One, his brother, Prince Alireza Pahlavi, died in 1954 in a plane crash in the snowy Alborz Mountains of Iran and was buried at an unknown location.
But the grave site of his father, Reza Shah, who died in 1944, would have been hard to miss: an imposing mausoleum adjacent to the parrot garden where the excavator was digging last month.
Reza Shah ruled for nearly two decades. Many here call him the father of modern Iran, for single-handedly carrying a backward, mosquito-infested country into the 20th century. He went into exile in South Africa after being forced by the British and Soviets to abdicate in 1941 in favor of his son.
After his death in Johannesburg in 1944, his body was taken to Egypt, where it was mummified and where it stayed until 1950, when his remains were brought back to Iran.
The mausoleum where Reza Shah was laid to rest was inspired by Napoleon’s in Paris. Over 80 feet high, it rivals in size the shrine to Abdol Azim. But after the revolution, the firebrand cleric Sadegh Khalkhali, known as “the hanging judge” for ordering the execution of hundreds, had the mausoleum torn down. Reza Shah’s body was somehow lost.
“I remember when the revolutionaries started demolishing the mausoleum,” said Ali Zakeri, 72, who spends most of his days in the bazaar surrounding the Shah Abdol Azim shrine. “It was built so strong that after a whole day of hammering, they only managed to take three centimeters off,” he added, referring to a bit more than an inch.
It was a sunny spring day, and Mr. Zakeri and his friend were discussing the enhanced police presence that had accompanied the crowds swarming the normally peaceful area around the shrine, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mummy.
“When I saw the mummy, I knew this was Reza Shah,” said the friend, Farman Hemati, of the photograph that had circulated on social media. He was sitting next to a scale like those in old-fashioned arcades, where people could weigh themselves for the equivalent of 5 cents, although very few did.
He then proffered a theory as to why the mummy had generated such excitement.
“I lost most of my money after the revolution,” he said, adding that things in Iran had since gone downhill. “We need a strong leader, to set things straight here, someone like Reza Shah. The discovery of his body is a sign that change is coming.”
For Iran’s authorities, one thing was clear: The mummy, regardless of who was wrapped inside, couldn’t be in the public eye.
Measures were taken. Plainclothes officers started roaming the shrine, seeking out Reza Shah aficionados and sending them home. One recent evening, after a large group gathered, several people were arrested. The construction site where the mummy was found has been cordoned off and the excavator driver who took the selfie was questioned, family members have said.
Early on, Hassan Khalilabadi, the chairman of the cultural heritage committee of the Tehran City Council, floated in an interview with the semiofficial news agency ISNA the idea that the mummy could be Reza Shah’s. But such remarks from officialdom quickly disappeared from local news sites. The mummy was reburied or taken away. Or perhaps, as one official said, the whole thing was Photoshopped. From an official perspective, it never happened.
In a nearby teahouse, two men, Ali and Arash, were sucking on a water pipe, as state television droned on behind them. Ali said he was a representative for a condom brand, while Arash sold baby clothes. It was 11 a.m., but they were both already tired.
“Many things in the country are wrong,” said Ali, 32.
“Our moods are constantly shifting,” said Arash, 32.
They fell silent.
“Reza Shah will be the example of the strong man to come,” Ali concluded.
“I don’t think so,” Arash said. “We will again forget him, as we forget everything else.”