Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.

On the outskirts of a lesser-known central Iranian town, a natural marvel hides an ancient, mythological secret. Marco Ferrarese goes digging for clues. 

Breathing heavily, I set one foot in front of the other, dunking my heels into soft, cold sand. Above me, like a powerful light bulb hanging from the sky, the early spring sun reflects over 360 degrees of silent dunes.

The going is solitary and tough, but the sand breaks under my steps and supports me like a ladder, giving me the balance I need to keep climbing. I am resolute, and curious to see if this really is the marvel that buried an ancient civilization.

When I finally reach the top of the dune, pearls of cold sweat run down my spine and my vision blurs. I need to sit down and rest. Slowly, my eyes readjust to a new world of shimmering, undulating ochre sand, beautifully arranged before me as far as I can see.