Stage 6 – Iran: Classical Persia [2/3]
The first stage of my journey through classical Persia had taken me along some of the country’s major transport arteries and through the more recent layers of Iran’s rich history; the contemporary sub-culture of the big cities, the Qajar (18th century) capital, the Safavid (16th century) splendour of Esfahan, and the shrines and monuments of earlier dynasties of the Islamic era spread out on the old Silk Road to the pilgrim city of Mashhad. This second stage would take me deeper into the country; heading off the main roads and into the Zagros Mountains of western Iran and beyond to the borders of Mesopotamia. It would also take me deeper into the past; to pre-Islamic bas-reliefs, the glorious cities of the Achaemenids, the tombs of Old-Testament prophets, and further back to a point in time where the story of Persia is intertwined with that of the world’s very earliest civilisations. It would also take me away from the Persian heartlands and into areas inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and a host of other non-Iranian minorities. It would show me a very different side to the country, yet as always in Iran, the warmth, generosity and character of the people were running themes.
It’s the 10th December 2007, and having left Kashan the previous evening, I am driving west from the central axis of Iran, up onto the undulating plateaus of the Zagros Mountains, into a cold, dry land of ploughed brown fields and distant snowcapped mountains. I stop in Hamadan, which is perched at a frigid altitude of over 1,850m. The modern city is built upon the far older city of Ecbatana, an old Persian capital, of which virtually nothing remains. Near the central bazaar is the intriguing and slightly forlorn mausoleum of the Old-Testament prophets Esther and Mordecai. The matter of Jews in Iran is quite a contentious issue. The current government promotes Zionists as the absolute embodiment of evil, and endless anti-Zionist propaganda occupies the news channels. At the same time, though far less vehemently, the regime stresses that they clearly separate Zionists from other Jews, with whom (in accordance with equality of all ‘rightly guided’ religion in the Qur’an) they have no quarrel. Yet deep-rooted anti-Semitism (present here as it is in Europe), mean that many Iranians aren’t quite sure where they stand in relation to Jews.
In Mashhad the previous month, whilst having tea with Reza, a friend of Pouria’s, in his family’s home, I had shown some photos, including a couple of shots from Auschwitz, in Poland. Later in the evening, Reza’s uncle, a supporter of the government, had telephoned to tell me that the Holocaust was ‘not true’, reasoning that it would not be possible for him to single-handedly kill six million people in three years. I would frequently be asked by Iranians – of all political and religious persuasions – if I ‘believed’ in the Holocaust. On the other side – and there is always an ‘other’ side when talking about Iranian society – I have met many Iranians who sympathise far more with Jews than with Palestinian Arabs for example. The Jews have after all played a role in Persian history; it was Cyrus the Great who freed the Jews from Babylon in 539 BC. The shrine is locked, and there is nobody inside the perimeter fence, outside of which the morning bustle of modern Hamadan is unfolding obliviously. There are certainly no crowds of Jewish shrine-visitors clamouring to enter. Iran’s tiny Jewish population generally keeps a very low profile.
The city is also the resting place of the 11th century Turkic polymath Abu Ali Ibn Sina, better known in the west as Avicenna, born near Bukhara and famous for his treatises on philosophy and particularly medicine. His Book of Healing was a standard medical text in Europe until the Renaissance. Contemplating such a figure, I’m struck by just how advanced the Islamic world was, in terms of mathematics and medicine for instance, when compared to Europe 1,000 years ago, and how the great empires of the region; of the Persians, and the Arabs, connected the vast tracts of land through which I have been travelling for the last six months into a single political unit. This golden age of the Islamic world, through figures such as Avicenna provided much of the scientific impetus for the Renaissance in Europe.
Despite such a long history, Hamadan is a far cry from the aesthetic splendour of Esfahan, and by lunchtime I’m on the move again. I’m heading south-west, on what must have been an important transport artery for millennia. Today it is part of the pilgrim route to the city of Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, the holiest city for Shi’as after Mecca and Medina, and tantalizingly off-limits to me, located in modern-day Iraq. But earlier, it was the road connecting the empires of Media (whose capital was Ecbatana, modern Hamadan) and Babylon. It is on this route that one finds one of the most important sites of Persian history, at the small town of Bisotun. On the sheer face of a limestone cliff, high above the road and valley floor is a large bas-relief depicting the Achaemenid king Darius and his entourage. Executed in roughly 500 BC, the site is notable for a trilingual cuneiform inscription – in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian – which makes the site the cuneiform analogue of the Rosetta Stone, allowing historians to unlock the meaning of Old Persian inscriptions across the region.
Overlooking the history, the region today feels something of a backwater, and is noticeably less modern than the central areas of Iran from which I have just come. This is often the case in Iran when one enters regions inhabited by minorities. The whole far-western corridor along the borders with south-eastern Turkey and north-eastern Iraq has a largely Kurdish population, and the city of Kermanshah, where I meet my Kurdish host Abdollah, is the world’s largest Kurdish city. It would theoretically be the capital of an independent Kurdistan, though few Kurds that I have ever met hold any serious expectations of seeing such an entity.
Abdollah, my Kurdish host in Kermanshah, is the youngest of ten children, and his family are exceptionally generous and welcoming. They live in very similar circumstances to other Iranians, in a typically Iranian home; warm and comfortable and relatively free of furniture, from a preference to relaxing and taking meals on the carpeted floor. To look at there are no very obvious differences between Abdollah and his family, and other Persians, and the names of two of his brothers, Hussein and Ali are very typical Persian (Shi’ite) names which would normally be less common among Sunnis. I’m the first foreigner that most of the family members have met, and I’m treated to a typical Persian meal of grilled chicken and rice (Iranians prize high quality rice, and it is customary to serve it to a guest). Abdollah’s uncle asks me a string of very typical questions; Am I a Christian? What do you think about Palestine? What do your maps show for Palestine and Israel? What do you think of Mr Ahmedinejad? The family seems very closely assimilated into Persian society, something which is not always the case for Kurdish Iranians, as I would find out in 2009.
Abdollah shows me another bas-relief, at Taq-e Bostan, in the city. It shows a fine Sassanid (the last pre-Islamic dynasty, who ruled Iran from the 3rd to 7th centuries) depiction of what is most likely king Ardeshir I and his son Shapur I standing over the dead body of the last Parthian king, Artabanus IV, watched over by the Zoroastrian God Izad. I always laugh to myself when Americans visiting Europe gape in awe at 800-year-old churches. Here it was my turn; I was looking at artwork relating to an epoch of history which took place 1,781 years ago, far beyond the recorded history of my native country. But I was about to delve even deeper into history.
From Kermanshah I crest the final passes of the Zagros Mountains and wind down from the freezing highlands through low, dry hills of bare trees and crennelated ridgelines, into the south-western province of Ilam, which derives its name from the ancient civilization of Elam. The land falls and flattens further as I drop off the Iranian Plateau and into a wide, open landscape of small dry hills, deeply incised river valleys and badlands. I stop in the evening in the small border town of Mehran, where Iranian oil tankers are waiting in long lines to enter Iraq. It’s a pleasant, though nondescript place, but what strikes me immediately is how different it is from the rest of the country. The air is warm and damp, and the streets are lined with palm trees. Mixed in with the soft tones of Persian are the harder, guttural notes of Arabic. I’m on the edge of the Arab world, just 10km from the Iraqi frontier and 180km from Baghdad.
In the morning I’m driving south through a landscape which is reminiscent not of the Iranian plateau, but of the Levantine valleys of Jordan and Palestine around the Dead Sea. The long, black tents of Arab nomads and occasional small clumps of date palms complete the scene. The temperature is balmy, hovering in the low 20ºCs, very welcome after the sub-zero temperatures of the mountains. I’m immediately impressed as I enter the Iranian province of Khuzestan, which is clearly very different from anywhere I have yet been on the trip.
I stop in Shush (Susa), a sleepy little town which one would never guess to be one of the world’s longest-inhabited settlements, hosting millennia of successive Iranian dynasties. As far back as 4,000 BC the forerunners of the Elamites established their culture on the Karun River around the city. The Achaemenids decorated Susa as richly as Persepolis, specifically with the vast Apadana Palace, which was built by Darius the Great. Sadly, it has been sacked and destroyed over the aeons and many of its treasures lie in European museums. Today, Shush is a bustling market town. I notice a considerable Arab population here; wearing red or black-checked keffiyeh or elegant cream tunics. I stay with 17-year-old Reza and his family, whom I meet in an internet café by chance. Far away from the clamour and pollution of Iran’s big cities, Shush feels like a warm, pleasant hideaway.
Each night I am taken by Reza’s family to the houses of different relatives, in Shush and nearby Dezful, where heaps of delicious Iranian food are piled up; chicken, fine rice from the Caspian region, stews, and kebabs. Each night I seemed to eat until I could barely stand up. This is the legendary Iranian hospitality which can delay a traveller for days. Reza’s family are middle class, not rich, but not poor. They were religious, though not fundamental, and traditional. Iranians are very traditional people, usually more so than they are religious people. They have a strong feeling of Iraniyyat which could clumsily be translated as ‘Iranian-ness’ and hospitality to strangers is part of this. I suspect this is rooted in their nomadic origins, in the days of the wandering Aryan tribes, where hospitality was an essential part of life. Reza’s family make me feel deeply at home, and at times, I get the impression that in their eyes it is me who is doing them a favour, staying in their house, eating their food, meeting their family friends. They remain one of my fondest memories of Iran.
Near to Shush is one of Iran’s more remarkable ancient monuments, the Elamite ziggurat of Choqa Zanbil. Like much of ancient Persian history (which was only re-discovered or re-interpreted with the arrival of Europeans in Persia in the 19th and 20th centuries) Choqa Zanbil was re-discovered by French oil prospectors in the 1930s. The ziggurat, which was built in around 1,250 BC in honour of the great Elamite god Inshushinak, is a huge square-based tiered pyramid, originally having five tiers, but today only three. In places there are original inscriptions in cuneiform, the world’s first alphabet, over 3,000 years old and still clearly visible.
Back in Shush, with Reza one afternoon, he takes me to meet one of his teachers, Mr Saeed Dabaat, who is an Iranian Arab. Mr Dabaat looks strikingly different from Persians, with darker skin, curled black hair and more clearly Semitic features. He wears a fine, off-white kaftan with an embroidered maroon and black collar. He takes us to see an area of nearby land which had been a battleground in the eight-year war with Iraq, and has been preserved, or rather left untouched, ever since the war’s end in 1988. The place is called Fath al-Mobin, or ‘Place of Victory’. The scars in the land are powerful testament to the war; cratered, strung with barbed wire, trenches and tanks and other twisted wreckage. A busload of weeping visitors had arrived from Tehran, making the thousand kilometre trip perhaps just to visit such sites of mourning.
Following Khomeini’s takeover of the 1979 revolution, one of his first actions was to purge the Shah’s old army, particularly of high-ranking generals, leaving the Iranian armed forces in a very weak position. All the country’s experienced military leaders were either dead or in permanent exile. Seizing an opportunity to settle a long-held territorial dispute with Iran, Saddam Hussein, with the support of the USA (in the days before he fell foul of the CIA) and a number of European powers, launched an invasion of Iran. A long, bloody war ensued, frighteningly similar to the First World War in a number of respects; trench warfare, poison gas, the slaughter of wave-upon-wave of young men, and very little in the way of territorial advancement. The West, who armed both sides, criticised Khomeini’s use of child soldiers (including suicide bombers) and many blame Khomeini for needlessly prolonging the war by three years.
The Iran-Iraq War is a tremendously important influence in modern-day Iran. The memories of the war, whether it be direct battlefield experience, growing up in cities under attack from Iraqi bombs and missiles, losing relatives, or simply seeing television images of the horrors of this war of attrition sit heavily on the Iranian soul. Many Iranians are opposed to the current clerical regime, in direct ideological opposition, or simply feeling they are poor citizens in what ought to be one of the world’s richest countries. But far, far fewer Iranians are prepared to risk another revolution and see a repeat of the chaos, bloodshed and meddling by foreign powers which followed the ‘Islamic’ Revolution of 1979. Iranians feel particular bitterness at how their country – once the darling of the western powers – was suddenly left out for cold by the international community. The government, of course, makes great use of these wounds, and the shaheed, or ‘martyrs’ of the war are one of their most powerful tools of propaganda and rhetoric. Pictures of teenage soldiers killed in the war are literally everywhere in urban Iran. Streets, districts, metro stations, bridges, stadiums – just about anything – may be named in connection with the martyrs. Martyrdom plays a very central role in Shi’ite tradition, and the shaheed are used at every instant to keep the wounds of the war fresh.
Mr Dabaat has his own tragic story to relate in regard to the war, though his is rather different from that of most Iranians. It must be remembered that as an Arab, Mr Dabaat is a Sunni Muslim, and therefore religiously at-odds with the hardline Shi’a government. There is also a tendency in Persians of looking-down upon Arabs. It’s not surprising therefore to find that Mr Dabaat felt a second-class citizen in his own country. He was desperate to leave, anywhere, anyhow. “I do not want my children to grow up in this country” he said to me, matter-of-factly. Whilst having tea in his comfortable family home, he showed me the video of Saddam Hussein’s recent hanging, which he found deeply tasteless. Tears welled behind his eyes. This was not out of any affection for Saddam, a man who had relentlessly bombed and attacked this region of Iran during the war, but a far more personal reason, which he confided in me. “My uncle and grandfather fought in the war, for Iran. They were loyal; they had no sympathies for the Iraqi Arabs. One day, a Persian soldier, alongside whom they fought, pointed a finger and accused them of being Iraqi ‘spies’. They were later both executed, shot dead”. Mr Dabaat was one of a number of people whom I met on my trip who had suffered for who he was, for what he believed, at the hands of his own government. I found it difficult to even relate to his experience. I can’t imagine what emotions of hate, of anger might be in my mind were I to be in his shoes. But he was a calm, kind, warm man, whom I liked deeply. He would do anything to get his family out of Iran, even if it meant living five years in the US away from a beautiful wife and two young children in order to obtain foreign residence.
Sadly, Mr Dabaat’s story has taken a tragic twist. Just over a year after my visit, he was arrested, beaten and imprisoned by the Iranian authorities for speaking against the government. Once released, he fled the country. It seems that in retaliation the authorities paid a visit to his family, and may have raped his wife. Mr Dabaat is currently a refugee in Denmark, hoping to get the rest of his family out of Iran.
I stayed over a week with Reza and his family in the relaxing warmth of Khuzestan. As I left the family home, Reza’s mother held a copy of the Qur’an in the air, under which I passed whilst she said a prayer to wish me a safe onward journey. It was difficult to part with a family I had become so close to.
I continued further south to the capital of Khuzestan, Ahvaz, where after purchasing two shock-absorbers for the car from a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of used Toyota truck-parts, the two Arab brothers Razi and Nasser, who run the shop, immediately invite me to the family home for a delicious lunch of kebabs. Neither speak English, and my Persian is extremely limited at this stage, so it’s even more touching that they have invited me out of sheer kindness to an absolute stranger. The house is fairly standard by Iranian measures, but the dynamic of the family is slightly different – less European – with the men eating separately, reclining and shouting for the women to bring food, drink and all other accoutrements for the meal. I leave feeling very full; something I was beginning to realise was (happily) an inevitable part of being a foreign traveller in this region.
Beyond Ahvaz, the road becomes arrow-straight as it tracks the Iraqi border, with spiny acacia trees on one side and eucalypts on the other. The air becomes thicker as I near the Persian Gulf, a white haze at midday, turning to a warm pale blue in the afternoon as the sun softens. To the west, a vast expanse of beautiful deep-blue water appears, and to the east is a sea of lush green reeds, chattering with birds. I have entered the eastern edge of the great wetlands around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where they combine to form the Shatt al-Arab, better known as the Marshes of Iraq.
The road and the border-demarcation meet the Shatt al-Arab close to the port city of Abadan, in the far south-western corner of Iran. The city lacks the historical significance of Shush, or Hamadan, but it’s a clean and pleasant place. Arabic seems to be the language on the street, and the city feels more cosmopolitan than any other I’ve visited so far in Iran. Large American cars stand out against the normal background of Iranian-made Kias and Peugeots, and some of the affluent suburbs of the city look startlingly like suburban America – with spacious detached houses set in well-maintained lawns. In other parts of the city, whitewashed houses with sloping terracotta-tiled roofs hint at a long-gone colonial Portuguese influence. There is even a well-kept Armenian church in the city centre. With this cosmopolitanism comes a cast of eccentric characters, beautiful girls, and a far less authoritarian atmosphere than the cities further inland.
At the city port, (which lies on the river rather than on the Persian Gulf, which is still more than sixty kilometres away) I watch the fleet of simple wooden boats, modern versions of the ancient dhows of the Indian Ocean, motoring up and down the river, off-loading goods and setting off once more for ports of the Gulf States and Oman. Beyond the far shore stretch the palm-dotted plains of Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia, embroiled in war and sadly off-limits. My brush with this area, where civilisations first came to bear, where humans began to stop living like animals, and form modern societies, left a lasting impression.