By Karim Sadjadpour
January 5, 2003
I published this piece on National
Geographic's website recently
(December 31). I thought iranian.com readers might like to read
It was over two years ago, in the summer of 2001,
when I first and last
visited Bam. To get there I crossed southern Iran on a 12-hour
through twisting mountains from Shiraz to Kerman (see map
capital city of the region where Bam is located. The region's
inhabitants -- known as Kermanis -- have a reputation in Iran
pleasant people. I found this especially true in Bam, which is
120 dusty miles (190 kilometers) southeast of Kerman.
The date palms and lemon trees that dotted Bam
gave it a peaceful air,
a combination of tropical and desert. The pace of life was slow,
the town's people all seemed to know one another. Strangers
on the streets in the traditional Iranian manner -- heads slightly
and hands on their hearts -- and said khosh amadi, welcome.
While Bam's population had outgrown its ancient
confines, the original
Old City and its grand citadel -- Arg-e Bam, as Iranians call
it -- remained
the soul of this Silk Road city. Bam was founded some 1,800 years
during Iran's Sassanid Empire. The city was at its peak
from about A.D.
1500 to 1700, under the Safavid dynasty.
Bam maintained its rugged grandeur despite being
intermittently controlled or raided throughout the centuries
by Arabs, Turks,
Afghans. Iranians finally gained control of it once and for all
late 18th century.
The city was subsequently abandoned, however.
It wasn't until the
mid-20th century that authorities in Tehran realized they were
possession of a cultural jewel.
After-Hours in the Citadel
I remember vividly the first time I saw Arg-e Bam. My congenial
driver, Mohsen -- a father of five who hailed from the Baluchi
southeast Iran -- insisted that we approach the Old City from
little-used side road that provided the most dramatic vista.
As if to provide a soundtrack to the video I was
recording, Mohsen inserted a cassette. Suddenly there was the
sound of beating drums,
accompanied by a deep voice chanting Iran's national poem, Shahnameh (the Epic of Kings). The sudden appearance of the majestic mud-brick
complex against the stark desert backdrop was indeed like something
of a film.
By the time we arrived at the entrance gate, the
walled city had closed
early for the evening. Before I could turn back, Mohsen told
a family friend, that I was a visitor from far away. He agreed
I thanked Mohsen and attempted to pay him for
his services, but he
refused my money and insisted on coming with me. He had grown
outside the Old City and wanted to show me firsthand the fortress
he had played as a child.
Together we explored the Old City's interior,
which contained, among
other things, a bazaar, a mosque, a synagogue, military barracks,
horse stables. All these were made of mud and straw and remained
We climbed to the top of the citadel and watched
as the sun fell on the
red horizon and the sky filled with stars. "I've
been here hundreds of
times," Mohsen said quietly. "But I will never grow
tired of this
"No One Will Bother You Here"
One visit was not enough. I awoke the next morning at dawn to see
Bam in the morning light.
It was then that I met Ali Agha, a longtime Bam
guide, whose white hair
and moustache contrasted sharply with his walnut skin. He welcomed
to tag along as he escorted a small group of Iranian expatriates
Ali Agha was a proud father of 4 and had 11 grandchildren.
He beamed when telling us that one of his daughters had become
many years of guiding people up and down the steps of the citadel
was, despite his age, more fit than any of us.
Every so often Ali Agha would pick a spot among
the many courtyards and
terraces of the citadel and sing an old Kermani folk song or
acoustics inside the Old City, he told us, rivaled that of any
hall in Iran.
Tourism had slowed down in Iran after the Islamic
revolution in 1979.
On some days visitors could explore the citadel almost in solitude.
After we had walked high enough and were hidden among the twists
turns of mud brick, Ali Agha turned a sympathetic eye to a young
French-Iranian woman from our group. In the summer sun, she was
at her government-mandated head scarf. "Be comfortable," he
reassuring her it was OK to take off her roosari. "No one
Ancient Iranian empires had first built the fortress
in order to guard
against outside aggressors. In some ways, I thought, it had never
its original intent.
After I left Iran I always recalled
Bam fondly. I dreamed of one day
taking my family and friends to meet Bam's gracious people,
mouth-watering fruits, and of course explore its awe-inspiring
citadel.I remembered the ords of a French backpacker I encountered
in Bam who
had been traveling overland from China to Turkey. She was at a
explain why Bam had been the highlight of her travels so far, trumping
India's Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. "There
was a magic I
felt inside that citadel," she said "that I've
never felt anywhere
When I first heard the news of the earthquake,
I immediately thought of
Mohsen, Ali Agha, and their families. I had kept their telephone
numbers and thought of calling them. As the magnitude of the
devastation began to be reported, however, I feared the worst.
News reports eventually trickled out that everyone who lived
in the vicinity of the Old City -- including curators and guides
citadel -- had been buried under the rubble.
It is tough to picture the charming little town
now obliterated, nearly
half of its inhabitants wiped out. The death of 10 people as
of natural disaster is a great calamity. What do you call the
tens of thousands?
While the human catastrophe can never be remedied,
renowned archaeologists and curators have vowed to help restore
citadel to its former glory. And just as Bam's citadel inspired
travelers from all corners of the world, the global outpouring
and support for Bam's earthquake victims is a testament
interconnectedness of human beings >>> Bam
benefit concert, Palo Alto, Saturday, January 10
Karim Sadjadpour, a former
associate producer at
nationalgeographic.com, is a visiting fellow at the American
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