of the centuries
Let's hope the Tatars won't
January 19, 2004
I have never seen Bam, but I cannot forget a dreamy
screen adaptation of Dino Buzzati's "The Desert of the Tatars".
The movie, a French production of the 1970s, was filmed on location.
The mud fortress and the old ruined city on the edge of a forbidding
steppe were the perfect setting for a tale of long-lost glories
of a declining empire and lives wasted waiting for an enemy that
was only an illusion -- or was it? After that movie, I always
wanted to visit this oasis in the desert, and we would have gotten
to it eventually during our voyages on the Iranian plateau, but
our plans were rudely interrupted by the Ayatollah, and it never
The city had prospered over the ages as an ancient
caravan stop. It also produced a brown gold that grew on trees,
no cup of Iranian tea could be sweet enough. The palm trees of
the oasis produced some of the sweetest dates, a treat as well
as a cash crop that made the powerful "khans", or clan
leaders, some of the wealthiest landowners in the country.
palm tree groves of Bam extended for miles, their majestic
trunks sustained by a complex and ancient irrigation infrastructure
which brought precious water to the desert from tens, if not
of kilometers away. This irrigation system, called "qanats",
is specific to the Iranian plateau (which extends into Afghanistan),
and goes back to the pre-Islamic era. Each qanat consists of
underground channel that carries the water from aquifers high
up in the mountains down into the plains. Each channel was connected
to the surface by sequences of regularly spaced maintenance
wells. Most of them extend for ten to twenty miles, but the longest
qanat in Iran is over 200 miles long; with some wells at the
headwater plunging down a third of a mile.
Each qanat is not
of traditional technology, but also a testimony to thousands
of years of continuous history, to the patience of the centuries.
The care and the maintenance of the qanat system required
highly skilled well diggers, whose traditional skills were transmitted
through the generations, and also to highly organized social
political structures. Conversely, the system always deteriorated
during times of political decay, war and anarchy, as was
often the case in Iran's turbulent history.
Cities are the greatest achievement of mankind.
They were the first expression of civilization, a testimony to
of our ancestors.
The great cities of the past, from the earliest settlements
in Mesopotamia to the great capitals of Europe were not
of technology, but also social organization and political
power. And have you noticed how cities are always in the right
How did cities end up at there?
Cities were built with
bricks and stones, mortar and wood or steel, but they were built
on geography, on trade, with the life and death of generations
that toiled, loved and played, dreamt and prayed, traveled
and learned. They were built with the patience of centuries,
wars, plagues, fires, earthquakes and destruction. But
rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt. They were built not
just along rivers
or by the sea, or in the middle of fertile plains and
valleys, but often in the middle of the desert, just like Bam.
Bam was built on the edge of one of the most forbidding landscapes
in the world. If it had endured for so long, it is because it was
the right place, a stop on of the great trunk roads in history,
the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a key artery of a world that was
just as globalized as ours, only slower. Caravans plied goods and
travelers, ideas and new worlds from one end of Asia to the other.
Bam was two thousand years old, its adobe architecture and buildings
made to outlast the desert. For the weary caravan approaching
the city, its sight must have been a relief, its fortress, thirty
guard towers and mud walls standing guard against the bandits,
rogue tribes and invaders, its palm groves and gardens a paradise
where they could relieve the thirst of a desert crossing. Before
its destruction, you could probably stand there and hear the
clamor of centuries past, and that is what it made it so compelling.
last man-made disaster was the blinding of all of its population
in the late 18th century by the Qajar eunuch-king, who made
the people of Bam pay for their support of a rival prince. The
of twentieth century civilization marred its stark beauty with
a non-descript modern town springing along the old one, but
the spirit of the ages lived on. And then came the terrible earthquake
of 2003, which destroyed the city, killing most of the population,
destroying its centuries-old fortress, its palm groves and
While me mourn the dead and the lost treasures, we have to
wonder whether or not Bam will be rebuilt. The city will die
the palm trees and the palm trees will die without the qanats.
money and the technology to rebuild the streets and homes, and
even the qanats are there. Bam is also a recognized world treasure,
and that will help. But one wonders, in this impatient age, whether
the patience of the centuries will be there, whether what will
come out will not just be a sham, a disfigured reincarnation
of the Bam that once was. Let's hope the Tatars won't
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