If you travel a hundred miles or so eastwards out of Isfahan, through a landscape of pink-coloured mountains and desert wastes inhabited by strange willowy trees and clumps of yellow grass, you come inexorably to the ancient city of Nain.
Situated on the very edge of the great Kavir desert, Nain was once an important station on the Silk Road. Today, however, the concrete cubes of Modernity have lent it an air of apathy and neglect. Only the magnificent fortress of Nareen Ghaleh, towering over the city like a broken tooth, still speaks proudly of a rich and illustrious past.
But Nain has secrets not disclosed to the casual visitor. On the main road leading to the centre is a low sandy hillside, honey-combed with countless caverns. Black holes stare out at you as you pass. Misshapen doorways like yawning entrances to mine shafts, invite you to descend (if you are willing) into the very bowels of the earth.
These are not the remnants of settlements long since abandoned. These caves are inhabited by a remarkable community of weavers, carrying on a tradition that goes back centuries. The hollow hills of Nain have echoed to the sound of their looms for generations. Now, the intermittent click of a shuttle is all that is heard. For the subterranean workshops are falling silent. An ancient way of life is fast passing away.
Entering one of the caves, I descend a number of steps into the interior. The temperature is at least 15 degrees cooler than outside. There are no lamps. No windows. The entrance is the only source of light, and I have to consider each step I make carefully in order to avoid stumbling.
A few moments later, the darkness peels away to reveal a narrow chamber chiselled out of honey-coloured rock. It is so crude and primitive that I can barely distinguish the walls from the ceiling. In the amber light from the doorway, the contents of the cavern seem to float on air.
On each side of a paved walkway are sunken pits, clean-cut and rectangular, each one holding a hand loom in some state of decay. Ill-placed sacks of wool, together with various wooden implements, lie scattered on the floor. Yellow plastic bags peer out from behind almost every object.
Sitting below me in one of the pits is Abbas, a small, elderly man with a gentle smile. The irregularities of his stubble and the dilapidation of his clothes are evident. He sits at a horizontal hand loom that has hardly changed since Biblical times. I cannot see his legs, which are hidden permanently under the loom machinery. His socks (and vest) are slung unceremoniously over the loom opposite him, and he sits on a small pile of plastic bags.
He is the very last weaver in this cave. The last of a long line. At one time (he tells me) there were twelve of them here. Now nine have died, and two are sick. He too has submitted to the inevitability of his fate. He is fast approaching the end of his strength, he admits. And when he dies, there will be no-one left to carry on.
He smiles, revealing the remnants of some teeth, and invites me to feel the material he is weaving. It is an abaa, a loose sleeveless garment made from camel's wool, worn by Moslem clerics. It is as stiff and rough as a kitchen rug and the same colour as the Qashkai sheep I had seen wandering around outside. You can buy the very same garments in Yazd, he informs me. But there they use powered looms. He sighs, and reaches for a sack of wool beside him.
Once, he continues, everyone in the city lived underground. It was cool down here in summer and warm in winter. This particular cave has been inhabited for thousands of years.
As he talks, he takes out a short stick and places it into a hole in the side of his loom: a handle with which he can rack up the warp threads that are held parallel to each other under tension. He slides the shuttle backwards and forwards between them, his movements almost mechanical. He could be doing this in his sleep. And his mind seems distant somehow, very far away
I want to ask about his family, whether he has children, where he lives…but it seems too intrusive. So I fall silent and begin playing with a completed garment lying nearby.
From the wall, two faded pictures of Hazrat Ali stare down at me oddly, their edges rough and serrated from when they had been unceremoniously torn from some magazine. Further back I catch sight of another loom, the warp already set up for work, but abandoned months, maybe years, earlier. No longer white or tight, the wool has darkened to an unhealthy yellow shade, and dust has settled decidedly upon it.
Abbas had begun his working life out in the cotton fields (he tells me) but soon decided that back-breaking labour was not for him. He was small and slight, and had developed some vague, unidentified illness. So he decided to join the weavers underground. “I put the noose firmly about my own neck,” he jokes.
When he was young, the work was easy. And sixty years later he is still here doing it. But now he gets tired easily. Sometimes he is so exhausted he lies down on the floor of his cave until the cold filters into his bones. Then he goes out to warm himself in the sun.
He has no-one to talk to here. No-one to tell. Despite the winning smiles, it is evident his life has long since been shipwrecked on some personal sorrow.
At intervals, he produces a hard bristle brush from beneath his seat and starts to comb the underside of the fabric he has woven. Sometimes he stops to choose a small spool of wool, no larger than a bobbin of thread, and places it into his metal shuttle. Then the whole process starts up once more.
Without any warning, he suddenly begins to tell me of his youth: of playing outside in the fields as a boy, of a good friend who had rescued him from drowning, of a mysterious dream his mother had once had. Even now, six decades after the facts, the stories are bright and vivid for him as when they had first occurred. And I begin to realize he has entered a labyrinth of memories from which there is no exit.
I stand and listen, carried away by the tide of his tales. In the music and cadences of his voice, I recognize a serenity and dignity that has all but passed away from the world: a dignity not bestowed by wealth or privilege or birth.
I carry it all away with me in my head, this private vision of a natural aristocracy living quietly in villages all over Iran: all those who have remained loyal to the land and traditions of their ancestors, but are able to look the modern world that is coming to destroy them squarely in the face, without flinching. They are all around me, I realize: those static, wary men I had seen scuttling through the cotton fields and the ravaged, tireless women bent double over their crops.
I walk back up the stairs into the bright sunshine carrying my personal revelation with me, larger somehow and more human than when I first entered.
The Nareen Ghaleh is a magnificent pre-Islamic fortress with walls up to 40 metres high. Its exact function has not yet been ascertained. It has not been documented by UNESCO. Some parts of it are used as a rubbish dump by locals.
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