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 happened.
The city had prospered over the ages as an ancient caravan stop. It also produced a brown gold that grew on trees, without which 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.
The 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 hundreds 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 an 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 extant 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 only a marvel 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 and political structures. Conversely, the system always deteriorated during times of political decay, war and anarchy, as was so 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 the genius of our ancestors. The great cities of the past, from the earliest settlements in Mesopotamia to the great capitals of Europe were not just marvels of technology, but also social organization and political power. And have you noticed how cities are always in the right place? How did cities end up at there?
Cities were built with bricks and stones, mortar and wood or steel, but they were built on ideas, 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, enduring wars, plagues, fires, earthquakes and destruction. But they 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 eight 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.
Its 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 march 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 its qanats.
While me mourn the dead and the lost treasures, we have to wonder whether or not Bam will be rebuilt. The city will die without the palm trees and the palm trees will die without the qanats. The 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 win.