Past And Present In The Islamic Republic

Sajad said: Travellers to Iran often comment on the difference between the image of the country abroad and the reality on the ground. He drew again on the water-pipe allowing me time to digest this further observation from his personal experience with foreigners. As a mining engineer he had occasional contact with businessmen from other countries, mostly from China but Europeans too.

I was inclined to counter that the observation was universal but the relaxing effect of the pipe didn’t encourage debate. Besides, as I later thought of it, the case of Iran was surely different given the indelible impression which the Islamic Republic has made on the Middle East since the revolution which brought it into existence forty years ago. At least until the 21st century rise of Salafism in the Sunni world, the term fundamentalism was almost synonymous with Iran, which itself cultivated a religious image and held it out as an exemplar for other Islamic states. Yet fundamentalist certainly wasn’t a term I would have used to describe Sajad, or his relatively liberal family, nor the majority of people whom I had met so far over the course of two extended journeys across the country. Still, I wondered if I had really experienced enough myself to be able to make the same comment as the one Sajad had reported.

From Trump and spiralling exchange rates the conversation turned to Bam’s local history. Although famed for extensive date palm groves and a sprawling, UNESCO listed, medieval fortress, the city has become better known for a devastating earthquake. In a matter of moments on a freezing night in late December 2003 Bam’s burnt brick architecture imploded. When I expressed surprise at the shock’s brevity, Sajad called across the living room to his mother, who broke off from a soap opera to confirm what her son had already said. ‘Twelve seconds.’ To my fairly innocent ear (I had been in an earthquake once, in Athens in 1999) it seemed too short a time to account for so great a disaster in human and material terms. Sajad, his mother and two sisters, one a teacher the other a doctor, were alone in the house when it struck. They all survived, although many cousins, friends and neighbours did not. Estimates vary but on conservative reckoning at least 25,000 people died.

Rubble mound, Bam, Iran | Photo Credit: Shane Brennan

Driving about Bam, as in every other city in Iran, one is constantly reminded of another national tragedy, one which claimed the lives of up to a million Iranians. The faces of the young men which flutter from nearly every lamp post recall the local cost in blood of the war with Iraq which began in 1980 and continued until 1988. Even with this much greater timescale, the casualty numbers again feel somehow abstract. Museums, memorials and murals across the land, with their forensic detailing of events and hagiographic imagery, do, though, begin to make the impact of the war more tangible. From a visit to the museum of the Holy Defence in Kerman, my previous stop, I carried in my head images of agonising death and willing sacrifice in the minefields which ranged along the borderland between the two countries. It is arguably these more than any single battle or army general which define that war. Against that cult of death, a celebration and continuity of the martyrdom of Hussein and his followers at Karbala in 680 CE, the bellicosity of an American president didn’t feel as if it carried a lot of weight.

After a tour of the famous fortress, not yet fully restored after the earthquake, Sajad drove me out to a palm grove on the outskirts of Bam. It was one of hundreds so that it felt we were wandering about in a forest of palms. The key ingredient in this desert climate was water, and here it was supplied by a network of man-made underground channels which has made farming in the region possible for over a thousand years. The qanat system taps aquifers via deep wells from whose bases gently sloping tunnels carry the water, sometimes many kilometres, to a distribution point. At this one a ruckus of youngsters cooled off from the searing heat by submerging themselves in the swirling outlet channels. I had first seen these extraordinary structures on the opposite side of the Gulf, where they are known as falaj and also considered indigenous technology. They may be — the oldest such system uncovered so far, dating to the late 4th millennium B.C.E, is in Oman — though some archaeologists consider separate (polycentric) innovation rather than diffusion to be the most likely explanation for early inventions in the region (another notable one is the Bādgīr, ‘wind-catcher’, an ingenious air-cooling system for homes).

On the way back into the city we came upon two large artificial mounds, incongruous against the flatness of the plain. We drove to the top of the larger one, winding slowly up the dusty track which wrapped around the structure like a crude spiral ramp. From the top, the great extent of the palm groves from where we had just come was apparent as was the fresh architectural profile of the city. In fact, as I learned on the way up, we were literally standing on the old one, the rubble that had had to be collected and disposed of in the weeks and months after the 2003 earthquake. As you looked closer, the detritus offered hints of former function: a chunk of porcelain from a bathroom; a single yellow child’s plastic sandal. Except for an uninspiring sculpture thirty kilometres away in a pleasure park, and a damaged municipality building left as it had been abandoned, nothing else served as a visible memorial. This surely hadn’t been intended to either, a peculiar and poignant addition to the tells which mark the passing of ancient cities across the Near East.


A day’s drive west, Shiraz lies in a fertile agricultural belt in the shadow of the Zagros Mountains. Its claims to be the cultural and historical heart of Iran are justified by a longstanding association with the rich tradition of Persian poetry and by its proximity to the great Achaemenid archaeological sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae. Iranians say Shiraz is renowned for three things: wine, beautiful women and laziness. The first and last are not on display for the casual sightseer, but the middle one is not hard to discern in the cafes of prosperous neighbourhoods and around the spacious parks of the city.

One of Shiraz’s greatest treasures is its gardens. Large and small, private and public, they showcase all sorts of trees, plants and watercourses. Their thoughtful layout and attention to detail combine to produce what might be best described as a soothing or calming experience for the visitor. Whether sitting and looking up at the treetops or strolling through aromatic flower beds, the feeling is invariably pleasing. The Persians, as the late Classicist George Cawkwell put it, were the great gardeners of antiquity, and this continuity is one of the remarkable contemporary links to the ancient culture.

Nazar Garden, Shiraz, Iran | Photo Credit: Shane Brennan

I went with a student at the university, Batul, to see the Ghasrodasht gardens in the northwest of the city. Many of these date back to the 19th century, but long before that and the steady encroachment of the city this productive area blessed with natural springs and rich soil supplied Shiraz with much of its seasonal produce. Some of the gardens today have fallen into disuse and are not that easy to visit, or even see, because of the protective walls which surround them. Persuaded to take a leg up, Batul peered over one trying to pick out a gateway somewhere along the perimeter. A postgraduate specialising in Japanese comics and children’s literature, her thick-rimmed glasses and pale complexion had made her seem even more bookish than I expected from our email exchanges when we met for the first time the week before. Her brother, whom I had befriended in Bandar Lengeh on the Gulf coast the previous year, had afterward forwarded a draft of her master’s thesis asking if I would comment on it. It wasn’t my field but I happily read it (Hamlet Revisited in Popular Culture: From Manga Shakespeare to The Simpsons) and tried to offer some general pointers.

Eram Garden, Shiraz, Iran | Photo Credit: Shane Brennan

We decided against dropping over into the garden and instead continued up the cul-de-sac toward a man playing football with his daughter. On learning of our quest he hastily deposited the child with her mother in the adjacent driveway and took us away in his car. We bumped along straight, narrow laneways, admiring the rows of mature trees which fringed the garden walls. Our guide, an architect by profession, pointed with a smile to them and the construction of kilometres of high walls as proof that, contrary to the national stereotype, the locals were not in fact lazy. Coming eventually to an opening in the maze we were able to stroll through an orchard and enjoy the feeling of being in one of the homes of horticulture.

It was striking to consider the extent of the cultural legacy of these landscapes originally designed by the Persians in this very corner of the world. The generic term for the orchards, bagh, links with the Mughal Gardens in India and gives us the Turkish everyday word bahçe (‘garden’). The Greeks, adopting the Avestan word pairidaēza, called the walled enclosures paradeisoi, from where our term paradise comes. A story in one of the books of the Athenian writer Xenophon describes a memorable cross-cultural exchange in one of these. He tells us how the renowned Spartan commander, Lysander, was once invited by a Persian prince to visit his paradeisos in Sardis, in what is today the west of Turkey. Having marvelled at the beauty of the trees, and the way they had been planted with exact spacing in straight rows, and the sweet scent which hung in the air as they walked, Lysander was taken aback to learn who had designed the park. ‘What Cyrus? Are you saying you planted these trees with your own hands?’ Pleased, the prince informed him that he never sat down to dinner before working up a sweat on some task of war or agriculture.


My final destination for this trip was the city of Mashhad, the site of Iran’s holiest shrine. Initially, it wasn’t what I had expected. After a gruelling bus journey from Zabol along the country’s eastern frontier, I arrived at the coach terminal, a modern hub complete with free wifi and Snapp! (the Iranian equivalent of Uber) cars lined up to collect their rides. I didn’t have long to wait for my driver, Nasir, a dentist. He sent me a live-location so that I was able to watch him enter the arrivals area. ‘There’s almost nothing that you can’t find here,’ he explained, sating my curiosity about the place as we sped along one of the busy highways into the city. ‘In most respects it’s like Dubai.’ Though he hadn’t been, he hoped some day to set up his own dental practice in the Gulf metropolis.

There were actually a number of similarities with Dubai as I discovered in the coming days although the comparison shouldn’t be pushed too hard. One was the large number of visitors from other Gulf States, here, mostly pilgrims from Bahrain, another, the prominence of water-themed fun parks.

I had read that Mecca is for the rich but Mashhad for the poor. The city’s burgeoning leisure industry and the luxury hotels springing up around the religious complex at its heart seemed to suggest that modernity had undermined this adage. But a closer look revealed there had been no real change in the old social order. Next to tall, low occupancy 4 and 5-star hotels, were smaller ones with no stars which were full. In these, extended families cramped into just one room with a shared kitchen on each floor.

Whatever their financial circumstances, those staying in the accommodation belt of the city were there for the same reason: to pray at the shrine of Imam Reza, the eight Shia Imam, interred here in the 9th century. Together with Mecca and Karbala, the Haram, as it’s known, is among the most revered sites in Shia Islam. Just as a pilgrim to Mecca earns the title Hadjee, those who have prayed at Mashhad become Mashdee.

Holy Shrine Complex, Mashhad, Iran | Photo Credit: Shane Brennan

On entering the enormous complex it’s hard not to be awed by its scale and grandeur. The coloured domes, vast open plazas and stacks of finely woven carpets ready to be rolled out at prayer times by custodians draw the attention first. Less obvious are the institutions which have emerged as offshoots, many of them since the revolution in 1979: a university, museums, library, health centre. The Astan Quds, the charitable trust which runs the complex, is said to be among the wealthiest and most powerful organisations in the country.

Inside a uniformed steward brandishing an old style furniture duster informed me that annually they looked after 20 million pilgrims. The end of Ramadan was one of the busiest periods, he said, with Muslims from all over the world coming to mark the last days of the holy month. This particular night was also the anniversary of the death of Ali, the pivotal figure in the great schism of Islam that has left us today with Shia and Sunni. On account of the numbers, making progress through the various places of worship was slow; over the centuries, mostly through imperial patronage, new religious buildings had greatly increased the physical scale of the site. I wasn’t certain about the significance of each, but knew the way led eventually to the Holy Shrine itself.

Descending a stairway I could see it, a large rectangular tomb with characteristic barred windows. It was housed in a separate chamber which was itself divided for male and female pilgrims. I hadn’t intended to go in at all but found myself unable to struggle out of the crowd as it pushed closer. Near to the tomb pilgrims surged forward, reaching over one another to grasp the grille while invoking the Imam in prayer. Boys held aloft by their fathers were propelled over the head tops to the tomb and somehow afterwards were reunited with their relatives. I jostled my way toward the left side and was eventually squeezed out into the relative calm of the antechamber.

Back out on the main plaza a mass of humanity remembered Ali in chant and by drawing their hands down on their chests in the distinctive Shia gesture of grief. The noise of so many tens of thousands of pilgrims slapping their chests in a heartfelt rhythm was deeply moving. It was also, I reflected on my way back to the hotel, an antidote to the impression one might quite easily form as a traveller in the country that its religious image was more of a facade than a true reflection of national culture. The past in this country exerts an influence that, if not always readily apprehensible, is always present.

* For their friendship, assistance and hospitality I would like to thank Zari, Alireza, Hacar, Mahan (Shiraz), Maedeh (Efsahan), Mary (Dubai), Sajad (Bam), Mojtaba, Mustafa, Batul (Bander Lengeh), Amin (Kerman), Nasir, Fatima (Mashhad), Sami (Rasht), Banafshe, Hamid, Sahar (Tehran), Saeed, Rossana (Qazvin), Hamid, Nasim (Shush), Abolfazl, Ahmadreza, Elham (Birjand) and Javad (Tabriz).

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