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Before the quake
Remembering Bam

By Karim Sadjadpour
January 5, 2003

I published this piece on National Geographic's website recently (December 31). I thought readers might like to read it.

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 bus ride through twisting mountains from Shiraz to Kerman (see map of Iran), the capital city of the region where Bam is located. The region's inhabitants -- known as Kermanis -- have a reputation in Iran for being pleasant people. I found this especially true in Bam, which is about 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, and the town's people all seemed to know one another. Strangers greeted me on the streets in the traditional Iranian manner -- heads slightly bowed 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 ago 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, and Afghans. Iranians finally gained control of it once and for all in the late 18th century.

The city was subsequently abandoned, however. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that authorities in Tehran realized they were in possession of a cultural jewel.

After-Hours in the Citadel
I remember vividly the first time I saw Arg-e Bam. My congenial taxi driver, Mohsen -- a father of five who hailed from the Baluchi people of southeast Iran -- insisted that we approach the Old City from a 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 out 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 the guard, a family friend, that I was a visitor from far away. He agreed to make an exception.

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 up just outside the Old City and wanted to show me firsthand the fortress where 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, and horse stables. All these were made of mud and straw and remained remarkably intact.

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 place."

"No One Will Bother You Here"
One visit was not enough. I awoke the next morning at dawn to see Arg-e 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 me to tag along as he escorted a small group of Iranian expatriates from Paris.

Ali Agha was a proud father of 4 and had 11 grandchildren. He beamed when telling us that one of his daughters had become a surgeon. After many years of guiding people up and down the steps of the citadel he 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 poem. The acoustics inside the Old City, he told us, rivaled that of any concert 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 and 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 chafing at her government-mandated head scarf. "Be comfortable," he said, reassuring her it was OK to take off her roosari. "No one will bother you here."

Ancient Iranian empires had first built the fortress in order to guard against outside aggressors. In some ways, I thought, it had never lost its original intent.

A Testament
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, sample its 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 loss to 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 else."

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 or worked in the vicinity of the Old City -- including curators and guides to the 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 a result of natural disaster is a great calamity. What do you call the loss of tens of thousands?

While the human catastrophe can never be remedied, renowned archaeologists and curators have vowed to help restore the crumbled citadel to its former glory. And just as Bam's citadel inspired travelers from all corners of the world, the global outpouring of aid and support for Bam's earthquake victims is a testament to the interconnectedness of human beings >>> Bam benefit concert, Palo Alto, Saturday, January 10


Karim Sadjadpour, a former associate producer at, is a visiting fellow at the American University of Beirut.

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