May 11, 1999
We lost our way in the salt desert on the way to being swallowed by
a myth. This is not a metaphor for anything; we literally lost our way.
We were somewhat concerned, considering that our driver, Mr. Musavi, had
just a scant few hours earlier told us the story of six tourists who had
come to Yazd a few months ago and lost their way. Their bodies were found
after eight days. This is an unforgiving land, a desert on a high plateau
interrupted by mountains all through. And the earth is dry and glimmers
with salt and silvery-green thorn bushes and rocks and pebbles of a thousand
colors. Small patches of it are sand dunes, golden, beautiful, and deadly.
The place has a feeling of permanence. Unlike the coastal jungles in the
north, it does not change color or form seasonally; it remains arid, semi-naked
and oblivious to the rain showers that pour wildly for short periods of
time. The earth carries no seeds and does not bear greenery, even when
it rains god's "barkat" upon the land.
In this part of god's earth, graced only by the silvery thorns, you
find Chek Chek, the holy pilgrimage site of Zoroastrians who descend upon
the village of Chek Chek every August 15 through 19th from all corners
of the world, all dressed in pure white. So much oud (incense) is burnt
upon open fires that the land and the wind begins to smell of it for days.
Chek Chek is at least 50 kilometers away from Yazd, 35 kilometers of which
is a semi-paved road in the desert, often washed away by seasonal floods.
Reaching Chek Chek by this road takes at least two hours; it requires willpower
or faith, or both.
The small village itself seems to be the only sign of life for miles
in the desert landscape, clinging to the side of a steep mountain as if
a precarious plant to sheer rock. There is a point at which no vehicle
is allowed to ascend; and the gradient of the mountain is such that even
if a car were allowed to ascent, it perhaps could not. From that point
forward, steep pedestrian steps connect each level to the next; where each
level is open-sided roomers painted white with lime, each layer upon the
other like a vertical labyrinth with hidden wood-fire hearths and water
storage rooms interspersed everywhere. And here in this incredible vast
expanse of dryness you can find an occasional plane or cypress tree, growing
from the bare rocks and among the shimmering white rooms, a spot of green
in the gold and white of the desert village.
At the very highest point of the village under a roof of rock and beside
a tremendous plane tree whose diameter easily exceeds one meter is the
entrance to the holy temple of Chek Chek, its heavy bronze door shaded
by another immense plane tree and embossed with pre-Islamic warriors and
worshippers guarding a cave which smells of the fragrance of espand (harpel)
and incense and wood fire and spring water. This gorgeous cave with its
simple candelabra and marble floors is sacrosanct and entry into it requires
bare feet and covered heads - for men and women. Our green-eyed Zoroastrian
guide, who wears a white skull-cap and a rugged smile, throws more oud
upon the fire in the center of the cave whose walls are blackened with
smoke and whose floor is wet with the spring water that seems to seep through
the rock and drips, drop by drop all over the cave (hence the name of the
village, Chek Chek, or drop by drop). Buckets are placed here and there
under the roof the cave to capture the precious clean water that is so
rare and hallowed. Three small fires burn permanently on the ultimate wall
of the cave, another consecrated space, that which is the source of Chek
Some1400 years ago, when the Arabs invaded Iran, the last Sassani King,
Yazdgerd III, sought refuge in Yazd with his five children, among them
two beautiful daughters, Shahrbanoo and Nikbanoo. The royal family received
distressing news that Arab warriors were approaching Yazd with the sole
aim of capturing the royals. The King and his children got on their horses
and rode away in different directions. Shahrbanoo was captured in Jahrom
and became the slave-wife of the third Shi'a Imam, the martyred Hussein,
thus forever tying the fate of Iran with Shi'ism. Nikbanoo, on the other
hand, escaped towards the desert and at dawn foud that her pursuers has
caught up with her. She dismounted and with bare hands and feet, and only
with the aid of a wooden cane, clawed her way up the face of the sheer
cliff, bleeding from her fingertips. Her pursuers continued to follower
her, and there, when they were only an arm's length away and Iran's honor
was to be lost once again, the mountain, THIS mountain, opens up and swallowed
her whole and alive. All that remains is her green head scarf, now this
velvety emerald jolbak algae in the semi-darkness.
Legend has it that her cane, which she had thrown before her wedlock
with rock and myth, became the massive grandfather plane tree bursting
through the rocks towards the generous sunshine, and the sweet limpid beads
of blessing seeping through the rock were her tears, eternally flowing
to commemorate her exit from the world of real into dreams and legends.
It is said that she has guided the lost, the defeated, and the confused,
and still does so today. It was perhaps because of that silent moment of
pause in her cave, interrupted only by the sound of her tears dripping
Chek Chek upon marble and boulder, that under god's unforgiving sky, we
found our way again, after wandering on desert skin and forgotten pathways
for what seemed like a small eternity.
Or perhaps, we found our way because Mr. Musavi knows the desert well
and is familiar with the shape of the mountains.