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Road to Hamadan
It always happens that I fall in love with a place just as I have to leave it

Sara Nobari
September 7, 2005

My mother-in-law, Malakeh, descended the steep stairs of the bus with me, arthritic-knee and all, to point out for her American daughter-in-law the women's side of the metal shack that served as a restroom (our seventh trip to Iran, and the Farsi alphabet remained a mystery).

We were en route to Hamadan, a remote city in the mountainous region of rural western Iran, just east of the Zagros mountain range dividing Iran from Iraq. I pushed open the door indicating Khanoum and recoiled. The air around the opening of the urinal was thick with flies, hundreds of buzzing black bodies forming almost a solid curtain, and the floor was covered in what I hoped was dirt or mud.  

Traditional Iranian toilets are holes in the ground that you squat over, fitted with a ceramic drain and outer grooved area for the feet. In lieu of toilet paper, short hoses, or buckets with spouts called aftabehs, are provided with which to wash (which is why I always carried tissues in my pocket). That was the first stop. I hadn't realized how far from Tehran we were traveling, just how far behind we were leaving modern life and its conveniences (such as the western-style toilets found at my in-laws' house, and in most restaurants and hotels).

The toilets were the worst part of the ride. Behind the restaurant, a field of wheat stretched away to the distant hills, tawny beneath the blue bowl of the summer sky.  In the far distance, a lone horse whinnied. I could see the road we had traveled winding through the countryside, quiet save for a truck rumbling around the bend -- now empty.

My husband, Farzan, says this region of the country is very fertile and (along with Azerbaijan, the province to the north, specializing in citrus fruit, rice and tea), produces all of the country's wheat and other essentials such as potatoes, grapes, and greens. The wheat field is evidence of this, but the dirt itself looks so meager, such a light, dry brown.

As we were driving, we came across workers in their green uniforms meticulously smoothing the dirt with rakes; it was a funny sight, and seemed proof that nothing could grow in that dirt as there was nothing to rake but the dirt itself. But on the other side of the divider, young bushes sprouted, counter-proof that the soil is life-giving after all.

Though more spacious than a hotel room, our apartment had no air conditioning, and that night the four of us slept poorly, awakened by the heat and the noise from the street below. Iranians come out after dark, after the long hours of the afternoon, the hours of hot sun, the hours designated for naps, and they spend the evenings in parks or wherever they can find a nice patch of grass to spread out a blanket and enjoy a cup of tea. Young people shouted and whistled below our rooms, while car horns blared. 

The next day I was upset when the toilet overflowed -- apparently clogged from before we had arrived. I was ready to return to Tehran, saw nothing here of interest in this small town, on this one sleepy street.  Farzan and his parents, meanwhile, arranged for us to take a taxi to a nearby historic landmark -- the excavation site of a long-searched for city uncovered from one of the nei ghboring hillsides.

Present-day Hamadan stands on the ruins of a once thriving city -- a now ancient city known as Hegmataneh. Nothing is left to be seen of the original city save through certain cross sections dug into the hillside. The section for tourists at the excavation site was a walk-through cut into a swelling of earth.

We walked on rickety planks across a pit containing a small portion of the city. Sunlight fell through niches in the ceiling onto the floor below. I watched my older son walk ahead of me, grabbing the rails on either side with his arms stretched wide, momentarily silhouetted against the eternal. The walls beneath us, fashioned from sun-dried bricks and mud, were surprisingly thick and sharp-cornered, given way only here and there to the soft shoulders of great age.

Hegmataneh is one of the oldest cities in the world. It was originally the capital of Median government, built under command of the first Median king in 728 B.C.E., several centuries before Christ. It was captured by a Persian, Cyrus the Great, (Kourosh to Iranians) in 550 B.C.E., thereby uniting the two original Iranian tribes, the Medes and the Persians, an d starting the rule of the Achaemenian dynasty. Hegmataneh continued to be inhabited through the Seleucid, Parthian, Sassanian and Islamic ages. 

The adjacent museum housed items unearthed from the dig and the surrounding area, ranging from enormous stone pots to tiny glass vials, stone caskets with sleeping skeletons, ornate fountains, and pottery of all shapes an d sizes. One skeleton was under glass, curled in the fetal position, dating from the first millennium B.C.E. It still had teeth.

A display rack stood against a side wall holding a time-line of writing tablets, starting with nail-script and continuing through Old Persian to Hebrew. The city we had just witnessed must have seen people after people come and go, broadening, perhaps, in outlook, becoming more sophisticated in their writings and their tools, but flashes, just flashes against this background of immortal stone.

At the foot of Mount Alvand presides Hamadan's oldest Achaemenian rock carving, a pair of inscriptions decreed by Kings Darius and Xerxes, rulers of Iran from around 500 B.C.E. The site is referred to as Ganj Nameh, or Treasure Book, because it was once believed that the columns of script revealed the whereabouts of fabulous treasure possessed by the Medes and Achaemenians. Instead, they are a declaration of the greatness of the kings and the vastness of their empires. The inscribed plates were each written in columns of three ancient languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Neo-Babylonian. The first was translated into English as:

A great God (is) Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created that heaven, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, the one king of many (kings), the one commander of many (commanders). I (am) Darius the Great king, the king of king, the king of countries having (many kinds of) human beings, the king in this great earth far and wide, the son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenain.

(Ahuramazda ["Wise Lord"] was the supreme god of Zoroastrianism. The second tablet echoed the first, with the name Xerxes, Darius' son, substituted for Darius.)  

Darius called himself "King of Kings" because he divided his land, the Persian Empire (comprised at that time of Iran, Mesopo tamia, Syria, Egypt, and parts of Asia Minor and India), into districts known as satrapies and set up local governors, a tradition started by Cyrus the Great. (Cyrus declared the first Charter of Human Rights after conquering Babylon in 539 B.C.E., liberating the Jewish slaves from Egypt to Palestine by stating that no labor is free, and proclaiming the equality of all men, regardless of skin, language, or religion.) Continuing in this spirit, Darius requested that the governors, or satraps, pay homage to him, and charged taxes as proof of this homage, but did not interfere with local trade, customs or religions.  

We stood with our necks craned toward the rocks on ground that was once part of the road leading to Mesopo tamia (now modern Iraq, a stone's throw across the mountains), home of the oldest known civilization. Vendors staggered along the narrow mountain path -- once the gateway to the world -- selling charcoaled ears of corn to milling tourists.

The immense rectangular carvings in the rock above us were visible for quite a distance, and for once I wasn't the only person taking photographs of the Iranian landscape. Close up, as I stood copying the translated words onto a spare page of my New Yorker magazine, Iranians stood by my side copying the tablets' decrees onto anything they had, including the palms of their hands. I felt camaraderie with these strangers unlike any I had experienced before in Iran. This wasn't just Iranian history; this was human history, human civilization in the making.

The next day we found ourselves in a taxi, hurtling along at what must have been at least eighty miles an hour, barely clearing trucks to the right while narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic. At one point, Malakeh asked the driver to slow down; his response was to step yet more firmly on the gas. Wind roared in our ears and tangled our hair the hour-long drive through miles of flat fields to another geologic attraction, Alisadr cave.  

Alisadr cave is situated among the foothills of the Subashi Mountains, eighty kilometers northwest of Hamadan ; it is enclosed by a park and a small village of the same name -- Alisadr village -- revealing bucolic villagers crouched in the shaded alleys between more sun-dried brick houses.

By contrast, the park offered numerous modern attractions for children:  swan boats and swings and carnival games, plus a small zoo featuring brightly-feathered peacocks in cages. The verdant paths were lined with items for sale: everything from cheap sunglasses to beautiful handmade purses.

Boys in need of a good hair wash and scrubbing circled us like flies selling gum and fortunes; one boy approached with two love birds in a cage. He let one of the birds out onto Arash's shoulder. "Mikhai?" he asked, looking at me with a dirty face and large, fringed eyes.   Do you want it?  As the boy moved on, I recalled his alluring eyes and ragged clothes, and felt contrite for barely meeting his glance.  

Alisadr cave was first discovered in the fourth and fifth centuries, and rediscovered in the late 1960's by a group of mountaineers from Hamadan. It is now famous for its massive underground lake (the second largest underground lake in the world), and offers guided paddle boat tours for a nominal fee.

The lake was truly expansive, crowned by magnificent displays of stalactites -- like frozen atomic explosions, they bulged into glossy mushroom shapes from the ceiling; if Hegmataneh was an age-old miracle of man, the lake was one of nature, fed by nothing more than rain, rain dripping for thousands of years, silently hollowing out the hillside.

There were dry spots known as islands at which the boats stopped, letting passengers out to explore. A kiosk was set up on one, selling tea. A few men sat on chairs under the megalithic ceilings, contemplatively sipping. Only in Iran, I thought with amusement. Lights were attached to the upper rocks every few feet, but even so it was dark and eerie under the ground, and damp beneath the dripping wet walls. 

As we waited for the ride to end, a young girl approached with a friendly face. I was used to being stared at, but not with such good will. No one was rude or unfriendly, but the looks were often overly curious. After assessing my face and listening to me speak, the girl came up and said hello. "Where are you from?" she asked.  

"America," I answered. "San Diego. Do you live here?" I motioned around me.

"Yes." There was a moment's pause. "I don't like it here," she burst out. "Iran is not good." She motioned to her scarf and coat and then to mine, with a show of repugnance. We burst out laughing.

"I like Iran," I said. "The country is beautiful." I motioned again to the land around us. 

She smiled but motioned again to my coat. "Iran is not good for girls," she said. She shook her head sorrowfully and ran off. 

During the drive back from Alisadr cave, I finally found the views I had been looking for. The evening sun glowed across the fields of wheat; farmers sat astride donkeys heaped high with straw; dark brown sheep clustered along the side of the road, wagging their tails behind them; crows rose all at once from a plowe d swatch of soil sprouting tiny green crops.

The land undulated in blond and brown patched waves, squares of blond wheat and freshly plowed fields crisscrossing for a hundred miles to the distant hills. I had never seen such sheep before: such a dark brown, like coffee grounds, and such thickly matted wool.

We passed more donkeys standing by the roadside, some packed with hay, some with greens picked from the fields. Then came the green of the potato crops, with the sun blazing across them in its final glory before setting. In the twilight, peasant women bent low over the fields, wrapped in flowered sheets. I thought again of the sleeping skeleton preserved under glass, and I wondered which would last, the people or the land.

Our last night in Hamadan, our taxi driver gave us a tour of the city. We had eaten at a floating restaurant high on a hill. Hamadan looked much grander than I had first imagined it; its lights spread in the dark for miles beneath us. Hegmataneh was there, somewhere under the lights and the cars and the streets, almost overlapping with the present but submerged beneath our feet, dark catacombs like chambers of a ghostly heart.

The taxi driver spoke Azari, the version of Turkish that my in-laws had grown up with, and he and Malakeh quickly became friends. He offered to show us the city's sights: the mausoleums of two revered poets, (one the famous Abu Ali Sina, a "pluridisciplinary" scientist who was known as a philosopher, physician, mathematician, and poet, as all the great poets of Iran were), fountains, statues, and a gold-domed mosque.  

We drove round the main city square, a round-about circled with buildings at least two hundred years old. I loved the old windows, narrow arched openings framed in white wood -- they had such a look about them of coming from another time. But it always happens that I fall in love with a place just as I have to leave it.

I thought fondly of our apartment and two sons laughing in it, the lovely brown hills and flaxen wheat fields, the fantastic depths to this land keeping underground lakes and cities -- and I felt myself come unbound at last from physical and cultural constraints, the discomforts of the flesh and mind, unsanitary toilets and lack of sleep, people's stares and hot buses and crowded taxicabs, the weight of my coat an d scarf: all fell away in the euphoria of knowing myself a true citizen of the world, immersed in the history that started us all. If only the moment could last.

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Sara Nobari


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