On the Silk Road from Yazd to Shiraz, in the desert city of Abarkuh, stands the oldest living being in Iran (perhaps in the whole world) . It is at least five thousand years old, and some say eight thousand. Ancient and mysterious even to botanists (who cannot decide on its true age), the Cypress Tree of Abarkuh is surrounded by legends and revered by countless visitors.
To anyone approaching it, the tree appears more mineral than vegetable. You are confronted by a wall of massive trunks - 19 meters thick - packed together tightly like the tentacles of a giant squid, each one vying with others for space and for sky. Thirty metres above your head they finally explode, showering a canopy of lingering fragrance and delicious shade down onto the earth below.
The tree stands next to an old caravanserai, surrounded by a low circular hedge of manicured privet (sometimes also with a small pool of water). Visitors come in their hundreds, their hands immediately drawn to stony surface of the trunk. They feel along it for a time, as if searching for a concealed entrance or a living heart. They circle it in wonder like pilgrims round the Kaaba, constantly touching and caressing. The tree is very much loved. Some visitors bring coloured ribbons to hang on the lower branches as signs of reverence or supplication. At these times the tree resembles a woman in a Qashkai skirt, her hands raised to her hair, ready to perform a dance. Or perhaps a decorated Christmas tree. Other visitors spread out blankets and eat watermelon in the delicious cool of its shade.
An ugly green information sign once gave visitors statistics about this cypress, but it has been removed recently (perhaps to make way for a new one). The height of the tree is 30 metres and the width of its trunk is 19 metres in diameter. When it was first mentioned in 1335 AD (by a certain Hamd-Allah Mostawfi), the tree was already “famous throughout the world”.
Cypress trees (cupressus sempervirens) are native to Iran. They were carried by travellers to Europe in the distant past, and then spread to other areas of the world. Mediterranean cypresses seldom survive longer than two thousand years. In their homelands on the plains of Iran, they can can grow to many times that age.
Cypresses were once revered all over Ancient Iran. Saints and sages were buried in their hollowed-out trunks, the bark carefully replaced so that they would continue to grow. (1)
There is a legend that Zoroaster planted two famous cypresses in Khorassan, both of which grew to enormous proportions: the Cypress of Kashmar (near Mashhad) and the Cypress of Faryumaz (near Sabsevar) (2). When the local king Gushtasp accepted the religion of the prophet, Zoroaster ordered the trunk of the former to be inscribed with the words, "Gushtasp accepts the Good Religion". And from that time onwards, cypresses were planted at the doors of many Zoroastrian temples and became a familiar feature of the Iranian landscape. Their slender pyramidal shapes were likened to living flames, burning and transforming the face of the earth. In time, they came to represent the Iranian prophet himself.
Islam too, lays claim to this particular tree. A persistent cluster of legends links it to Abraham, (who is said to have planted it), and other local traditions and geographical features around Abarkuh are associated with the life of this patriarch. From at least the twelfth century AD, Abarkuh was known as the City of Abraham. (3)
In the pages of the Avesta, the Cypress is listed first among the trees that “give no fruit to man”. But anyone who rests for a short time beneath its shade soon discovers the opposite. The water in the pool is brown and warm. Frogs brood nearby and swallows swoop low in the branches. Light yawns its way out of the desert hills and lies smoothly down with the dappled shade. The tree may not feed the body, but it nourishes the spirit and feeds the imagination.
Plans have been drawn up to develop the area around the cypress as a park to protect the tree's future. UNESCO is involved in the planning. A slender young cypress has been planted nearby so that when the old tree sickens or falls, the younger will take its place. There is likely to be a cypress tree at Abarkuh for many centuries to come.
Iran is a country full of remarkable monuments and architectural marvels. But all of them are lifeless. The Cypress Tree of Abarkuh is a living monument, an ancient noble organism well worthy of celebration and protection.
1 . In this way we can better understand legends of Cypress trees singing in human voices. Two cypresses speaking in a human voice are said to have foretold the death of Alexander. And in the Testament of Abraham, a cypress tree prophesies the patriarch's death etc.
2. When the latter tree was cut down in 847 AD on the orders of the Abassid caliph Al Mutawakkil, earthquakes shook, buildings fell and a swarm of birds filled the night sky screaming with rage. It was cut down in sections and transported on more than 300 camels to Samarra. The Abarkuh cypress is older than the cypress of Kashmar.
3. Two hills of ashes in Abarkuh were once associated with the “Fires of Nimrod” into which Abraham was thrown. The patriarch is also said to have prophesied that rain would never fall within the walls of the city, and that its inhabitants would never raise cows.