My father and I continue west across Iran’s central desert, accompanied by our faithful guide, Ehsan, and driver, Mr. Mamsoori.
The hermit engineer
On the eastern border of Iran’s central desert, near the city of Neyshabur, lives a hermit engineer in a wooden town of his father’s construction. Its wooden mosque, wooden bakery, wooden restaurant, and wooden stable were constructed as a sort of amusement park, emulating the pumpkin patch or petting zoo or hobby farm popular with American families looking for a weekend excursion. A decade ago the father died and the children moved to America, but the hermit remained here, trying in vain to maintain a legacy too big for one person alone.
A gaunt old man on a plastic lawn chair takes some money for admission. Inside The mosque is paneled with a beautiful assembly of boards stained different colours, giving the inside the appearance of a wood-toned sunburst. It has the feel of a lakeside cottage in Canada, which is quite surprising given the semi-arid surroundings and the general lack of trees. Upstairs is the mosque’s library. Most of the space is dedicated to wooden booths similar to the sort that a university student would use for studying. There are only a handful of books, and the walls are covered with graffiti.
We meet the hermit engineer outside of the mosque. He is wearing an old t-shirt, cargo pants tucked into army-style boots, a dusty old VOMP (Vest of Many Pockets), and a fanny pack. He explains that he is trying to restore the property to realize his father’s vision, and employs 17 staff to help him. As he shows us around the overgrown grounds, I indeed see people resurfacing buildings with a mixture of mud and straw, and a groundskeeper using a gas-powered hedge trimmer to hack back an overgrown bush. But it’s obvious that the wilderness is reclaiming this place faster than it can be rebuilt. Weeds poke in through the windows of the abandoned restaurant, and the hearth in the bakery has clearly lain cold for a long time.
The hermit insists on giving us a tour of his home, which is on the same property. It too is constructed of wood, and looks on the verge of collapse. Inside, dusty old Persian carpets cover the plywood floors, and the furniture is strewn with socks and yellowed papers. The balcony is slanting precariously. Photographs of his dead father hang in many of the rooms. Around the house feral cats prowl through the remains of a beautiful rose garden, its blooms meshing organically with the weeds and grasses that have returned to reclaim this forsaken place.
Along the way across the desert we see various sights—an ancient Caravan Saray here, a Persian garden there—but mostly we see sparsely populated arid land with the occasional tumbledown building.
Yazd is an ancient desert town that more or less managed to avoid the destruction of the various conquerors that ravaged the region over the millennia, probably more due to its inconvenient location than anything else. The city is very old, apparently with a history dating back 5000 years, making it one of the oldest still-existing cities in the world. The labyrinthine streets of the old city are captivating, and we spend several hours happily getting lost and un-lost.
Yazd is a center of Zoroastrian culture and religion, probably because nobody could ever be bothered to come here to stamp it out. On a mountaintop just outside of the city is the Chak Chak (“drip drip”) fire temple, an important pilgrimage site for pious Zoroastrians. Legend has it that the continuously-dripping spring at the site are the tears of the daughter of the past pre-Islamic Persian ruler of Iran, who took shelter there. A flame is kept burning eternally. Inside the city, the relatively modern Atash Bahram fire temple houses a sacred fire that has been kept burning since 470 CE, although it has been moved around Iran several times since its original consecration date.
Wind towers and water tunnels
The citizens of Yazd use some ingenious ancient technologies to keeping watered and cool. Water is brought in using subterranean qanats, which are narrow tunnels dug on a slight slant to carry water large distances from a higher source. Many of these still survive and can be accessed via stone staircases descending deep under the city. This technology has been so successful that it is still widely used in parts of Iran, although modern irrigation techniques are slowly supplanting the qanat. To keep cool, tall towers called badgir (wind catchers) redirect wind from higher up into the better homes and public buildings. They work remarkably well. And both technologies require no electricity.
Weightlifting poetry slam
One evening in Yazd, we decide to go to the local sports club to watch a very unique activity called Zurkhaneh. The venue is certainly unique: it takes place in a circular room in the basement of a very old brick structure in the old city, which itself is over an ancient qanat access well. We take a seat on folding chairs that have been set up around the perimeter of the room. As we wait, muscular men wearing patterned leather and fabric shorts assemble in the central pit.
Suddenly a man on a raised dais begins to beat a drum and sing. The men in the pit begin to move about, periodically dropping into long series of pushups, always keeping to the rhythm of the drum. The singer beats faster and louder, faster and louder, belting out famous Persian verse set to a powerful and exotic melody. The men respond by increasing the pace and intensity of their workout, at one point taking turns spinning wildly like whirling Dervishes (and I mean that quite literally—the Dervishes were active in Yazd in the past). Towards the end, the men pick up heavy wooden clubs and spin them around in the most intense tricep/shoulder workout ever conceived. The strongest men use clubs the size of fire hydrants; I would hardly be able to lift one, let along spin it about like a baton. For the finale, several of the oldest and strongest men heft sets of heavy iron chains above their heads, and then flip them from side to side to the beat of the drum, causing dozens of metal disks to crash together. It sounds like an approaching army of bloodthirsty warriors on horseback is having a tambourine competition.
The incredibly fit men who participate in Zurkhaneh are all regular people, not professionals. They do it for exercise, to show off, or just for fun, and do not seem at all phased by the couple of dozen curious observers who have come to watch them sweat and chant. The youngest participant is about 7 years old, the oldest is about 60, and all of them are tough nuts.
I think that Zurkhaneh should be introduced to Canada. I know that this eclectic mixture of aerobics class, strength conditioning, poetry slam, and square dancing would be embraced by the fitness trend set.
Want to know more? There’s an international association: http://www.izsf.net/en/zurkhaneh/zurkhanehspeq.