The Persian desert


Iran is similar to a large saucer. Its edge is a ring of high mountains, where the rain coming from the seas falls down, and its middle is one large desert, where not a single drop falls sometimes for years. The rivers running down the fertile highlands disappear here in the sand, or spread in salt marshes and evaporate.

But the Persian desert is not dead. Drought-tolerant plants live on the salty sand, which serve as hiding places and food for a wide variety of animals. And where the wells drilled down to the underground water tables, and the several thousand year old underground channel system, based on them, makes it possible, villages, cities and caravanserais grow out of the ground, they irrigate the fields, they produce rice, saffron, pistachios.

In contrast to us Europeans, the Iranians do not consider the desert as a wilderness. The Indo-European names for this land, desert, Wüste, pustina, come from the Latin, Germanic or Slavic words for “abandoned, empty”, while the origin of Persian کویر kavir is the verb “surround, accept”, related to Latin capere. The Iranian city dwellers go on excurson and picnics to the desert with the same excitement and curiosity as we go to the mountains. And as to the relationship of the local farmers to the desert, the renowned Iranian photographer Nasrollah Kasraian writes this the introduction of his recently published album کویرهای ایران Kavirhâ-ye Irân, “The deserts of Iran”:

“On my way from the Agha Ali Abbas sanctuary to Maranjab I sat down for a rest with a few Afghan day-laborers and a middle-aged, amiable Esfahani farmer. He grew melons on his small plot, and invited me to a cup of tea. I told him that I was taking pictures of the desert. He said he couldn’t read or write, but he regarded the desert beautiful. He had been to the Caspian Sea, where everything was green, and he found it monotonous. To him, every corner of the desert was of a different hue. There was so much to see. You may suddenly come upon a yellow hill, he said, and wonder who has sprayed so much color on that hillside. A little further you will also discover a silver band on the same hill. I had to agree with him. I could read and write, but those things were only useful for specific purposes. Here, I said, it is only the eye that counts and we both saw the same things. I have been after these scenes for the past thirty years or so, I continued, I just want to show them to others  as well.”


Kasraian, member of a large Iranian artists’ family, has photographed Iran since 1966. He published twenty albums on the historical cities of Iran, as well as on the Iranian nomads, from the Turkmens to the Kurds and Balujis. Since the late 1970s he has rambled the desert. In his new album, he publishes hundred and fifty photos from the work of nearly forty years.

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Kayhan Kalhor (kamanche): شب کویر (Shab-e kavir, The night of the desert, 6:15). From the album شب، سکوت و کویر (Shab, sokut ve kavir, Night, silence and desert)

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Arg-e Bam (Bam Citadel)

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Bazar roofs, Kerman

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Sand dunes near Mesr village

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Boroujerdiha Mansion, Kashan

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Sultan Savalan


We meet at 8 p.m. in Tehran, at the always crowded Âzadi terminal, at night we arrive at Qazvin. The city has just recovered from the daytime lethargy of Ramadan, it pulsates lively, as if we were in Rome, taxis glide, multi-person motorbikes zigzag in search of restaurants. We sit in a popular fried chicken place, elegance on the top, with American fast-food ambience and waiters in French uniforms, on the ground floor a goldfish pool with languid turtles nodding. In contrast to their relatives in China, they are safe, turtle meat is not halal.


At three in the night at the highway toll gate of Qazvin, waiting for the others who left Isfahan in the afternoon. A huge crowd, the Ramadan fast ends tomorrow, a four-day holiday is coming, the whole of Iran is setting out for somewhere. We lay a carpet on the asphalt of the hard shoulder, boiling tea with a gas burner, eating cakes.


I wake up at dawn in the bus, a dizzying depth to the right, the canyon of Qezel Ozan river, as it cuts through the golden-colored mountains of the Afshari nomads. Softly curving hill ridges shine in the light of the rising sun, colorful geological layers are revealed on the barren hillsides in the wake of the river’s scalpel. Chessboards of arable land, spare fields of grass, with the signt posts of a few lone trees. In the distance, a majestic snow-capped mountain ridge, the Savalan, Iran’s third highest peak.

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At sunset we reach the base camp, at three thousand eight hundred meters above sea level, at the foot of Savalan. We set up the tents, during the first night we must get used to the altitude, the thin air. Strong-smelling flowers bloom in the protection of the bizarre boulders of the volcanic mountain side, mountain lavender, sage, anemone. In the distance, somewhere deep, the village of Alvâresi, where we parked the bus. Narrow glacial streams run down to the valley. Below us, all around on the lunar plains, the yurts and flocks of the Shahsavan nomads.

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After sunset, the air becomes cold and heavy, clouds leak in between the mountains, they coalesce, envelop the valley.

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At four in the morning, a winding line of tiny points of light is weaving on the dark mountain side, up towards the crater of Savalan. We make tea, break down the tents, and set out on the path, groping our way among the rocks. The hillsides around us slowly unfold from the darkness, the distant peaks as lonely islands rise out of the thick clouds covering the valley.

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We are not alone. Lots of little eyes follow our way. The Persians nibble an amazing amount, and they nevertheless remain slim, which is not fair. Many crumbs fall on the path, and it quickly find new owners. The climbing route gives food to hundreds of birds and rodents, who are more afraid of their rivals than of us, so they follow closely behind.




At four thousand seven hundred meters, just before the peak, a snow shower strikes us. The snow and icy rain penetrate into the smallest gap, so I need to pack away the camera. Had Hassan not asked me to take a photo of him in the snowfall, I would have no document of it at all.


By the time we reach the crater lake of the peak Savalan Sultan at 4811 meters above sea level, the storm stops. We have no time to climb the hillside and take photos of the lake from there, because by dusk we have to cover the one-thousand-meter of altitude difference in reverse. We celebrate on the shore, mashallah guru, long live the team, we shout, we brew tea from the water of the glacier lake.

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The road back is in no way easier, the rocks are slick with snow. We are perhaps two hundred meters lower, when a frightening crash is heard from the other side of the ridge. An avalanche of rocks. We stop, we try to put together what we observed before, from above in the valley. We hope neither climbers, nor nomadic shepherds were now on that side.

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Sorud


To the one-eyed small beggar, who on the Tehran subway sang Rumi poems from terminus to terminus, and from the banknote of a thousand tomans – about forty eurocents – returned five hundred, because it is worth this much. And did not allow me to photograph him.



Sorud, beggar’s fiddle from Kerman, in Tehran’s Museum of Music, with Mahmud Tabrizizâde playing on it

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The tomb of Queen Esther in Persia


“How much is the taxi to Khomeini Square?” “Gheymati nadore, it does not cost anything”, the old taxi driver spreads his arms. “Taʿarof nakonid, don’t play etiquette with me”, I tell him, but he just laughs, and repeatedly tells that he’d take me for free. But I know well that on such occasions it is important to agree on an exact price, otherwise the final amount will be just as far-fetched as the courtesy formula is, even so, I leave it up to him. After all, if you go on a pilgrimage, keep to the traditions. And be generous when visiting queens.

Hamadan is a perfect pilgrimage site. Even today it takes eight hours to drive through the desert from Isfahan, the largest Jewish community of Persia. You can imagine the great devotion of those covering this grueling trip on foot or with caravan. Nevertheless, the historical records show that since antiquity, thousands of Jews from Persia and other countries visited this place every year, the tomb of Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai.


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Esther, wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus, and her uncle Mordechai saved the lives of thousands of Persian Jews from the intrigues of the king’s chief commander, Haman, as described in the biblical book of Esther, and is enacted every Purim in all the Jewish communities of the world. This event certainly took place in the center of the Persian empire, Susa. Ecbatana, the former capital of the Medes, and in our times Hamadan, was the summer residence of the Persian kings, to which Esther and her uncle are said to have retired from the court after the death of Ahasuerus. Here they were buried in a common tomb, which is still the most important Jewish pilgrimage site in Iran.


We do not know how the original tomb looked. The oldest surviving depiction, Eugène Flandin’s illustration of 1840 in his travelogue Voyage en Perse (1851), already represents it in the present form. However, this building, which, with its double inner space, burial chamber and community room, and with the dome crowning the tomb, follows the type of the Shiite pilgrimage sites erected for the emamzâdehs, the descendants of the holy Imams, was built only around 1602, in the time of Shah Abbas the Great. As the picture shows, in the early 19th century it still stood outside of the city, but by the end of the century the bazaar completely flowed around it. According to contemporary travelogues, one could approach it only with a local guide, through a maze of doorways and inner courtyards. In 1970 however, when the Shah involved the ethnic minorities of Iran also in the celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, the Jewish community decided to restore and expand the site of Esther’s tomb by demolishing the houses along the nearest major street, erecting an ornate gate on the street front. However, this is never open. The real entrance still opens behind the building, from a small street of the bazaar. Here, from sunrise to sunset, Rabbi Rajad lets the visitors in.


The way to the tomb leads through a small rose garden. The door, uniquely, is a twenty centimeter large granite block weighing four quintals, which rotates, without any suspension, in a granite hole filled with oil. Its height is only 110 centimeters, forcing the visitor to bow his head, as is often read in the psalm above the entrance of the Sephardic synagogues: “But I through Your abundant love, enter your house; I bow down in an awe at Your holy temple.” (Ps 5:8). The space of entrance itself is a small synagogue, where, as Rabbi Rajad says, Jewish couples come from all over Iran to hold weddings. From here, some steps lead down to the graves of Esther and Mordechai. Several Hebrew inscriptions are on the walls around, which read fairly well, but the huge letters to the right of the stairs that lead to the grave were not spared by time. According to the pious interpretation of Rabbi Rajad, it is in Aramaic, which must be read from left to right (!), and it means: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

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The wooden tombs of Esther and Mordechai imitate two sarcophagi, although their graves are obviously under the floor. The sarcophagi are new, carved by a Persian artist, Enayatollah Tusserkhani, during the restoration of 1970. The original sarcophagus was destroyed in a fire in the late 19th century because of the candles the pilgrims attached to it. Only its picture has survived in Eugène Flandin’s lithograph. A small prayer room is also attached to the space of the tomb. Monumental inscriptions run around on the walls, but they were so often repainted by hands obviously not accustomed to Hebrew script, that today they are largely incomprehensible.


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In the enlarged courtyard, in place of the demolished houses, a synagogue was built below the street level, planned in the distinctive modern style of the 1970s by the Iranian Jewish architect Elias Yassi Gabbay. He designed the modern sculpture, too, which stands in front of the street facade of the tomb. “What does it represent?” I ask. “This is the throne of Ahasuerus”, replies Rabbi Rajad, and immediately illustrates its use.


“Do pilgrims still come here?” I ask Rabbi Rajad. “Of course, very many! At Purim, the courtyard is full, but throughout the year they come from every Jewish city of Iran, Isfahan, Tehran, Yazd, Mashhad. And even from abroad. Just this morning there was a Jew from Paris”, he says with awe. “From Israel, of course, they cannot come”, I say. “Why? Sure, many people come from there as well. Only with Turkish passport.” “And the locals?” “In Hamadan we are very few. A total of five families, only fifteen people.”

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At farewell, Rabbi Rajad asks for a donation for Esther, and a pen for himself. I hand him a pen bought in the hometown of the inverntor of the ballpoint pen, in the Arcade Supermarket of Budapest, a rather unique thing, but no: Rabbi Rajad collects fountain pens. He makes me promise next time to bring him a real German Lamy fountain pen from Berlin.


I step out in the street. After the devotion of the tomb and the silence of the court, the vibration of the bazaar immediately surrounds me. The whole city is flowing, buzzing, offering and buying merchandise, showing itself and living its social life on the narrow streets lined with shops, stalls, workshops. Just like two thousand five hundred years ago, in the days of Queen Esther, in Ecbatana and Susa.


Chemirami Trio, Iran • Sephardic song

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Epilogue. Queen Esther rewards her visitors with royal generosity. The next morning, in the first Tehran booksop, I catch sight of a book, with Eugène Flandinʻs lithograph on the cover. Its title is فرزندان استر. مجموعه مقالاتی درباره ی تاریخ و زندگی یهودیان در ایران – Esther’s children. A collection of essays on the history and life of the Iranian Jews, with stunning pictures. Soon I will write about it.