– Sometimes I think I live on Mars – says Sorayya, leaning out of the window.
Before us, red rock walls. A furnace.
Not a breath of life, not a bird. Stones. Burning wind.
Down there, Tabriz, like a cluster of cubes dropped on earth. White and yellow cubes on the red mountain.
I also think being in another world.
Iran, a mineral world.
A continent of colorful rocks, Iranian Azerbaijan, dropped there between the Caucasus and the Alborz Mountains – a world of dreams and of imaginary lands crossed by ancient routes, the Silk Road and the roads of Turkic and Mongolian invasions.
Stone, earth, sand. Mountains melted by erosion like clay.
Visible erosion on the slopes, deep-cut torrent beds, and surfaces of alternating colors, red, rose, gray, white, speckled with tufts of grass.
Sometimes the mountain comes down as far as the road. Sometimes the road cuts through the mountain. When it spreads its broken profile toward us, earthen walls are formed along the now dried up torrents.
A sandstorm draws a hazy layer over the foot of the slopes.
Then, in the dust, in the ochre of the earth and in the yellow of the stubbled fields, a few kilometers of oasis, trees, fences and poplars, and green fields – until all this suddenly stops.
The mud-brick villages mimic the rocks, lying on the ground like gray stone blocks.
On the stubble, dozens of sheep, black or brown. The sun is sinking, the mountain weighs on the landscape.
We drive toward Julfa, on the border with Nakhichevan.
– Why do you look at the mountains? – asks Sorayya.
She leans over my notebook and her eyes follow my pencil. I look with my hand, my eye on the landscape, the pencil on the paper, form according to form, line, slope, shadow, ripple, background.
– Are they beautiful, the mountains? – Sorayya asks. She turns her eyes to the distance.
She looks at the mountains without seeing: she looks for water: a river, a stream, a waterfall.
An oasis again.
A long time ago, some of these were capitals: in the 13th century, Maragheh was the capital city for Hülegü, the grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of Kublai Khan, and Soltaniyeh was Öljaitü’s capital a century later. Of that world, the Iran of the Ilkhanids, there remain only stones and earth. These monuments are like immense rocks, stones erected on the corner of a deserted street in towns which seem abandoned to the heat. Giant stones raised in the desolation of sleep: tombs of the Mongol khans, tombs of princesses, and a tomb of knowledge – these stones were the observatory of al-Tusi. And Soltanyeh, this yellow and blue rock, facing the mountain, alone in the empty village, a hollow shell occupied for forty years by scaffolding worthy of Piranesi.
We go south, leaving Azerbaijan for the Zagros and Fars, we leave behind the red rocks, we pass Teheran and Qom, and it is no longer Mars, but instead a dark space, despite the bright August sunshine. Here and there, the desert, a salt lake on the horizon, in other places the stony steppe in the hot haze.
Everything is brown, gray, hostile.
New mountains, but nothing round, nothing pink – fissures, peaks, lines, ridges, broken blocks.
The Moon on Iranian soil.
And oases again.
And in the oases, towns, another mineral world, a space built up which is slowly decomposing. Towns formed of earth, whose houses, once abandoned, return to dust. Houses of mud, bricks of yellow clay, mud plaster mixed with chopped straw, usually made with bare hands, fashioned, colored, molded, decorated windows and doors with great nails.
Erudite mud and lowly mud, decorated mud and plain mud.
The yellow houses of Kashan, the red houses of Abyaneh, fortresses, walls, streets. And nobody.
A torrent of water here and there beneath our feet.
Doors, locks, panels.
Just some cats.
In the empty monuments, in the dark, the walls and domes revert to rock. The eroded bricks, the flaking plaster, the fragments of tiles, all is forgotten and exists under the arches only as a memory of the mountains which one wanted to submit and devote to God.
Vaults, passages, shafts and domes.
The voices of passers-by, and that of a rooster, somewhere behind the walls of the Great Mosque of Isfahan, all enclosed in the bazaar – and I alone in the thousand-year-old darknes of a high brick cave. The larger dome was built in 1086 by Nizam al-Molk, vizier of the Seljuk sultans Alp Arslan and Malik Shah, and the smaller one just one year later by the chamberlain Taj al-Molk, his adversary. Two rival domes, mirrors of each other – one huge, dark and austere, overwhelming with the brute force of a stone Leviathan, and the other one, more human in scale, tame and graceful in its scholarly perfection.
When you wander in between the stones and earth, in these still alive and nevertheless empty and somnolent buildings, you feel again that precious feeling which siezes you in Rome under the vault of the Pantheon, in the baths of Caracalla, at the foot of the Palatine, or on a stormy night under the arches of the Pont du Gard, with the water rumbling beneath your feet: that you are suddenly inhabited by time. Any far away – or nearby – place where you travel, geography ceases to make sense, and you are no longer a wanderer in space, but in time. An austere and severe time, indifferent to your existence, a time made of eternity, because it seems that the dome of Nizam al-Molk was not built by anyone, but rather has always been standing there, like a huge hollow rock. The plaster has fallen and revealed a thousand-year old brick structure, quadruple pillars and their heavy lintels, niches and columns, the mihrab carved into the wall, and up there, above the stone calligraphy bordering the dome, eight solar rays.
As among the rocks, a dove spreading its wings under the dome makes a circle before disappearing behind the pillars. Silence.
Einst, vor Zeiten, nannte man sie alt.
Doch sie blieb und kam dieselbe Straße
täglich. Und man änderte die Maße,
und man zählte sie wie einen Wald
nach Jahrhunderten. Sie aber stand
jeden Abend auf derselben Stelle,
schwarz wie eine alte Citadelle
hoch und hohl und ausgebrannt;
von den Worten, die sich unbewacht
wider ihren Willen in ihr mehrten,
immerfort umschrieen und umflogen,
während die schon wieder heimgekehrten
dunkel unter ihren Augenbogen
saßen, fertig für die Nacht.
R. M. Rilke
Long before our time they called her old,
But she’d walk down the same road every day.
Her age became too much to say
In years — and, like a forest’s, would be told
In centuries. She comes to stand at dusk —
Her spot each time the same — and to foretell.
She is a hollow, wrinkled husk,
Dark as a fire-gutted citadel.
She has to turn her flock of talking loose
Or it will grow too crowded to relieve.
Flapping and screaming, words are flying all
Around her. Then, returning home to roost,
They find a perch beneath her eyebrows’ eaves,
And in that shadow wait for night to fall..