Leaving behind the infamous uranium enrichment center after Natanz, guarded by tanks entrenched in concentric circles, there suddenly rise up before us the Karkas, i.e. Vulture Mountains. The north-south ridge of the mountains is just forty kilometers long, but this is enough to stop some clouds, and to have regular rainfall on the mountaintop. By the time the water reaches the foot of the mountain, it leaks away, but the ten-kilometer-long creek bed is accompanied by poplar groves, irrigated gardens and villages.
At the foot of the hill, the fort of Hanjan is enthroned above the here already dry wadi. A veritable Fort of the Tatar Steppe: it has awaited the enemy for two thousand years, but the enemy has not come. The invaders forgot the valley hidden among the mountains in the middle of the desert. While the seventh-century Arab conquerors forced their religion and language onto almost all Persia, the inhabitants of the valley remained Zoroastrians until the 16th century, when the central power of the Safavid dynasty was established, and they still speak the Middle Persian language of the pre-conquest Sasanian empire. Unlike in other non-Persian-speaking regions of Iran, the inscriptions are bilingual, also indicating the Sasanian-era Persian names, and there are even vowel markings for the sake of precise pronunciation, obviously not for the locals who speak the language, but for the delight of the Persian tourists visiting the place.
About noon we arrive at the head of the valley, to the village of Abyâneh, in Middle Persian Viuna, creeping up on the hillside next to the water springs. The sharp sunlight fades the streets white. The walls of the houses, built of red adobe, are protected by red plaster against the rain that runs down the red streets, and, for the lack of a better idea, they also paint the wooden beams, columns and window grilles red. The harmony of the red village and the opposite red hillside is counterpointed by the green of the creek valley.
Hossein Alizadeh: شوق رفتن Shuq-e raftan, The craze of traveling. From the album Az آواز گنجشکها Âvâz-e gonjeshkhâ, The song of sparrows
The adobe buildings have rich, centuries-old, ornamentation: doors carved with Quranic quotations, geometric shading window grids, wrought iron knockers, muqarnas vaults. From the spacious terrace of the Friday mosque – the only whitewashed building – you can see the opposite hillside with a still-functioning Zoroastrian sanctuary.
Despite the heat, the locals are on the street, going about their business, or just sitting in front of their houses, and loudly conversing within the passers-by in their one-thousand five-hundred-year-old language. “Can you hear how they speak?” Mohammad asks me in awe. They also talk to us, they offer apples and water, we help pack boxes on a trailer. Most of them wear traditional costumes, the men black baggy silk trousers, while the women’s flower-printed white robes are reminiscent of the former Zoroastrian wear.
The village is not only inhabited by the living. After almost thirty years, the cult of the local martyrs fallen in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 is still alive in Abyaneh, just like elsewhere in Iran. They have their separate sanctuary in the courtyard of the mosque, and their images there are on the street corners and above the entrances of the small prayer houses named after them.
The cult of the martyrs is a fundamental feature of the Shiite religion, which was formed under continuous persecution by the Sunnis, and whose every holy Imam was martyred, except for the last one, the Mahdi, who is in hiding, and will come back at the end of the world to pass judgement together with Jesus. The nakhl or “date palm”, the symbolic catafalque of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad killed by the usurper Sunni caliph in the battle of Karbala, stands all year round on the balcony of the Hussein shrine. In the desert cities of Iran, they carry it around on the anniversary of the battle, on the day of Ashura.
Carrying around the nakhl in Abyaneh on the day of Ashura, from the information booklet of the village
Colorfully dressed Gypsy women roam the streets in the hot afternoon, with children in their arms, begging from door to door. “They come from the south”, Mohammed whispers to me, “here, in the province of Isfahan the Rumi are artisans, they do not beg.” One of the Gypsy girls hides her face from being photographed by interposing the child, taking the money offered. Another looks astonished at me, as if he had never seen a camera. She passes me by to the next shop without asking for money.
Next to the mosque, an elderly woman is sitting and sewing in the open door of her house. From a former paint bucket she sells nicely composed, informative booklets about the village. I take two kinds for seven euros, but Mohammad does not allow me to pay that amount, he shows that a total price of two euros is printed on the booklets. A long, superbly choreographed bargaining starts, the end result is five euros, to everyone’s satisfaction.
The cemetery looks down on the valley from the hilltop. The tombstones are irregular stone tiles, like in most Iranian cemeteries, but here almost all of them have some inscription, or at least some symbol, a cypress, the tree of eternity, or a lion’s head, the heritage of the lion-shaped tombstones of two thousand years ago. Next to the fresh graves, colorful ribbons on a pole, this Central Asian nomadic custom is widespread throughout Iran.
The terrace of Viuna hotel and restaurant, standing on the verge of the village, has a stunning view of the place. The owner, Hamid, was an engineer for many years in the south Indian Bangalore, from there he brought home his knowledge of the hotel industry. The hotel was built in a traditional Abyaneh style, in very good taste, without any exaggeration. On the tables, tea sets and water pipes decorated with the portrait of Nasser al-Din Shah, on the walls beautiful photos of old houses in Abyaneh, as well as of children and elderly people in folk costume. “Who took the pictures?” “I did”, says Hamid, and he shows that in the thicker booklet also has his photos, it is the publication of the hotel. The tradition is in good hands.