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Wanderland: a journey through Iran’s wild west

Wanderland: a journey through Iran’s wild west

Nomads have been central to the country’s history for centuries. Anthony Sattin joins the roaming empire

Nomads have been central to the country’s history for centuries. Anthony Sattin joins the roaming empire

Anthony Sattin | December/January 2019

This is a story about cities turned to dust, about an older, simpler way of life and about the pleasing surprises of travelling out of the way. It’s also about a man called Fereydun who used to herd animals but has settled down with his horse, planted an orchard of fruit trees and a small garden of vegetables and who told me I could put my feet in his eyes. Welcome to Iran’s wilder west.

Three years ago in springtime I was up in the Zagros Mountains – the spine of Iran – visiting nomadic pastoralists, a group who have shaped our world but mostly slipped out of our histories. The timing was good because the snow had melted, and this was the season when sheep and goats are moved from winter pastures near the Persian Gulf to summer grazing high in the Zagros peaks. I flew into regal Isfahan and then drove west and ever upwards. There, beneath the icy peak of jagged Zard Kuh, I found a broad, beautiful valley alive with the rush of meltwater, spring blossom and nomads.

There could be a million nomads among Iran’s population of 80m or perhaps twice that number. No one is sure. For much of Persian and Iranian history, most people lived a nomadic life, which played a central role in the country’s history. A hundred years ago they made up half of Iran’s population. When the shah tried to seize absolute power in 1909, it took nomads riding out of the mountains and into the cities to restore the constitution. But in the following decades the shahs tried to modernise the country by banning migrations and forcibly settling nomads. Today, the government controls their activity through the Organisation for Nomadic Affairs.

The Bakhtiari are one of the largest nomadic tribes. They proudly claim descent from Persia’s Sassanian emperors who ruled between the Roman era and the coming of Islam. They are also heirs to a tradition of seasonal migration that dates back millennia: goats were first domesticated in the region some 9,000 years ago.

When I arrived in the valley three years ago, Bakhtiari families were setting up summer tents in dozens of camps, scavenging wood and rocks to make pens for their flocks, and unwrapping their worldly goods. As we sipped tea and chewed kebabs, they gave me a glimpse into their lives in return for me answering questions about mine.

This year I returned in the same week of May. The peaks that tower above Tehran were still white and word came from the mountains that the valley where I had camped among wildflowers was still hidden beneath six metres of snow. So I did what any self-respecting nomad would do and rerouted: instead of following the east side of the Zagros Mountains from the bustle of Tehran to Shiraz and Isfahan, I would cross the western lowlands that separate the Zagros from the Persian Gulf. This region, Khuzestan, is where Bakhtiari spend the winter. The road was long, with light traffic and many delicious surprises.

We travelled with maps and expectations. Mine were firmly fixed on the Bakhtiari and what remained of Susa, capital of ancient Elam, a city that had rivalled and often squabbled with Babylon and Nineveh. First there was a short detour across hard scrubland to see a ziggurat. I expected Chogha Zanbil to be little more than a convenience stop, but it turned out to be a marvel, perhaps the world’s best-preserved ziggurat, an ancient temple sitting on a 105-square-metre base and rising in majestic, stepped layers of mud and baked bricks 25 metres into the air. It required neither religious belief nor a passion for history to be moved by the perfection of this sudden symmetry and order beneath the deep blue sky. I would have liked to have spent a day at the ziggurat, but it was hot on the plain and Susa was nearby.

Persians spent their winter in Susa, one of the empire’s four capitals: as one of Alexander the Great’s officers noted, it could be “scorchingly hot” even in December. In 331BC Alexander defeated Darius III, now known as the last king of Persia. So the story goes, when Alexander first sat on Darius’s throne, he discovered that he was significantly shorter than the man he had defeated: he needed a table, not a stool, to stop his feet dangling in mid-air. Given the history, my first sight of Susa was as disappointing as Chogha Zanbil had been inspiring: no more than the outline of the city remains, a sprawl of low walls and trenches.

Alexander had to fight his way through the hills. I met with a different reception. This is Bakhtiari country and at the entrance to the town of Masjed Soleyman I was hailed by a couple of men in distinctively Bakhtiari baggy black trousers, black-and-white goat-hair gilets and black-felt brimless hats. The town is most famous for oil and a sign hangs above the spot where it was first struck: “The first biggest gusher in the Middle East.” It retains its fame. A British prospector, William Knox D’Arcy, sunk a fortune and eight years of his life into the hunt for the black stuff. He struck lucky in May 1908: 1,179 feet down, his team found oil and ushered in the modern era. In Iran, D’Arcy is infamous for negotiating for the oil rights for much of the country, in return for a mere 16% of the annual profits of his company, Anglo-Persian, later BP. “That”, a man who watched me eat lunch said, “is how you British stole our oil.” The concession stood until 1951.

The nearby town of Lali feels like a Bakhtiari frontier post where nomads go to buy ropes, tent pegs, oak walking-sticks, bells, flour and whatever else is needed for a long journey to the mountains. Because I arrived at the moment of departure, the town was teeming.

“Where are you going now?” I asked one carload of nomads. To the waterfall, was the answer. The road crossed the Karun, one of the rivers said to have flowed out of the Garden of Eden. In summer it slows to a trickle, but in spring it is a torrent and before bridges were built, Bakhtiari nomads in their tens of thousands crossed the water on inflated animal skins.

The Karun river was soon a memory as the road wound up through a landscape of wild rock formations to a highland valley along which were scattered nomad camps, tents, basic stone houses and some more elaborate buildings. People were bent over the wheat harvest in fields that ran down to a small river below the road. In the gloomy interior of a tented supermarket, where I stopped to ask about the waterfall, the old shopkeeper pointed her skinny finger above flagons of mountain honey, sacks of herbs and spices, bales of fabric, coils of rope and a box of bells and said, “that way”. I sensed a whiff of disapproval.

The waterfall had attracted a mixed bunch, with kids paddling on the edge of the stream and campers pitched up the steep bank. Down in the water flowing from the falls, perched on a metal-framed bed, six young men toasted each other with a drink that looked more potent than lemonade. Across the stream, a bent old man moved some 50 goats along the bank. He was getting ready to move, he told me. With four others, he would herd 200 sheep and goats, as well as a horse, which they rode only when they were tired. A sudden wind blew up, clouds appeared and rain started falling: “We will wait for the weather to pass before we continue on our way.” Increasingly unpredictable weather, probably due to a changing climate, has disrupted the Bakhtiari’s migrations.

It is the same story across this part of the country. Even the woman in the tent market was discussing the move: “Not yet,” she said, “not until the snow has gone up in the mountains.” Yet farther south in the city of Izeh spring was already far advanced and large herds were being chivvied as they ambled past ancient Elamite inscriptions. Women were harvesting wild flowers and thistle heads before summer burned it all. That was where I met Fereydun.

He was a short, stocky, greying man, with a twinkle in his eye, who was talking with some other Bakhtiari about a wedding that evening. “Would you like to go?” he asked. Iranians have a word, ghorbounette, more emphatic than “thank you”, which is slipped into everyday conversation as easily as “like” in English: the literal translation is “I would sacrifice myself for you.” Fereydun went further and told me I could put my feet in his eyes, a way of stressing how welcome I would be at the wedding and at his house. When I told him I was looking for Bakhtiari on the move, he suggested we head into the hills right away.

“What about the wedding?” I asked. “I have been to many weddings,” he replied. We got into his car and drove through wheatfields studded with oak trees. Most nomads now drive between summer and winter pastures rather than walk – a journey that once took a month is now made in a day. The wheat was one reason many nomads hadn’t yet moved: a late spring means they were only now cutting the crop.

At the head of the valley, several hours up, we came to the village Fereydun wanted to show me. Men were shearing the last of the goats and women were hand-spinning wool. Some would stay through the summer but others were now ready to go up to higher pastures. “Come with us,” one man said with a smile, “we need all the help we can get.” It was tempting, but I had my own plans. “He would come with you,” joked Fereydun, “if you were going to walk as I used to do.”

The sun sank and as the warmth went with it, we left the Bakhtiari to prepare for their migration. As we drove down towards the plain, the horse and orchard, Fereydun said nothing for a while and then, “I miss it too much! The people, the community, the peace!” Considering the two hard months he used to spend on the move each nomadic year and the ten months in tents, it was a gentler life. The following day I left the west for Isfahan with its beautiful mosques and big avenues. But I took with me this story about putting my feet in Fereydun’s eyes, about cities turned to dust and nomads who still live the way they did before those cities were built.