Pass gently by these ruins

There are places in the memory which no longer exist. In late 2000, I visited the Indian Gujarati town of Bhuj and stood atop its clock tower to survey the decaying splendour of a remote, beautiful old city near India’s troubled border with Pakistan.

Three months later, the tower remained, but nothing else within the old city walls had survived an earthquake which killed more than 30,000 people. The photographs I took were so over-exposed they made any identification of Bhuj impossible. I still have them, for they are a symbol of what can never be seen again.

In July of the same year, I spent almost a week in the ancient city of Bam, in the corner of south-western Iran, close to the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now Bam, too, has fallen, also destroyed by a devastating earthquake which took the lives of almost 50,000 people on 26 December 2003.

When I arrived in Bam, I had only been in Iran for a few days. The city instantly became for me a symbol of those early days of discovery. There I was, in Persia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, a collision point for the charms and contradictions of the Islamic world.  Bam was at the crossroads of ancient civilisations, and lay on a branch of the old Silk Road.  I remember being overwhelmed by the hospitality of the inhabitants, who greeted me with gentleness that contradicted the harsh austerity of the mullahs who had ruled Iran since 1979. Elsewhere along its streets, women cloaked all in black hurried by in the shadows, eager to avoid the impropriety of an encounter with a man.

My interpreter for much of my time in Bam was Akbar, an eloquent English teacher who had lived in London but who had chosen to live in Bam because it was his home and the only place where he felt he belonged. ‘I am happy, here with my family and my date palms’, he told me one afternoon after the heat had forced us into the shade. We drank from the springs of clear water which rose up from the earth and ran through channels along the streets. He was the perfect guide to Iran, at once making a mockery of Iranian hostility to the West and fiercely proud of his homeland. His guesthouse became a haven for travellers from across the world, a place to relax without worrying about dress restrictions or running foul of the police.

For two weeks after the earthquake, I received no news of Akbar. Then I heard that his guesthouse had been reduced to rubble. That Akbar had died was incomprehensible to me, and I felt a grief, as much for the world’s loss as for my own, that I had rarely felt before.

Three days later, news reached me that Akbar and his family had survived! Two travellers had died in the rubble of Akbar’s guesthouse but eight more were pulled out alive by rescue workers. Amid the deaths of so many others, Akbar’s miraculous survival (very few families were left untouched by the tragedy) prompted a profound sense of relief.

At the same time as hearing that Akbar was alive, I learned that Mohammed Alï, a young resident of Bam and another guide, had also escaped relatively unscathed. Mohammed was an instantly likeable young man who claimed that he had no greater love than his town. An eligible bachelor, he had the looks of a movie star, yet seemed remarkably unassuming and joked that he would always be married to his city first.

Indeed, Mohammed’s true love was the Arg-è Bam, a city built of mud and surrounded by a forbidding wall with 36 watchtowers overlooking the abundant date palms of the oasis. Of uncertain origins, the Arg-è Bam possibly dates back 2000 years. At the height of its power under the Safavid dynasty (1502–1722), the city was home to some 11,000 people—Zoroastrians and Jews amid the Muslim majority—and contained within its walls some 400 houses, mosques, a synagogue and a fairytale citadel rising high above the town. Over time, the ravages of invading armies saw the Arg-è Bam fall into disrepair. By July 2000 it was in ruins and uninhabited, but still relatively well preserved and one of the most enchanting old cities in the world. The walls of the city, particularly those of the citadel, had in ancient times been reinforced with palm trunks to provide flexibility during earthquakes.

On 26 December, the earthquake that destroyed the city, and so many lives with it, drastically hastened the process of the Arg-è Bam’s return to the earth. Parts of the old city remain intact, but large sections collapsed, taking with them a heritage which had survived for centuries. I cannot reach him, but I wonder whether Mohammed Alï’s heart has been broken, and whether he will stay.

On my last day in Bam I took one last walk through the deserted byways, silently promising I would one day return. As sunset neared, I sat in a café above the citadel gate, and there I came across a description of the old city by local writer Abdolreza Salar-Behzadi. Since 26 December his words have never ceased to haunt me: ‘Watch and pass very gently by these ruins, because every spot that you put your foot on, there may lie a king, a swordsman, an old sage, a lover, a mother.’  

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent. Photography by Anthony Ham.



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