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Pass gently by these ruins

  • 31 May 2006

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