“Ouf!” I huffed. “I cannot believe people were actually climbing the stairs of this house several times per day. They are way too steep! It’s worse than hiking up a mountain!”
We had just entered the Water Museum of Yazd, hosted in the renovated house of the merchant Kolahduz-ha, originally built in 1929. Following the local architecture, the walls around the entrance and courtyard were exquisitely ornamented with carvings of birds, vases, flowers, and geometrical designs, while the rest radiated the earthly homey feeling that old plain brick walls usually offer. The staircases connecting the various rooms and floors were also brick constructions, rather narrow, of a height at least double that of typical home stairs. It took considerable effort to move around – and it had been an already long day. I was tired. And, despite a hearty lunch on traditional Iranian stew, I was quite hungry as well.
We had woken up very early in Shiraz, ready for the eight-hour-long drive to Yazd. Under the protective shadow of one of the old town’s shrines, the medieval alleys were dozing quietly, lolling at the accompaniment of cheerful chirpings, birds resting on the wires like notes on a pentagram. The streets were empty but for the garbage collectors, the distributors of freshly baked bread (from whom we were lucky to grab a couple of bags for our own use), and an old lady we had greeted several times before, who seemed to be permanently seated on the same stairs, aging and, yet, remaining ageless. Remnants of cumin-infused aromas wafted in the air, and there was a feeling of belonging in these old neighborhoods – a welcoming aura – despite their secretive, window-less walls and maze-like patterns.
We drove straight to Yazd, stopping only to walk three times under Shiraz’ Quran Gate to get – according to the local tradition – a blessing for our trip from the Holy Book engraved under the main arc, and, later, to have a quick breakfast by the side of the highway, spreading soft Iranian white cheese on bread, rolling it into sandwiches with slices of plum tomatoes and cucumbers, and swallowing it down with spice tea too sweet for our taste. A variety of nuts and bags of Iranian dried figs – which, unlike the Greek ones are small, the size of a cherry, not very juicy but, still, amazingly tasty – kept us company as we drove through a colorless desert that did not tell any interesting story. The monotony was broken only by our regular stops at the police stations along the highway where we had to report our presence and prove, among other things, that, based on the reporting timings and the distance covered, we were not speeding.
The Eagle of Yazd – a majestic rock formation – welcomed us to the city, and we rushed to the Towers of Silence before their doors would close for the day. These old Zoroastrian cemeteries are no longer in use, so we were spared the sight of vultures clearing off the flesh from dead bodies positioned in homocentric circles on the top of the tower formations. However, the memory of the fires burning to guide the souls of the deceased who, as per the local beliefs, wander on earth for three days after their death, was still alive – maybe because of the relentless heat of the afternoon sun.
Yazd lingers among the sand dunes, deceptively idle but, in reality, full of life and potential. Its beauty remains concealed, the way the antarouni (the courtyard destined for the close family members) is secreted in the depths of the houses, not open for everyone to see. The city is known for its Zoroastrian history and community, its wind-towers, and its substantial number of bicycles (or, nowadays, motorbikes, as we painfully discovered). Its citizens are generally well off, thriving on trade, but their lifestyle is notoriously frugal, and their wealth is not obvious to the ignorant tourist. Like people in most desert towns, they are rather traditional – which is evident in the colorless conservative cloaks of the women and the scarfs covering the heads of the little girls – but they are also very hospitable and have a renowned yearning for sweets.
We wandered through the mysterious maze of the old town’s alleys, continually squeezing ourselves in nooks and shadows to allow space for the dashing motorbikes that were loudly carrying Yazd’s youth in an inexplicable hurry. Old men on squeaking bikes were horning their way through the crowd, and gabby women in black sails were deftly navigating along the narrow lanes, young children springing from their wake.
We got lost among a few “friendship alleys” – alleys so narrow that, legend has it, two people coming from opposite directions are obliged to become friends, even if they are sworn enemies, to be able to pass – but we finally made it to Jameh Mosque, stifling a very well-hidden cry that inevitably arises after a few days in Iran: “not another mosque!”. The two minarets – the tallest in Iran – looked upon us with austerity, and then continued to muse above humanity’s petty daily problems, enwrapped in their majestic blue-tile ornamentations. The sanctuary chamber, though, proved to be much more welcoming: not just because of its beautiful faience mosaic or its Mihrab – one of the most exquisite of its kind, holding at the base of its construction mud brought directly from the holy site of Karbala – but mainly because of the warm hospitality of a priest who, being able to speak a bit of English, was keen to talk about the unique echo under the dome, the importance of the four elements, and love in Islam – so frequently misrepresented nowadays, and often forgotten amongst extremists’ acts of violence. Every spiritual site is the eternal home of the Divine but, at the end, it is the human touch that makes a difference.
The day had receded long ago, and the night had already completed its first round in the city, muscling away the last remains of sunlight. Traffic was still incomprehensible. The mosque put on illuminated cloaks to boost the sacred dignity of its dominion over wind-towers and terraces with lines of flapping laundry; the rolls of termeh (famous Yazd embroidery) unfolded at the shops’ windows; the central pastry shop was packed with queues of customers placing orders; and we were still walking, feeling that we had seen and done enough for the day, looking now forward to the promised fesenjan stew – a heavenly dish of meat cooked with walnuts and pomegranate sauce, frequently prepared during winter solstice festivities which are still celebrated in Iran. It was then that we entered the Water Museum, to conclude the last visit of the day. It was only then that we would discover the true secret of Yazd.
The city managed to flourish in the middle of a ruthless desert only because of a very elaborate water supply system that exists for more than 4000 years. Iranians have been using for millennia – long before the Romans developed their own aqueducts – underground waterways (called Qanat) to transfer towards cities and fields water from sources located many kilometers away. Qanats were dug underground by qanat workers who not only opened the way clearing out the debris with the use of ancient windlasses, but also constantly smoothened the sides of the tunnels to facilitate the flow of the water. These tunnels were usually very narrow, barely the size of a thin squatting man, to save time and effort during the digging process. The workers were wearing a two-ply hat padded with cotton to protect their head, and were dressed in white clothes which, on one hand, made them visible in a darkness that was just a bit less than absolute because of the few carbide lamps, but, on the other, also acted as their shroud in case their encounter with Death was destined to take place underground. Several maintenance entries were created along the full length of the qanat for the proper subsistence of the structure, and, in the end, the water was distributed using dams, gates, channels, and carefully organized rules. The Zarch qanat is still operational today and runs under the museum, available for the visitors to see.
At the bottom of the stairs leading to the opening mouth of this water tunnel, I remained silent, overwhelmed – once more – by the amount of knowledge hidden in the collective consciousness. I was not aware of this water supply system – the way I had not been aware of the similarly ancient and sophisticated aflaj network in Oman which, over the centuries, has turned sterile lands into oases. Little of this knowledge has reached the western world; yet, civilization has developed just because of the existence of such ingenuity.
Gratitude flooded my heart for all those things I do not know and might never learn but, still, flow freely among the communicating vessels of human history, enabling the manifestation of solutions and the fruition of dreams. And then, I felt hope: so tangible as if I only needed to extend my arm for my fingers to touch it. Despite the limitations faced by individuals, the answer to any challenge, personal or global, past, present or future, exists there: in the bottomless vortex of the collective consciousness. We live in an abundant era – as we have done for centuries, for creative ideas have a life of their own, and enjoy traveling in time and space, looking for receptive ground. The qanats of Yazd which for centuries allowed the movement of prosperity through the desert, reminded me of this truth. Yes, there is hope – there always is, in front of the marvels of humanity.
I turned and walked towards the exit. It was late. Time for maast-o Khiar, warm bread, and fesenjan stew.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou