Yazd: let me tell you about Yazd. It’s unlike any other place you’ve ever been, a magical little town in the heart of a country that may be hit with bombs at any time.
Ghostly spirits move along the narrow, twisting streets of this desert city in central Iran. Arid shadows creep between mud brick houses, play among the electric wires dangling promiscuously over alleys and passageways, and slide down the tall chimney-like, slotted airshafts built centuries ago to cool the houses of this ancient city. They lurk within the massive Zoroastrian Towers of Silence and dance around the hills on which the decaying round towers still stand.
One of the oldest cities in the world, Yazd is a kaleidoscope of the unusual and oddly beautiful, of the primitive and surprisingly ingenious, of dry and barren spaces and of lush hidden gardens. The sun beat down as we walked between earth-hued walls in the old town, pushing the temperature to beyond 100 degrees, driving us into the black shadows that fell in abstract shapes from the flat-roofed buildings and windcatcher towers. Long ago, clever builders created long archways and nooks and alcoves within the streets and alleys, so that passersby could find relief from the glare and dry heat.
Dusty desert spirits pursued us around corners, across open squares, and through brick arches, their hot breath singing our ears and burning our nostrils. Suddenly, a youth on a speeding motorbike roared past, sending us against the dry walls, then we were alone under the drooping tangle of electric wires that stretched and twisted between the ancient buildings. Occasionally, if we glanced up, we seemed to see a desert spirit playing with the wires or the cockeyed television antennas bristling on the sun-baked roofs.
The hot breath of the desert hissed and whispered of the past, of Genghis Khan who chose not to brave the great desert to invade, of Marco Polo who crossed it and stayed to admire the fine cloth made in this isolated city. It told us of the Zoroastrians who came with their sacred fire that has burned for three thousand years, carefully carried from temple to temple, and that burns still in the Yazd Fire Temple. And, mercilessly, it reminded us that we were in the driest and hottest city north of the Persian Gulf.
Staying close to the buildings, their uneven sides recently resurfaced with fresh mud, we passed heavy wood doors set deeply into the thick walls. Many of them still wore two differently shaped antique knockers, one for male guests and the other for female guests. The two knockers made different sounds when struck against the wood, so the people inside would know if the women of the house needed to retreat if the visitor was a man. Everywhere we looked, in the old town of Yazd, we could see why it had been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
We evaded the heat and desert spirits when we slipped through a covered alley and descended to a basement restaurant in a series of cool, arched rooms that once were part of a hammam. After eating, we scurried through the narrow streets to an eighteenth century house where we could revive in a hidden courtyard and garden and in rooms cooled by windcatchers that rose so far above the flat roof that they could grasp the air and chill it as they pulled it down.
Walking through a walled persimmon orchard and vineyard, we spied a handsome young couple strolling among the trees and flowers and vines with their middle-aged female chaperon. They laughed and whispered and talked together (the girl covered with a long manteau and a scarf, of course), always in sight of the older woman and never touching each other for even an instant. This reminded us of an Iranian husband and wife we once saw say goodbye to each other on a Tehran street corner without kissing or embracing.
The ghosts of ancient tribes still lurk in the vast dry spaces around Yazd, for this was a world of wandering tribes who carried their traditions and possessions with them. Everything they owned was at risk as they migrated across deserts, pasturelands, and mountains. Even their families were vulnerable to kidnapping by other tribes and wandering marauders. No wonder they took care to hide and protect everything of value. In some parts of the Middle East, Bedouins still make regular pilgrimages with their herds, but ancient traditions linger even in the villages and cities. And so these mud brick houses were built with two knockers on the doors and ornately carved screens at the windows from which women could see but not be seen.
Remote Yazd, built where two great deserts meet, might seem an unlikely place to have become a religious center, but it was because of this isolation that the Zoroastrians fled here. Winged Ahura-Mazda, creator of heaven and earth, god of wisdom and order, gazes somberly from the cornice of the neo-classic Fire Temple. The building is only about 100 years old, but the sacred flame that has burned since long before Christianity was born still crackles and dances within it, now protected by a glass wall, a reminder of what all life emerged from and to what it eventually will return.
Continuing out to the edge of the city, we found the venerable Towers of Silence on their twin hills. Against the late afternoon sky, they looked like natural phenomena – they might have been buttes in the American West – but as we got closer we saw that the round, flat-topped structures at their crests were, in fact, man-made towers. Parking on a steep, dusty road by the two hills, we hiked between them, desert spirits sending dust over our shoes and in miniature whirlwinds against the stone towers. Mud brick buildings, where once bodies were prepared for sky burial, clustered beside the hills.
Making our way up the steep, broken path, we reached the tower. Zoroastrians believe that the holy earth shouldn’t be corrupted by either burying bodies in it or leaving bodies on it to decompose. Instead, Zoroastrians placed the bodies on the walled roofs of the towers, so that the sun and scavenging birds could dispose of them. The bodies of men were arranged in an outer ring, women in the second circle, and children in the innermost ring. In the center of the rough stone floor, we saw the round opening to the ossuary pit where the bones were dropped to disintegrate after they were bleached by sun and wind.
These towers haven’t been used for sky burial since 1970. The town grew too close. When the vultures flew over the city after being at the towers, they dropped bits of human flesh. Since then, the bodies have been placed in mausoleums to decompose without touching the earth.
The sun beat down and desert ghosts seemed to circle us as we tried to imagine the sacred ceremonies once held here. From the tower we could see across the flat-roofed city and desert, only the windcatcher towers and a few minarets and mosque domes standing out from the endless pale brown scene. It felt peaceful there, separated from the rest of the world, the blue sky overhead.
Hot-breathed spirits pursued us across Yazd to the 800 year old magnificence of the Friday mosque – the Masjed-e-Jame Mosque – one of the most glorious in Iran. With its astonishingly high portal, rich design, and the complex patterns of tiled calligraphy representing sacred passages from the Koran, it may be unequaled anywhere. The silent, tile-skinned beauty of the interior transported us to another place, one in which we could begin to sense the emotion that believers feel when they come there, just as Christian faithful are moved by the great cathedrals of Europe. Finishing their devotions, they looked up at us, expressions thoughtful, eyes friendly.
We were glad to be there, in that place, in this country, among these ancient structures and gracious people. Despite our good intentions, we came with only fragmentary understanding of their lives and country, but were learning. They seemed to appreciate our interest and in many small ways encouraged and helped us.
Yazd is one of many unique, beautiful, and historic cities, towns, and sites in Iran that are part of a global heritage that we all share, one that belongs to each of us, wherever we happen to live, and for which we all are responsible.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press. Also available from University Press Books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and by order from your local book store.