I thought I was used to Iran being chock-full of remnants of history, most sitting out in the open, unguarded and unprotected.
Stumbling on history is one delight of touring Iran. You never know what beautiful caravansary or remnants of a Zoroastrian fire temple or lighthouse tower you might run into smack in the middle of nowhere.
There were large cities on the Iranian Plateau 7,000 years ago; there’s so much that’s left behind by so many civilizations. There are thousands of sites registered as national heritage, but many more remain ignored or unknown.
Nothing – except perhaps an animated mummy popping up in the middle of the road – would surprise Saeideh and I anymore, I thought.
I was wrong! Today I was freshly stunned to visit 4000-year-old petroglyphs just two kilometers from our apartment.
Touring history in Iran: Kamarmaghbola Petroglyphs
Kamarmaghbola Petroglyphs are stone carvings of human and animal figures in a gorgeous hilly area near the town of Torghabe, a suburb of Mashhad, in northeast Iran.
I was still doubtful as Saeideh and I headed out with a friend Hamed Farahati, 32, a Mashhad civil engineer and tour guide.
A short while later, Farahti told me to turn onto a dirt road off the main highway. I had never even noticed the road before. Up a steep turn and suddenly, we were among lonely camelback hills and arid plains, dotted with giant mulberry trees along dry creeks. Just discovering such beauty within walking distance of our home felt like a treat.
We parked and hiked up a rocky hill to find the carvings. They reminded me of the rock art found in the caves of Europe.
Treasure hunting is common in Iran
Farahati said the area is thought to contain buried treasures from centuries past.
Buried treasures are common in Iran. People fleeing enemy troops often buried their valuables. There are many legends of people finding centuries-old coins, jewelry, and royal artifacts in their backyards. Treasure hunting to sell to international collectors is a lucrative and common crime in Iran. This is why the ownership of metal detectors is illegal in Iran.
Treasure hunters frequently dig in this area at night, despite the strict laws against the looting of national heritage, Farahati said. “You come here in the morning and suddenly you see a dozen holes in the ground.”
Iran is full of holes, and I’m not kidding. Here’s Saeideh investigating a hole we found about an hour from our home. It turned out to be a man-made cave that stretches deep underground:
You can never be sure what the hole is from. Treasure hunters? Ancient people dug holes to hide from the enemy or use as a make-shift shrines and meditation refuges, Jesus-in-the-desert style. Sometimes entire villages hid underground for months to stay clear of invaders.
Bronze Age Tengriism is one theory
I called my friend retired archeologist and college professor Hassan Abdullahzadeh of the city of Sabzevar.
He said some researchers claimed the Kamarmaghbola petroglyphs were the work of sky worshipers of the Bronze Age religion of Tengriism.
A more likely scenario is that they are expressions of art and the daily life of people who lived in this area, he said.
The age is determined by comparison with other petroglyphs found in this part of Iran – there are many all over Khorasan – as well as the examination of fossilized biological matter found on the carvings.
The primitive depictions of the animals span many cultures and time periods, he said.
“Those goats with the long horns – you find them in the kilims of Qashqai tribes of central Iran or the kilims made thousands of kilometers away in Anatolia or Turkmenistan.”