Near SABZEVAR, Iran – Iran is so old that sometimes even aimless tourists get to discover a village chock full of antiquities seemingly unnoticed by a government overwhelmed with the upkeep of thousands of similar jewels.
It’s mid-August afternoon and wife Saeideh and I are speeding toward Sabzevar on the highway that used to be ancient Silk Road. Then out of sheer boredom I veer off toward what looks like a giant drill bit jutting out of the ground.
It’s a yakhchal, a giant mud and brick dome used for cold storage from as far back as 2,000 years ago. But there are no guards, no fences, no ticket booths. So we start climbing the dome like two little kids.
This is an example of why Iran is both frustratingly unpredictable and unpredictably rewarding. There is plenty to gripe about, like the inscrutable bureaucracy. But the same bureaucracy is also too overburdened to lock up all the treasures, rewarding the knowledgeable – or just the lucky – with treasure hunts like today.
An old man, Mohammad, comes by and tells us the ice house goes back to the Qajar era (1789-1925, Persian: سلسله قاجار).
“I was one of the kids that used to stand in line for the ice, which was free for everyone.
“You see that pool over there? They filled it with spring water before winter. After it froze, they chopped the ice and put it inside the yakhchal.
“The walls are brick inside and mud outside, so thick it’s cold inside all year long. They had a eight or 10-meter deep well underneath to catch the running water, so the water wouldn’t pool around and melt the ice.
“Could they build something like this today, this beautiful, this precise? No way. Absolutely no way.”
Another elderly villager, Mahsultan, added: “The water, even if it had dirt and the animal pee in it, was healthier than the water we drink today. You got people much older than me who are still alive.
“Today we have a medicine and creme for every single thing and yet everyone’s always sick.”
What looks like a middle-aged woman comes by, carrying a baby on her back. To me she looks mid fifties. She says she’s 37, that’s her newborn, and she just left her husband because, “He was an addict; he wanted to sell my baby to a barren couple” for the equivalent of $3000 USD.
The baby stares at me and then smiles into my lens. There’s a look in her eyes, so old, so wise. We are worlds apart but I would come to cherish the look captured in her eyes that instant and find myself again and again wish for a repeat encounter with that baby born to a 37-year-old aging woman in a poverty-stricken village in middle of nowhere in a country everyone always wants to bomb.
I am in one of those moments and places that I feel totally at peace and connected with my surroundings. Everything that’s happening, every person we’re meeting, it feels right, like a pre-wrapped gift that’s is naturally unfurling before us.
Days later, Saeideh would tell me the identical thing was happening to her.
The village – called Zafarniyeh, population 232 – appears to be one of the countless Iranian villages that are slowly dying as the lack of water, outdated technology and competition with imported food chokes agriculture and the young move to the cities. Like in most of such villages we saw mostly elderly.
This village, however, has this beautiful ice house in remarkably good shape. I’ve seen others on this same road that are in far worse shape. And their history and technology behind it is being studied in Iran and abroad.
I tell Mohammed the village should petition the government to turn the ice house into a tourist destination.
“Yeah, that and the caravanserai,” he says.
Turns out there’s a 400-year-old caravanserai (a.k.a. karavansara) built by Safavid dynasty, (1501–1736, سلسلهٔ صفويان). We find it empty and silent in the afternoon sun, as if it had been sitting there for 400 years waiting to be discovered.
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