The before photos remind me of post-war Germany. No bombing necessary, though. Disinterest in one’s past did the job.
No after photos necessary either. The impossible stood in front me; the 230-year-old Ameri House of Kashan (kaw-SHAWN) back in its full glory, a veritable witness to persistence, thoughtfulness and love for Iran’s heritage.
It’s also testimony to the idea that revitalization of historical structures can be economically profitable. They draw tourists, generate income, boost local pride and awareness, and motivate others to do the same.
For me, visiting Iran’s historical sites bring enchantment and wonder. They also create many more questions.
Why was so much beauty left to rot like a pile of garbage? How much more of Iran’s past is dying under sand? (Answer: many times what has been preserved, I hear from experts over and over.) I wondered aloud as I walked the fragrant courtyards and occasionally peeked at the faces among the chador-clad tourists.
Kashan, completely leveled by earthquake in 1778 CE, is believed to be one of the oldest centers of civilization in the world. The nearby remains of the community of Sialk, discovered some 75 years ago, are believed to be about 8,000 years old.
“We’re working on the theory that some of the civilization of Egypt originated here” based on the tools and artwork unearthed, says Mostafa Moghtadaee, a Tehran architect who spearheaded the restoration of the houses in Kashan.
Ameri House is one of five properties so far restored or improved from previous restrations at the behest of Moghtadaee, partner with the firm Beenesh-o-Fann Consulting Engineers, and co-founder of the Kashan Cultural Foundation.
He says he found the structures, at one time home to the rich and famous, in ruin or poor maintenance some 33 years ago. He was able to convince a former mines and metals minister, Hosein Mahlooji, to provide government funds to buy and restore the properties, in some cases digging a dozen or more meters into hardened earth to reach the original floors.
The work began 26 years ago. The accolades came in later.
- The Ameri is recognized as the single largest house in Iran, with 12,000 square-meters on about 9,600 sq/mt of land.
- The Tabatabi House, 195-year-old, has been noted by UNESCO for its unique wind-catcher, according to Abulfazl Mohammadzadeh, guide with the local Cultural Heritage office.
- The Abbasi House, 205 years old, is known for its complex architectural design.
- The 180-year-old Broojerdi House is famous for ts intricate plaster-mouldings.
- Finally, the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse—well, no verbal accolades necessary for that. Just walking in brought tears to my eyes. Read upcoming article.
Moghtadaee says the renovations have prodded local businesses to renovate other old structures to use them for their offices. Tourists arrive by the bus-load. Many new jobs were created. The look and feel of the Sultan Amir Ahmad neighborhood, home to the structures, have changed for ever.
“You should see what visitors, especially the Italians, write in the guestbook,” he says.
“The foreign tourists are besides themselves,” Mohammadzadeh adds. “They beg us to let them on the roof [of the Ameri House] to photograph the windcatchers.” Entering the roof is prohibited to respect the privacy of the neighboring homes, he explains.
The tourist visits are growing, although Moghtadaee explains that they rarely stay overnight because Kashan lacks good hotels.
“Last Norouz season they sold 650,000 tickets,” Moghtadaee says. “Just the income from the tickets, postcards and posters sold could fund many more restorations.”
The income, however, is not benefiting the project, he says. Once its benefactor, Minister Mahlooji was out of office, Iran’s Cultural Heritage ministry took over and the funding went dry. By law, the tourist income goes to the central government coffers, not to the projects that generated the income.
“They not only stopped the funding; they aren’t even maintaining what’s been restored,” Moghtadaee says. “They literally throw blocks in our way. This is the nature of politics going on.”
Restoration on eleven other structures purchased is at a stand-still, the properties under lock.
“I’m still working with them even though I’m not getting paid; the little salary they would pay is not even worth the trouble of collecting,” he says.
“I do it because I simply love doing this. When I come here, people gather around me with questions, hungry for direction, because there is no one here to make decisions.
“There is a method of working in every system and you just have to figure it out,” he says with resignation as we rode the bus back to Tehran. “Here in Iran, we manage to do our work, go after what we love, pursue our personal enjoyments too.”