A postal route operated here when North America wasn’t yet settled by Europeans. International traders slept here in style 200 years before there was even such a thing as the United States.
But today the caravanserai of Zafaraniyeh sits empty and abandoned, like thousands of other ancient jewels all over Iran, victim of time, cultural amnesia and a bureaucracy too overwhelmed to protect all of the nation’s heritage from trespassers – or the tourist passersby with plain dumb luck.
Today, I am the tourist with the dumb luck. I drove off the highway out of boredom 25 kilometers east of Sabzevar into the village of Zafaraniyeh, population 232, settled at least a millennium ago on the northern edge of the lethal Dasht-e Kavir desert.
Closer to the highway, I’ve already climbed up and down a yakhchal, an ancient brick and mud ice house that kept water frozen through the summer, seemingly mythical but very real technology used by Persian as far back as 2,000 years ago.
Now my wife, Saeideh, and I are walking toward the gates of the caravanserai (also spelled caravansary or karavansara), built by the Safavid Dynasty (1501–1736, سلسلهٔ صفويان), to connect Europe to the Far East on the ancient Silk Road.
The old men in the village warned us the gates would be locked. But I’ve been in Iran long enough to know that Iran is like the terrestrial capital of the Murphy’s Law.
And sure enough the gates are open. In fact, there are no locks whatsoever. For Chrissake, what are the old men smoking?
As I push them, the five-meter high wooden slabs slowly creak aside and I step into a three-story high vestibule in remarkably good shape, its domed roof still intact.
We spend the next two hours climbing through the vestibule’s tiny corridors and stairways like two little kids, running up and down and to the sides, checking out all the little alcoves, furiously taking pictures.
It reminds me of the labyrinth in the film The Name of the Rose. I can almost hear Sean Connery’s voice pontificating on ancient forbidden texts.
Ah, another reward of saying yes to travel in Iran. This is a prime 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 can’t keep up with what thousands of years of civilization has left behind – there are just way too many historical structures! – rewarding the lucky with treasure hunts like today.
Back down I stand in the middle of the vestibule and listen to silence broken only by the flight of pigeons and the far off whirling of truck tires flying over asphalt.
I can’t stop thinking about the scale of history: when Galileo was denying his science to save his hide, one of these caravansarais sat every 36 kilometers along the Silk Road, ensuring safe passage of pilgrims, traders and freight and mail hailing from as far away as the Mediterranean and China.
I also can’t stop thinking what would the authorities do with a place like this if it was in Europe or North America. “Pocahontas might’ve slept here!” the National Parks Service would’ve declared long ago and this town would’ve been humming with motels and fast-food joints and air-conditioned tourist buses.
But without air-conditioning Persians conquered the desert, bringing water here through a maze of devilishly intricate underground tunnels (qanats) from mountains far away, so that eventually they brought guests here from all over the known world.
They were digging those qanat deep underground 3,000 years ago to ship the water many miles under the desert.
I see the same obsession with symmetry and design and forethought – everything that’s missing from the modern Iranian construction – is on display on these walls, the brickwork so perfectly aligned and masterfully planned.
It suddenly occurs to me that this feels just like standing in an equally bewildering European cathedral.
It’s perfect architecture that demands veneration.
I leap around around and exclaim at Saeideh: “Iranians built this? These same Iranians who build the same [modern] monstrosities you can barely look at?”
She’s philosophical: “That’s why I say mankind is devolving instead of evolving.”
I remind her that just the day before the Chinese put a satellite in orbit to communicate using entangled quantum particles.
This place is not exactly abandoned. There are many repairs here and there. The villagers say government workers occasionally show up and then leave citing budget shortfalls.
There is a cost to not locking up the place. Back upstairs, I stop in my tracks and my heart sinks: someone has bricked off one of the alcoves and fit in a modern plywood door. I hope this is not part of the renovations. Inside, there’s a felt rug on the floor. Someone’s hideout?
From the roof I discover pretty much all of Zafaraniyeh is littered with history. There are domes on top of most homes stretching to the edge of the desert.
Later on, villagers, most of whose last names is also Zafaraniyeh, take us to the abandoned but still exquisite ab-anbar (an underground water cistern). And then to a disintegrating tea house from at least 200 years ago.
Finally we’re told the most fascinating sits on southern edge of the village, a couple of estates where the well-to-do used to live, each with a wind-catcher (بادگیر), all abandoned by the children of their dead owners.
It was too dark by now to explore unkempt history. Tired and disheveled from a day in the harsh sun, we end up crashing inside one of those ancient cave-like domed homes, with 1.5-meter thick walls, whose 85-year-old resident showered us with heaps of vaunted Persian hospitality, tea and melons on Persian rugs in tow.
With at least some of their heritage blowing away in the desert wind, Iranians and their dignity live on.
Do you want to have experiences like this in Iran?
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