NEAR SABZEVAR, IRAN – “You should be petrified when you come here,” the man who just climbed out of a hole told me, “because it becomes so obvious that nothing lasts. You come and go, no matter who you are and how powerful you are.”
Thus began my lesson in existentialism from my two guides on a visit to a complex of historical sites not mentioned in any travel books.
To the ignorant—or the American spy satellites that watch this land—it’s just a hillside dirt hole, barely big enough to enter.
To the Iranians who’ve lived here for thousands of years, however, it’s a message from the past, a testament to how their ancestors managed to survive countless conquerors.
The hole is actually the entrance to a 900-year-old man-made cave created to hide from the enemy. There is another hidden entrance from the above and there’s a tunnel in the back that leads to other caves dug over centuries as multiple escape routes.
There are probably hundreds of such wartime shelters just in this part of Iran and countless others all over Iran, most of them long forgotten to time and sand.
“It’s like a maze of rat holes in there,” archaeologist Hassan Abdullahzadeh tells me as we began to climb the hill shortly after sunrise, sleepy-eyed and thirsty. It’s 20th day of the Ramadan and I can’t eat or drink, at least not in the public, and clueless about the history lesson I was about to receive.
“Over the centuries, they figured out that they need to allow for anything that the enemy could think of. Even if the enemy found the cave and poured fire on them from above, there was still a way out,” says Abdullahzadeh, who works at the office of the Cultural Heritage Ministry in Sabzevar, 81 kilometers away and 700 km east of Tehran.
“And it wasn’t just a cave. Inside we’ve found bedrooms, kitchens, works of art on the walls, sophisticated pottery.
“We found a bowl-shaped oil lamp with holes on the side; we suspect it was made to throw soft shadows on the walls in order to relax the occupants.
“Over time hiding in the caves wasn’t just about survival but a lifestyle. They found ways to live down there in tranquility to outlast the enemy.”
The lesson to the future enemies should be that Iranians “are tough survivors,” Abdullahzadeh goes on.
“Throughout history they’ve given refuge to travelers. After all, they were living on a crossroad of continents and learned to deal with foreigners of all types.”
There are indications that most foreigners came in peace and found hospitality here. There is even evidence that foreigners felt comfortable enough to leave their dead here to continue on their journey, Abdullahzadeh says.
“But vow to the outsider when the Iranian chooses to resist,” chimes in my other guide, Abdulreza Soleimani, art historian, college professor and a former head of Cultural Heritage office in Sabzevar. “One way or another, the foreigner either leaves or gets absorbed into the culture.
“The Iranians have been at this game for thousands of years; it’s in their blood now.”
I am in an area known as Baba Langar, named after the 14th century Sufi spiritualist buried further up the hill. What used to be the Silk Road is now an asphalt highway 20 kilometers away, busy as ever, with Eastern European and Turkish trucks zooming by to and from Central Asia.
Below us, old men and boys tend to the fields and herds of sheep and goat. Giggling children jostle to be photographed by me, the latest newcomer; the women smile but nervously turn away at the sight of a camera.
To the archaeologists here and abroad, though, this area is home to a remarkable array of priceless structures spanning three millenniums and—because this area has always been a thoroughfare—of many origins and beliefs. Muslims, Zoroastrians and even the Anahitas (pre-Zoroastrians dating back to 1000 BCE) left their mark here.
Even Buddhists went through here on their pilgrimages to the east, Abdullahzadeh writes in his latest of four books.
To climb the hill is like climbing into a time machine.
Just a stone’s throw from the shelter, there’s an Achaemenid (650 to 330 BCE) stone and mortar crypt, which most likely holds the remains of as many as 30 members of royalty.
“It’s too precious to ever dig it up and archaeology has moved on from the let’s-dig-up-everything mentality,” Abdullahzadeh says.
And further up the hill I am led into the intact remains of a Zoroastrian temple, also built by the Achaemenids, where fire probably burned ceaselessly for centuries.
Besides the temple is an underground water reservoir and stone walls built into the side of the hill to keep the soil from washing away. All those were left by the Achaemenids too.
“You’re looking at a 2500-year-old wall and it’s still standing!” Abdullahzadeh exclaims. “They truly cared about their environment and worked to conserve it.”
Still further up the hill, and by now we’re panting and sweating under the puffy clouds that gently sail over us, we get to the mausoleum of Baba Langar, built during the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736 CE) and the tomb of Haj Baba Tavakol, another Sufi, this one from the 13th-century Ilkhanate Dynasty. Two structures a few meters from each other but centuries apart.
Then we turn to the east and descend down the hill to the natural spring of Cheshmeh Shafah—literally “fountain of healing”. The followers of Anahita believed its water, still slowly gathering in a pool inside a chamber, had healing properties.
Pilgrims still tie pieces of cloth on the tree branches nearby as symbols of their prayers.
There’s so much more, including yet another Zoroastrian temple, a bathhouse and even a prison, all from different periods in history, all within what must be two or three square kilometers.
Abdullahzadeh is analytical now:
“When you come here you should be petrified,” he says as we descend back to the village, “because it becomes so obvious that nothing lasts. You come and go, no matter who you are and how powerful you are.
“There’s a higher power that directs us to be friends and share our resources, not fight over them.
“We want to send the world this message, to say, ‘look, this is what happened here. This is what history teaches us. We already know using force doesn’t work. So let’s set aside the fighting and live in peace.
To me Abdullahzadeh’s statement sounds a bit naïve. Instead of being angry about possible attack by the same nation that initiated the bloodbath in Iraq 18 years ago, both of my guides are calling for peace and cooperation.
There’s no resentment here. They say there’s enough for everyone to share.
“They have things we need and we have things they need,” Soleimani says. “It just doesn’t make sense to fight.
“But if they choose to attack, well to me the outcome is already known,” he adds. “Just look around you. Iranians survived all this time. Why would it be different this time?”
I think of the arrogant men and women in Washington who would scoff at this kind of talk; their faith is in their guided missiles and their uncanny ability to wag the dog’s tail.
I recalled hearing Ronald Reagan during a televised speech referring to Americans as “people born to lead the world.”
Soleimani doesn’t lose a beat. He swings toward me, looks me in the eyes, and responds as the quintessential Iranian, with a poem:
“Baad avardeh rah, Baadash bord.”
The best translation: “Easy come, easy go”