SYNOPSISA visit to the remains of earth-quake stricken Bam, to Rayen, and Mayan.  Like a challenged phoenix rising from the ashes – Bam is making a very slow comeback.

I have never visited anyone at the hospital after a horrible accident, all stitched up, covered in plaster casts and hooked up to medical machines, but that is the image that kept returning to my mind.  In 2003, Bam was hit by one of the most devastating earth quakes ever.  The city, consisting of a contemporary adobe village and the largest and most complete surviving adobe town from antiquity, the Arg-e Bam, was turned to rubble in just 12 seconds.  Over 30,000 people died.  Bam had been unique in the world and one of the most important tourist destinations in Iran.

I only drove through the new town in the taxi I had hired for the day.  I could see the two story brick and steel homes that have replaced the adobe houses, but debris could still be seen everywhere in between the new construction.  Even though most tourists no longer come to Bam – what is there to be seen – I had to go to see for myself.

The Arg is under UNESCO protection and rebuilding efforts have been made for the last 6 years.  It seems a hopeless and perhaps, even pointless task.  Nonetheless, as I read, about 150 people are employed in the rebuilding project.  Nobody was at work when I visited as it was still Noruz.  I wandered around and soon had two young female guides walking with me.  I saw these young people everywhere.  During Noruz they had been hired to guide Iranian visitors through the site.  One circular path is open to visitors.  Most of the site is inaccessible but visible from the path.  One of the girls, Mohi (an abbreviation for a much longer name which I could not comprehend without my notebook to write it down) spoke enough English so that we could communicate.  Much of the information I gathered is from her.   As so often, no literature was available in any foreign language anywhere.

For the first five years after the quake all efforts were focused on the removal of rubble and debris and the stabilization of remaining buildings parts with wooden posts.  For the last year only, actual reconstruction has been under way.  Off site there is a brick production workshop.  On site, there is a research center staffed by national and international scientists who determine the age and the makeup of each building to rebuild it as authentically as possible.  I must have been the only foreign visitors as several restricted areas were opened up for me as a special favor.  I felt quite guilty as none of the Iranian visitors were given similar privileges and my only “merit” was to be from abroad.  One particular house was worked on by a team from the Technische Hochschule in Dresden – my hometown; there I felt some sort of entitlement and was proud to see the German aid at work.  I wish Americans would participate in these projects as well.  This is what can build bridges.  I saw many of these foreign aids programs in Syria, fewer in Iran.  Germans are everywhere, but Americans are nowhere to be seen.

The citadel, the most spectacular part of town is closed, yet I was allowed into parts of it and had one of the more rewarding overviews of the ruined site.  It was heartbreaking to see what this town once was and what it is today.  Reconstruction of an adobe town creates smooth and almost slick, new surfaces.  To me, it seemed worse than cosmetic surgery.  It is fake; the authenticity of the site simply has been lost no matter how much reconstruction effort will be put into it.  I am not posting any of the photographs as they don’t do the site justice.

At one point, both Mohi and her friend told me what happened to them on the day of the earthquake. There is not a family in town that was not affected by this quake in one way or another.  Mohi was one of the few people in town whose immediate family survived.  They got out of their house in time.  Her friend Sahi, however, lost her mother and brother in the quake and she herself was trapped for hours under the rubble.  Both of them were 15 at the time.  It was incredibly moving for me to hear these two girls telling me their story.  To this day, the loss of tourism continues to hurt them all.  I am glad, I came.

Outside of the archaeological site was a bazaar with souvenirs, ice cream, and food stalls.  Would you believe that not a single item on the history of Bam, not a single photograph or poster could be purchased?  In many hotels I had seen posters of Bam before and after.  I had counted on purchasing them here.  No, every imaginable crap under the sun was available, including a poster of the castle of Neuschwanstein in Germany!  What can I say?  Who is in charge of doing some thinking here to fuel the local economy and to promote what is in front of them?  It would take so little!

Most tourists now stop only at Rayen, a much smaller but better preserved adobe town closer to Kerman known as the Arg-e Rayen.  I visited there as well.  It gave me a good perspective on what Bam used to be.   There was a whole promotion center with posters, postcards, CDs, and a running video.  Still, no poster of Bam…  But I met a young couple working there.  She is a photographer who works at the souvenir booth.  He is an English teacher who was off duty and was eager to become my guide to practice his English.   In exchange I worked on some quotes for him which he had translated into something Nicola would call “Farselish”.  They were posted in the promotion center, to the great amusement of every foreign visitor, I am sure.

My final stop was Mayan.  It is known for the extensive Bagh-e Shazde gardens fed by underground water sources dating from the 19th Century.  And it is famous for one of the most important shrines in Iran, the Aramgah-e Shah Ne-Matollah Vali , dedicated to a famous Sufi dervish.  At the gardens there was a stall selling local sweets.  A dusty “before and after” poster of Bam was pinned on the side of it.  I asked if I could purchase it.  The answer was no.  Why?  It’s so old and ugly.  I confirmed that I did not care but really would like to purchase it.  Wait here, I was ordered.   OK, I waited.  And the Bart Simpson of the store ran away only to return with a much better preserved poster for which he would absolutely take no money!

Taxi driver Ali spoke little English.  He patiently waited where ever I went and forever long it took.  I am sure he usually is going on this tour with tourists who are a bit faster than I am.  The day is supposed to take about 8 hours.  After 11 hours we got home.  I am not sure about him, but I was exhausted.  The sun was beating down on me most of the day.  Dry heat – yeah.  It’s still hot!

The road south of Kerman eventually leads to Pakistan.  This is Iran’s frontier province.  As many frontiers in this region, this area is known for lawlessness and drug trafficking of the worst order.  Most of the drugs in Europe are said to come this way.  I read about the most ingenious way of smuggling drugs:  Inserted inside camels that are trained to wander through the desert from and to specific destinations by themselves!  Tourists have been abducted in this area by drug smugglers for ransom.  That’s why I hired a taxi for the day rather than venture out by public busses on my own.  There were police stops everywhere.  Some of them were doing serious checking of cars and cargo with drug sniffing dogs.  We were stopped several times and Ali, the driver was questioned.  I was usually just looked at and dismissed as a harmless foreigner, I guess.  Not the profile they were looking for.

With all the wonderful things I saw today, it was still somewhat of a depressing day.  For some reason, I take it for granted that things got destroyed in the distant past by wars and conflicts.  Somehow I always think that people at the time treasured their past less than we do today.  I am not sure why I make that assumption.  But when things get destroyed in wars as recent as the invasion of Iraq or as recent as an earth quakes as 2003, I cringe.  Worst of course are deliberate attacks on our cultural heritage such as the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban, or the negligent if not deliberate construction of the damn near Pasargadae and Persepolis that was mentioned in a recent comment on this blog.  In those cases we really have to ask ourselves what should and could have been done!

Good night.