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Iran – People of the Flame

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Text by David Adams
Photography by David Adams

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In the heart of an ancient nation, a sacred fire burns. It hasn’t been extinguished for over 2,000 years. Its mysteries inspired the faith of millions and lie at the very root of what Christians, Muslims and Jews believe in today. This journey covers two and a half thousand miles and takes us behind the veil of Islamic fundamentalism to a place where time and history began.

Iran is not strictly at the “ends of the earth” but because it’s been effectively off limits to many Westerners for so long, it is still a land shrouded in mystery. This journey begins in modern day Iran, a much-misunderstood country at the centre of a troubled region. In the capital, Tehran, there are still signs that some Western visitors remain unwelcome. Graffiti on the walls of what was the United States’ Embassy, serves as a reminder of the capture of 52 American hostages held by revolutionaries for over a year in the same building. The graffiti proclaims Iran’s hatred of America, a country they call the “Great Satan” and everywhere the face of Ayatollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution, is to be seen. While Islamic law can still jail a woman that forgets to cover her head or a man that drinks a beer, it is now being observed less strictly.

The old Iran is re-emerging from behind the fundamentalist veil, an ancient land with roots reaching right back to the beginning of time. Centuries before Jesus, a man was born here whose vision still shapes our world. His name was Zarathustra, but he’s also known as Zoroaster. Fire was his fascination. In its flickering mystery, he saw things which few had seen before; a single supreme being, a heaven for the good and a hell for the wicked, a divine saviour and a last judgement. Jews and Christians have long embraced versions of these beliefs, which are still very much at the centre of our civilisation today. This journey is as much spiritual as physical as we head into Iran’s remotest corners in search of Zoroaster’s eternal flame.

The route takes us northwest deep into the Elburz Mountains, on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. This is one of the greatest barrier ranges of Central Asia with peaks over 10,000 feet high. For many centuries, the Elburz have been a refuge for those who wanted to remain independent of cities on the plains. They have also been used as a sanctuary for anyone wanting to hide from the authorities or simply wanting to be different. These mountains have also been a place from which to plot mayhem. Our route leads us to the lair of the Assassins and the fortress of a very dangerous man.

Alamut Mountain, which means, “eagle’s teaching”, is a rocky skyscraper thrusting 3,000 feet into the air. Maybe it’s just the extraordinary shape, but toiling up its slopes, you begin to understand why some people believe that certain spots on Earth possess uncanny powers. A challenge for the toughest of climbers, for an army it is mission impossible. It must have been even tougher for travellers in the middle ages climbing these mountains while wearing full-body armour. This precaution was due to the man who lived at the top of the mountain, reputedly the most feared man in the Middle East and beyond. His name was Hasan-e Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountains, and from the fortress of Alamut he launched a reign of terror.

Back in the 12th Century, the Turks ruled Iran and the Crusaders held Jerusalem. To battle these invaders, Hasan invented a new weapon, political murder. His followers killed princes, generals and grand viziers, even a Crusader king. No one was safe from Hasan-e Sabbah. Tradition has it that he acquired such powers over his followers by drugging them with hashish. As a result, a new word entered the English language. In Arabic, they were called hashisheen, we call them assassins. And there is another story. If Hasan-e Sabbah wanted to impress a visitor, he had only to say the word, and fanatical assassins would leap from Alamut to their death on the rocks below.

In the evening we build a fire in a cave from which it is said that Hasan-e Sabbah once directed his campaigns of terror. There are songs about the mountains and as darkness falls, our singing keeps the ghosts of Alamut at bay. Gazing into the fire, I remember why I’m here. Tomorrow I return to the source of a fiery mystery and a place where Zoroaster first kindled his sacred flames.

Further on, into northwestern Iran, the snows from Central Asia sweep across the mountains as the winter temperatures plunge below zero. Our next stop is a place called Tahkt-e Suleiman, Solomon’s throne. Legend has it that it was here that King Solomon struck the ground with his staff. Instantly, steaming water poured from the Earth, and the Queen of Sheba was able to have a hot bath. But there’s another legend. Also beside this thermal lake, I find the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple. This is one of the places where the great mystic, Zoroaster, is supposed to have been born. In this pit, some of the most sacred fires of Zoroastrianism once burned. Eternal flames tended by priests called Magis. This is the source of the word magic and these magical flames were never to be extinguished. And it is here, at the throne of the Jewish king, which the myths of four religions merge. It is believed that 2,000 years ago three magis set off from this very place in search of a newborn child guided by a star. The star took them to Bethlehem and there they found a Christian Son of God and a great prophet of Islam – Jesus.

Further up the road, we go back in time by another thousand years to the biblical Land of Nod where Cain went after he killed Abel and God cast him out of Eden. And so we move on to the beginning of time itself. A small valley running from east to west between Lake Urumiye and the Land of Nod is one of the supposed sites of the Garden of Eden. Expecting a glimpse of paradise, first appearances are disappointing. There is no sign of the garden where Adam and Eve once frolicked in a perfect world, only a barren windswept wilderness. But overlooking this valley is Moun Kue-e Sahand and perching above the snowline is Kandovan. This tiny village carved from rock is home to Iranian troglodytes. Eons ago, these bizarre conical shapes were formed by lava spewed from an erupting volcano. Out of these rocks local people carved their homes, which is why it’s called Kandovan. The word means, “the place that is dug”. This unlikely looking paradise is like something out of a Spielberg film, the last place you’d expect to find a Garden of Eden. But there is an entrancing, fairy tale feeling to the place.

At sunrise, flocks of sheep are driven out to pasture and the people of Kadovan go about the business of another day. We may not have found the Garden of Eden, but we’re getting closer to the real Iran. But to explore deeper into its spiritual soul, we must go further and head south through a country that has been trodden by some of history’s greatest men; Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo have all passed this way.

We arrive in one of Iran’s most magnificent centres of Islam, the Holy City of Esfahan. “Esfahan nesf-e-jahan,” the Iranians say, which means “Esfahan is half the world”. It is hard not to agree with this old proverb. No other city in Iran compares with it, perhaps none in the whole Islamic world. It lies in the very heart of the country, and at the heart and soul of Iranian civilisation. While Shakespeare was a struggling playwright and Sir Walter Raleigh had just set foot in Virginia, Shah Abbas was transforming Esfahan into Iran’s new imperial capital. He designed it around a huge central square, still one of the largest squares in the world. On the surface, little has changed. In its bazaars, potters still beat out the copper bowls as they’ve done for centuries. Cool blue tiles on the buildings, beautiful formal gardens and ancient temples; some of the most accomplished and inspiring architecture in the Islamic world is to be found here. The Emam Mosque is absolutely awe-inspiring. Completed in 1638, it took 26 years to build and remains one of the world’s most perfect fusions of architecture and religion. Its acoustics are so good that its imams could preach to vast crowds here, long before the invention of the microphone.

Here, we stop to watch the “suchana”. The name means the “house of power”. For a thousand years or so, Iranian men have joined a suchana to prove their manhood and draw closer to God. Happy hopefuls must spend at least a month watching, meditating and deciding whether they’re up to the challenge. At first, the suchana seems to be an odd mix of aerobics, circus acts and trying to make yourself as dizzy as possible. But it’s actually a very ancient way of life. Before the days of standing armies, it was the suchannies that transformed peasants into soldiers. It is really an Islamic version of martial arts. Their trainer is also their spiritual leader. As they do their workouts, the trainer chants verses from the Shanana, an epic poem celebrating the deeds of a mythical Iranian superman. Finally, it’s time for the spiritual climax: as the trainer beats out his hypnotic rhythm, the men take turns at a feat made famous by Sufi mystics, the dance of the whirling dervishes. Sufis believe that as they dance, their souls leave their body and journey to God.

The next day we are invited to sample another Esfahan tradition. To reach our destination, we have to go by a bridge. We don’t just go over the bridge however, we have to actually go inside it and there we find a teahouse. Here, retired wrestling champions pass the day away with tales of triumphs past. The tea is drunk in the Iranian style, and once the tea drinking has been mastered, the hookah arrives. This ancient water pipe also has its own etiquette. There is an old saying, “If you want to find God, look inside a hookah.”

Southeast of Esfahan, in the heart of Iran, are the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the mighty Persian Empire. Persepolis is actually its Greek name. In ancient Farsi it was called Para. This was one of the great centres of Zoroastrian religion. As long as 2400 years ago, Parsa had running water, an effective drainage system and not to mention one of the world’s greatest libraries. That was, until Alexander the Great destroyed Parsa in the 3rd Century BC. Impressive ancient columns measuring 60 to 70 feet still stand. Pesepolis or Parsa was also an important centre of the state religion, Zoroastrianism. Near Parsa is a group of living Zoroastrians worshipping before the tomb of a former Persian Emperor, Darius the Great. There is also a ceremony worshipping an ancient statue, which they claim to be 2500 years old. The strange winged figure is the sacred symbol of Zoroaster’s god. Carved images of gryphons, bulls and winged men with beards depict the most common symbols of the Zoroastrian notion of the constant battle between good and evil. As always, central to their worship is fire. “We believe in brightness,” says one worshipper. “You see, all this was a centre of light. We always face the light to pray because we believe that brightness brings happiness in life,” says another worshipper. “If there is no sun, we light the fire and pray facing the fire,” he adds. It is a sign of a thaw in fundamentalist Iran that until recently, this kind of worship was prevented. Today modern Zoroastrians visit the site on regular annual pilgrimages from all over the world.

To see the ancient flame itself, we must venture further east. There we can find the original fire left all those years ago by Zoroaster. The route takes us into the desert along the ancient Silk Route followed by Marco Polo and the old silk traders, between China and the West, where great camel caravans once carried men’s fortunes on their backs. If Marco Polo were alive today, he would find this valley unchanged. Travelling through these vast primordial spaces, it is easy to forget we are actually in the 21st Century.

Arriving at our final destination, the temple at Chak Chak, we see a cluster of buildings embedded into a massive mountain. This is where we will find the sacred flame. Chak Chak is one of the most important of all Zoroastrian shrines. Anyone entering its sanctuary must be purified. Chanting worshippers surround the flame. We gaze at a fire that has been burning for nearly 2500 years and never been extinguished. Fire kindled through fire, flame-begetting flame in an ancient line of descent from Zoroaster’s first fire. This fire is the people’s gift from God. Watching this, we are reminded of the man who first conceived those values we still hold sacred today. Long before the dawn of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it was Zoroaster who first saw a single supreme being, a struggle between good and evil, a saviour, a last judgement, a beginning and an end. And he saw it all in a flame, a flame so eternal that it will burn until the ends of the earth.