Wednesday, February 23, 2011


In all my previous visits to Iran I had never visited the Gulf coast. This is mainly because I had always come during my summer holidays, and in summer the Gulf is as hot as Hades and horribly humid to boot. Unbearable. Instead winters are balmy and pleasant

Along the coast the landscape is dominated by dry, rocky mountains, with the occasional village eking out a living from fishing or an isolated palm grove or, that local standby, an oil well. Despite the barrenness of the landscape there is a mesmerising beauty to it too, which is particularly evident on the islands of Hormoz and Qeshm, where vegetation plays a cameo role. Instead strange geological processes have created a dry dreamscape of multicoloured mountains and narrow canyons crafted by the wind. The Hormozis are so proud of their many-coloured sands that they've even incorporated them into their local cuisine: a popular speciality is called sooragh and is composed of fish and fine red sand mixed together and left to ferment in a jar for a few months. Naturally we had to buy some (I'm just lucky that I'm allergic to fish as it really smelt foul).

A narrow canyon on Qeshm, sculpted by wind-blown sand.

The islands are almost another world, not just physically, but the pace of life is comatose compared to the frenetic bustle of the mainland ports, especially Bandar Abbas which bursts at the seams with chaotic traffic, incessant shouting, overflowing shops and a slight whiff of fish. Instead, whilst exploring the ruins of the Portuguese castle on Hormoz we were only accompanied by a couple of slothful goats, and on Qeshm the four-hour midday siesta is sacred. On the latter the Bandari way of life still follows age-old traditions and the people live from fishing and cross-Gulf trade, smuggling across goods from Dubai and Abu Dhabi in traditional lenj (dhow) boats which are still built according to plans that have barely changed in centuries. Whilst picking our way along a beach we came across a yard where they were being built and my dad, the corrosion engineer with 20 years experience of North Sea conditions, was horrified to discover that the boats are held together by simple iron nails that would inevitably rust away. Within a minute he had already come up with alternatives including the use of sacrificial anodes and titanium alloys.

A Bandari lenj being built on Qeshm (sans anti-corrosion features).

Despite the desolation of the Gulf coast only a few kilometres inland in the foothills of the Zagros mountains, which, to my overactive imagination look like the humps of a huge sea monster, spring has already arrived and the valleys are filled with fields of wheat of a green so vivid and crisp whilst the hillsides are dotted with nomadic, Bakhtiari shepherds tending their flocks of sheep and goats. They're usually dressed in dull tones and seem to be caked in dust from head to foot, as if they were part of the earth itself. For me, who has only ever seen Iran as a dry, parched country, the verdant landscapes are a revelation (although the oil wells which are dotted around all over the place, with their flares particularly visible at night, do their utmost to detract from the idyll).

Locals in Masjed-e Soleiman taking advantage of a holiday to picnic in a park, a particularly popular past-time.

Despite today's rather rural appearance the hills are the cradle of various Persian dynasties and so are littered with numerous archaeological curiosities and long-abandoned cities. The town of Bishapur, now little more than some stone walls and a crumbling hilltop castle, used to be the capital of the Sassanid dynasty during the reign of Shapur (around 250 AD) who liked fighting the Romans. He was quite successful and managed to capture the emperor Valerian, a fact that Shapur made sure no-one forgot by chiselling out various reliefs all over the country letting everyone know. Not only that, but he carted off Valerian and a legion of Roman soldiers and made them build the technically marvellous waterworks at Shushtar that not only helped irrigate an area of 400km2 but also powered 60 watermills, many of which were working until less than 100 years ago.

Photo stop by the road overlooking a series of Zagros ridges stretching off into the distance.

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