“Whatever you do, don’t take pictures.”
As we passed anti-aircraft turrets and razor wire fences, none of us felt inclined to even make the attempt. There are some places where a warning to abstain from photography merely stokes the desire to sneak a shot. Driving past a nuclear facility in the middle of Iran was not one of those times. We kept our phones and cameras down, taking in the sight with our eyes alone. To be honest, there wasn’t much to see. Most of the facility was underground.
We passed another turret and found ourselves on a narrow, but well-maintained road snaking into the mountains. It followed the path of a river lined with trees dipped in the colors of fall. Within minutes, the tension of passing the nuclear facility dissipated. We were already in a different world. Our destination? The ancient town of Abyaneh.
Most of the ancient places I’ve visited have been cities or fortresses. Rarely do I find myself in a town and think, “Wow, this little place is ancient!” Abyaneh breaks that mold. Around 1500 years old, it’s a tiny place of terraced homes built with crumbling mud bricks; the people here speak the old Middle Persian dialect–Parsig–which was commonplace hundreds of years ago. This is a town removed from the flow of current events, languishing and swirling in a temporal eddy as the centuries pass it by.
Our hotel was on the backside of the town, nestled at the feet of a mountain. After dropping our luggage off in our rooms (which had a ludicrous number of beds), we set off walking down towards the old(er) part of town. Along the way, we passed little cubbies dug into the hillside. Built for storing food and supplies to last the long winter, they look curiously similar to hobbit holes.
The population of Abyaneh is an old one, with the younger generation venturing off to the cities for more opportunity. The people left go about their daily lives, often chafing under the scrutiny of tourists. Be careful taking pictures of people here; they may take offense to it! Better to ask or just be sneaky, as I was.
The brick street wound through the city like a vein, the terraced homes crowding in and spreading away up the mountainside. Old women shuffled past in eye-catching floral shawls, ducking into alcoves and doorways as we walked by. The town was overwhelmingly red–as red as the dirt and stone it was built from.
Then, it got dark. Nonplussed, I pulled out my flashlight and turned it on. It flared, then died within seconds. Dead batteries. I cursed my stupidity and descended the steep, treacherous slope by sliding and crab-walking my way down. I was getting more and more uneasy, as it was quickly becoming too dark to see. Once, I slid faster than I wanted, and had to flail my way to safety as a small slide of rocks threatened to sweep me down the hill. One large rock struck my ankle, breaking the skin and causing me to limp almost immediately. Luckily, I made it down and trudged sheepishly back to my room. At least no one had seen me.
It was time for some chelo fesenjun–a local specialty with chicken cooked in a pomegranate and walnut sauce. I’d had the dish once before and couldn’t wait to try it in a place known for producing an excellent version. Soon, it was set before me and I tucked in with a vengeance.