After the long drive yesterday it’s quite a relief to have a short trip to our first site. The bus takes us passed some snow capped mountains and trundles southeast toward Afghanistan. The road checks come more frequently and there is noticeably more activity at these points than others we’ve passed. Drug sniffer dogs, the only dogs that are considered honourable in Iran, sit to attention and there is a parking lot on one side dotted with impounded vehicles. The drugs trade from Afghanistan would appear to be rife.
We are met at Mahan by the sight of the towering mudbrick city walls and an imposing round tower of the Rāyen citadel. It is a Sassanid Citadel and dates to the 5th century AD. The smooth finish of the mudbrick construction coupled with the height of the walls renders the citadel well and truly fortified. We enter through the only gate and are presented with a maze-like world of walls that look like melted chocolate has been unsparingly drizzled over them.
Their smooth rounded appearance makes me feel like I have entered the desert residence of the Telly-Tubbies: child-friendly with no sharp edges.
This effect is the consequence of severe conservation. Worrying that the mudbrick walls which lie beneath this coating of modern mud mixed with dried vegetation, the decision was made to completely cover the walls and essentially, make everything look like a chocolate igloo.
We wander through the narrow streets and duck into some of the houses, termed ‘common houses’. Most houses are quite modest but the squinch count goes up ten-fold. Before this trip I had probably heard the word ‘squinch’ twice in my life. I have now heard it every day for seven days. It’s a delightful word and refers to the architectural element that is the awkward cornering in order to accommodate and join a round dome on to a square-shaped room.
Continuing around the citadel I weave in and out of the Telly-Tubby village and find parts less conserved than others. At last I am able to see the crumbly, mealy fabric of the original mudbrick dwellings. In one of the dwellings a fire oven is burning and my nose draws me into a back room to find the rest of the group munching on fresh flat bread made by sticking the bread to the roof of the oven. The smell was intoxicating and boy did the lightly seasoned bread taste good.
Happily all still chewing on bread we head back to the bus but not without a detour to see the ramparts from the outside. Wow. The colossal building programme is impressive. Once again, like at Na’in, a huge ditch acts as a quarry for the building material and re-enforces the citadel’s fortifications.
Behind us is a modern cemetery and on the wall of a building three faces stare out at us in a mural. What has struck me and every one of my travel companions, is that in every town there are similar faces on placards, posters, and paintings. In Iran they are called ‘martyrs’. They are the casualties of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and in every public space you are reminded who fought and died on the Iranian side. The message is never to forget them and since their faces, with dated hair styles and the occasional heavy-rimmed glasses, stare out at you from every corner, it becomes impossible to do so.
We stop briefly at a garden set behind thick walls in the middle of the desert scrubland. Nothing for miles and then this oasis of water, pines and flowers emerges as a spot of green incased within brown mudbrick. Over lunch we chat to some of the locals and a young girl visibly swoons when I tell her I am from London. Normally the next question would be what do I think of Iran but she is too excited to ask whether I know the boy band One Direction to care about my thoughts on her country. Sadly I have to admit to knowing nothing about them. I am officially old.
Plans are afoot to go off-itinerary and visit the Archaeological Museum in Kerman but not before a fleeting visit to the The Shah Nematollah Vali Shrine. In a small room called the ‘room of 40 nights’ (‘Chelleh Khaneh’) every inch of the walls has been decorated with writings of the Qu’ran and Persian poetry.
The secret gem of Kerman is its archaeological museum housed in a once private residence belonging to the Harandi family. Inside the house has been beautifully restored and the cabinets are filled with the most delectable of artefacts from the 4th millennium BC until the Islamic period.
It’s a small museum but it is evident that love and attention has been paid to the presentation. I’m immediately charmed by it and peering into the cabinets I am rewarded further by some exquisite objects. Just as in Tehran museum, I am struck by the ingenuity, creativity and quality of even the earliest artefacts. From the lovely soft grey pots with perky goats painted on, to a proud bird of prey puffing out its chest, to the bronze plate with a lion in relief – every case is a delight. There are patterns and forms I’ve simply never seen before and I am thoroughly entranced.
The main attraction presides over the top of the stairs: a bronze lion from the Sassanid period.
It stands with a snarling face, a wrinkled nose and a tongue lolling out of its mouth. The detail is magnificent and each tiny hole for a whisker has been individually imprinted into the surface of the metal.
Tomorrow is the drive to Shiraz – a place name that conjures up thoughts of… well, wine mainly.