Before the Quake: Remembering Iran's Bam

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We climbed to the top of the citadel and watched as the sun fell on the red horizon and the sky filled with stars. “I’ve been here hundreds of times,” Mohsen said quietly. “But I will never grow tired of this place.”

“No One Will Bother You Here”

One visit was not enough. I awoke the next morning at dawn to see Arg-e Bam in the morning light.

It was then that I met Ali Agha, a longtime Bam guide, whose white hair and moustache contrasted sharply with his walnut skin. He welcomed me to tag along as he escorted a small group of Iranian expatriates from Paris.

Ali Agha was a proud father of 4 and had 11 grandchildren. He beamed when telling us that one of his daughters had become a surgeon. After many years of guiding people up and down the steps of the citadel he was, despite his age, more fit than any of us.

Every so often Ali Agha would pick a spot among the many courtyards and terraces of the citadel and sing an old Kermani folk song or poem. The acoustics inside the Old City, he told us, rivaled that of any concert hall in Iran.

Tourism had slowed down in Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979. On some days visitors could explore the citadel almost in solitude.

After we had walked high enough and were hidden among the twists and turns of mud brick, Ali Agha turned a sympathetic eye to a young French-Iranian woman from our group. In the summer sun, she was chafing at her government-mandated head scarf. “Be comfortable,” he said, reassuring her it was OK to take off her roosari. “No one will bother you here.”

A Testament

After I left Iran I always recalled Bam fondly. I dreamed of one day taking my family and friends to meet Bam’s gracious people, sample its mouth-watering fruits, and of course explore its awe-inspiring citadel.

I remembered the words of a French backpacker I encountered in Bam who had been traveling overland from China to Turkey. She was at a loss to explain why Bam had been the highlight of her travels so far, trumping India’s Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. “There was a magic I felt inside that citadel,” she said “that I’ve never felt anywhere else.”

When I first heard the news of the earthquake, I immediately thought of Mohsen, Ali Agha, and their families. I had kept their telephone numbers and thought of calling them. As the magnitude of the devastation began to be reported, however, I feared the worst.

News reports eventually trickled out that everyone who lived or worked in the vicinity of the Old City—including curators and guides to the citadel—had been buried under the rubble.

It is tough to picture the charming little town now obliterated, nearly half of its inhabitants wiped out. The death of 10 people as a result of natural disaster is a great calamity. What do you call the loss of tens of thousands?

While the human catastrophe can never be remedied, renowned archaeologists and curators have vowed to help restore the crumbled citadel to its former glory. And just as Bam’s citadel inspired travelers from all corners of the world, the global outpouring of aid and support for Bam’s earthquake victims is a testament to the interconnectedness of human beings.

Karim Sadjadpour, a former associate producer at, is a visiting fellow at the American University of Beirut.

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