by Lars N Nygaard, photos by Sadegh Miri and Lars Nygaard
The next morning we left Esfahan at 5.30 and with our Nissan Patrol stuffed full with gear, we drove westward towards the mountains. There was hardly any traffic at this hour, when we left the urbanization.
We headed towards the Zagros mountains, and after a few hours, we entered the valleys and the mountain passes, where the black tents of the Bakhtiaries lay scattered in clusters along the road and in the hillsides.
They were all heading back to their summer pastures, where they had been for generations. Several places we stopped to take pictures and talk with the migrating people. See more photos of the landscape and the people.
Our local scout, Mashkaram, had obviously been only loosely informed about the whereabouts of the hillside we were heading for, and where our Bakhtiari hosts were expecting us in their tent.We drove several kilometres in a valley, stopped here an there, to ask people along the road if they knew where our Chief and his tent could be. They pointed up in a hillside in southwest direction. The surrounding mountains stood as guard on each side of the valley, some of them of such altitude that the snow obviously lay on glaciers.
In a fantastic film taken circa 1925, called “Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life“, migrating Bakhtiaris are shown when crossing high altitude mountains chopping steps in the firm ice of a glacier with axes, thus making it possible for men and animals to cross the peak.We went off the road, crossed a river at a fording place, and halted on the other bank of the river.
A tent with Bakhtiari women and children stood near by and Mashkaram asked them if they knew the route to our tent. One of the women pointed up the majestic mountain behind us, topped with astonishing peaks and glaciers, and said “Bala-bala” – high up! We were on the right track ! The road ahead was hardly visible, it was only a footpath. I doubt that one single car had ever climbed these hills before us. We mounted with the gear in low position, and I walked ahead filming with my camera. I instantly felt the altitude and was short of breath before walking 50 meters.
Finally we had reached our goal at exactly 2735 m according to the altimeter. The mountain behind us was surely 4000 meters. We were greeted by two elderly and one younger gentleman, one being the Bakhtiari Chief and his son. They were the better looking of the three. The third gentleman had accidentally lost an eye, and he had learned to pose with his better side in front. The incident had left a indeterminable crater where his eye once had been. They greeted us heartily and invited us in. Well, “in” is maybe a relative description of their home. The tent was coarsely woven in goat’s hair and all black. The size was rectangular, open in the front and with sufficient height. In the back, a pile of stones was forming a shelf where we put up all our goods. An old and coarsely woven carpet, a Gabbeh, was covering some of the bare ground, giving an impression of a floor.
The Chief was in his later sixties, copper tanned, smooth skin, white hear stroked back and a brilliant smile revealing a very healthy set of teeth. In the winter they lived in Shahr Kord, but as soon as the conditions permitted, they took their flock of sheep up to the summer pastures. Their flock counted 2-300 animals, and they usually spent a couple of months here. After that they would move their flock further south to the pastures to Khuzestan, in the vicinity of Yasooch and Semirom. The son had the privilege of doing all the women’s tasks in the camp, since they preferred to dwell at home in comfortable circumstances while the boys were playing boy scouts in the wilderness. In front of the tent they lit up a fire in a stone clad hollow. Mashkaram had brought with him some chicken meat from the freezer. The Chief shuddered at the sight of this, and instantly sent junior down in the valley to fetch some fresh meat.
After half an hour he returned with a live lamb across his shoulders. It was slaughtered before we could even say “hot dog”, right before our eyes in front of the tent, in the Hallal way. The fragile little “baa” ended abruptly. Well, in spite of this brutal shock, fresher meat is hard to come by! Inside the tent was another stone set pit where they lit a fire in the dusk. It gave undoubtedly more light than heat. We spent an evening here in the light of the campfire which was unforgettable. With the aid of the harsh light from the Petromax lamp, we took a series of pictures which reflects the sentiment of this moment.
Sadegh depicted me wearing the thick felt coat traditionally worn by all Bakhtiari shepherds, always accompanied by the Collah Namadi, the felt hat. This outfit had over the years surely saved the lives of numerous shepherds surprised by snow in the mountains. Only the year before, a Bakhtiari family of four had died in a sudden and ferocious snow storm.
Going to bed here was quite simple; straight on the ground, no air-mattress, nothing. If you were lucky, part of your body would end up on the worn out Gabbeh. The outlooks for the night faded even more when I found out that the Taiwanese sleeping bag which Sadegh had brought for me was half a meter too short ! Disaster. When bending and folding like a worm, I finally managed to push all my body inside, tie a knot with the two bands, longing for the morning light. During the night, temperature crept down close to zero, and finally the first rays of morning light hit the peaks behind us. When they hit 3500 meters, we got up. I was really happy that the torture was over. At 5.30, the pit inside the tent was lit. Junior had already returned from the valley bringing with him home made products for breakfast, marmalade, honey, sarshir, bread and freshly churned butter, white in colour and made of goat’s milk.
The first tea had already been served and tasted marvellously. I enjoyed every detail of this moment when daylight was slowly increasing and breakfast was prepared. The meal was basic and very simple, but right there, a luxurious dinner could not have tasted better. As the sun was rising, a soft radiant light spread, catching the silhouettes of the shepherds in their felt cloaks. I was ready with my video-camera and I had to make a fuzz about Sadegh and Habib to get their “durbins”, their cameras ready. The result was photos with only two colours, yellow and black, showing man, sun and nature.
Lars N Nygaard, Oslo, Norway – President of the Norwegian Art and Antique Dealers Association
Find more Bakhtiari photos from the travel.