Two Natanz-es? The One I Eternally Adore Is . . . Real!

June 29, 2016 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Natanz is the name of the ancient and tranquil township whose otherwise noble name has been excessively abused by the Western and US media circus in the past decade. They have primarily mentioned it to decry the boisterous nuclear enrichment and Research & Development facility located in Deh Zireh, a dusty sleepy oasis on the hillside of the majestic Karkas Mountains in central Iran. Whereas ten years ago, the few hundred Google hits for Natanz were exclusively referring to its people, natural beauty, heritage, poets, pears, and artifacts, especially carpets and ancient and natural monuments, the same search for Natanz today retrieves half a million hits, almost all pointing to bellicose articles, op – eds, panel discussions, sanctions, and propaganda on the nearby “nuclear” enrichment facility. Such discourse on the politically charged issue had, in essence, made the greater historical Natanz, which I dearly adore, increasingly vulnerable to a potential US, Israeli or Saudi military strike. The nascent nuclear debate ignored the humanity, history, aesthetics and culture associated with the provincial Natanz. Hence, the incendiary discourse did not serve my beloved ancestral Natanz. In fact, Natanz, an equal township representing thousands of others in Iran like it, is also revered by most Iranians for not only its famous shahmiveh pears but also for its natural spring geysers, luscious fruit orchards of pomegranates, figs, apples, grapes, prunes, quinces, apricots, and the vegetable fields nowadays adorned with fragrantly colorful saffron and rose bushes. Skeptics might argue what is so special about Natanz that needs preserving, having hopelessly witnessed on the sidelines the destruction and human catastrophic inflictions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, among others. I confess that I may not be capable of articulating what is so universally unique which merits preservation, except to say that Natanz represent a great many similar ancient settlements in Iran and the region. Natanz and her 100,000 ordinary compatriots remain close to my heart and thus I yearn for all humanity to feel Natanz in their hearts. Let me illustrate Natanz in context.


Natanz, located in the center of the red area

My personal connection with Natanz

Born in Dezashib, Shemiran, and raised in Evin Tehran, my spouse and I emigrated to the US in the late 1970s to pursue our postgraduate studies and have since then resided in New York working as chemistry and biology professors. I had never fully realised the nostalgic affinity for my ancestral hometown of Natanz until I first visited her in my early teens. My parents, born in Natanz, had resided most of their active lives in Tehran, but a few years ago returned to Natanz for peaceful retirement. On my first visit, I immediately felt an intrinsic affection for Natanz, as if I had lived or visited her throughout many lives before. Before departing for the US at the age of twenty, I had visited Natanz during the preceding few summers and retained vivid nostalgic memories. Contrary to most Tehranis whose origins are from small villages, I’ve proudly cited my Natanzi heritage. I have since visited Natanz a few more times, when returning home to visit my family. Although Tehran now houses nearly 15 million people, 20% of the country’s population, most of their origins are traced back to much smaller rural communities, such as Natanz, but many would deny or dodge their ancestral heritage and refer instead to themselves as “original” Tehranis. When visiting Natanz, I have always had the sensation of the eternal presence of my ancestors’ souls, especially amongst the historical sites and shrines, near natural springs, in the fruit orchards down the valley, or the old quarters on the hillside.

My father came from Rahan, thus our surname Rahni. The small village is now practically annexed into the township of Natanz. In the central still dusty stretch of Rahan, there is a sycamore tree, more than a thousand years old, hollow inside with its natural arches carved out by nature. (There exists a 3800 year old cypress tree, a few driving hours away in Taft). The sycamore tree canopy provides a community sanctuary for the reminiscing co – ed village elders during the day, and is occupied by the youths, carrying out mischievous acts, deep into the night from dusk to dawn. In fact, legend has it that my great grandfather, Fatollah Beik, literally carried the few hundred pound smooth cubic rocks used for seating at the tree arched entrances from the river north a mile away! The tree also serves transient businesses, including the gypsies arriving on saddled donkeys, mules and horses in the past, bartering, and more recently with trucks offering fruits, pots and pans, appliances and even laptops and mobile phones. The sycamore tree roots penetrate deeply into the qanat, the drinkable body of water naturally springing out of the ground which empties into a retention pool a few hundred feet downstream, and is used for the irrigation of the orchards and saffron fields. I used to tunnel inside the canals and caves of this spring and crawled into the narrowing and dark claustrophobic spaces for what seemed miles and hours. There were small black and white fish, albino crawfish and black leeches, all of which we used to grab with a bowl to play with. The subterranean temperature as compared to open air was at least 15 degrees colder in summers and 15 degrees hotter in winters. Closer to Kooh e Karkas (Vulture Mountain), there are numerous natural springs gushing out and down into the valley, the most famous of which are Cheshmeh Saraban, north of the Rahan-Veshvesahd’s border, and Cheshmeh Khajeh Hafez in the village of Tameh, three miles north of where my mother is from. I was challenged by the locals to stick my hand up to the elbow ten times in a row in the frigid flowing water, to bring out one pebble at a time. I was never able to go beyond five as my blood had seized in my numbed veins and my hand was without feeling. In the nearby historical cemetery called Dar – e Hol – e (the gate of horror), I vividly recall my first evening in Natanz when the local peers enticed me into fetching wholesome honey from a certain “storage” container in the adjacent prairie. I must have been stung hundreds of times by the bees and consequently developed a fever for days. Despite this misfortune, I cheerfully ate up the honeycomb to earn my passage as the fledgling tough young man among the relatives. While in Natanz, I would search out the tombstones to identify distant relatives and ancestors and I could feel myself as one with them. Younger Natanzi lads increasingly migrate to Tehran, Esfahan, Kashan or even overseas, but many return to take a bride from the city.

There are only a couple of hundred older people in any village, and it seems as though everybody is related to one another, usually through blood or marriage.

Whereas the practice of marrying a cousin was considered normal to avoid losing family land, wealth or know – how, it has, for the past hundred years, become the exception. Greetings took up to half an hour when we arrived from Tehran, but we would not dare interrupt or break away as this was regarded as utter disrespect of our rural relatives. I had to engage in endless and, at times, pointless conversations, answering a multitude of inquisitive questions about other relatives in Tehran and, nowadays, abroad, including about their marriage status, work, salary, savings, and positions. The questioner’s intent being to leverage carrying favors or peddle influence for them. In many instances, the people knew the answer anyhow, but they asked again and again from anyone arriving from Tehran or elsewhere, to possibly refine the information. They intermittently offered the opportunity to come in for a “glass of cold water”, a “cup of tea” or a slice of melon to “freshen your throat and heart”. However, based on their tone and nonverbal gestures, we had learned to recognize if their offering was genuine or simply Taarof (a form of Iranian complimentary cordiality).


Fruits of Natanz

How Natanz was reshaped in the US Media

Déjà vu all over again. I am now relieved that the destruction of many other cities and townships in the neighboring countries to Iran, as they were preemptively and unilaterally attacked by the US and its orchestrated allies, resulting in millions killed, injured, displaced, and/or exiled, should not materialise again in Natanz or Iran. Certainly the war mongering lobbyists, political pundits and self-righteous culprits in the US and its satellite outposts, like Israel or Saudi Arabia, with their ulterior motives are upset to have failed, and as a result will never rest. Nonetheless, the current peaceful approach to Iran’s nuclear deal will, in the long run, serve the mutual interests of all nations, the US and Iran in particular. Is it not fortuitously ironic that due to its mountainous inaccessibility, the provincial town of Natanz was never conquered by the Greeks, the Arabs or even the Mongols, but was recently made vulnerable to total annihilation by modern American hegemonic weaponry or that of its closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is, therefore, natural that my trepidation over the past decade for the long-term sustainability of Natanz has become my paramount concern, especially when I hopelessly witnessed the possibility of another unilateral “pre – emptive” war perpetrated against Natanz and Iran, decided in the US halls of Congress by the neo-cons and Israeli lobbyists and trumpeted by the corporatised media under the pretext of “eliminating the nearby nuclear site.” As if the destruction of the vast areas and human exposure to radiation, as well as bombings to inflict tens of thousands of casualties was irrelevant to the perpetrators and the victims. My affection for Natanz has since intensified with the yearning to preserve and cherish its culturally rich inhabitants, its resilient and naturally tranquil beauty, and its bright star-filled and meteor-showered night sky. I certainly hope that with the recent multilateral nuclear agreement, its IAEA implementation, the UN verifications, and the removal of sanctions, we will never have to grapple again with the dark clouds of destruction over Natanz or that of another futile war over Iran.


Geography and History of Natanz

Let us go back to Deh Zireh (which literally means “the lower village”) where the nuclear site, along the Kashan Natanz old carriage road and close to the Hanjan Bridge, is located. Natanz is a provincial town of Iran, 55 miles northeast of Esfahan, 35 miles south of Kashan, and 30 miles west of Ardestan. Natanz was autonomously governed by the Hissam-ol-Saltaneh’s family (Sultan Murad Mirza, d. 1882) until the end of the 19th century. Although Natanz dates back to the pre Islamic era, it remained under the loose influence of Kashan’s feudal lords, and later the regal protectorate of the early Islamic period up until the Mongol rule. It came under the direct sphere of the newly converted Shiite Safavid Kings less than 400 years ago when most of its Zoroastrian residents were compelled to convert. The word Natanz, in Middle Persian – Pahlavi – means “the beautiful city.” Natanz is comprised of a few dozen tranquil villages and hamlets, mostly with Pahlavi or Avestan names two millennia old, such as Rahan, Tamheh, Sereshk, Oushteh, Ardestan, Zavareh, Baghe-ba, Afoushteh, Khafr, Badioun, Barz, Abyaneh, Oureh, Bidhand, Gazan, Tareh, Kandes, Komjan, Targh, Tar, Tareh, Kesheh, Himeh, Yarand, Abyazan, Milejerd, Shimeh, Dsastgerd, Mahabad. The greater Natanz has a population of approximately 100,000, in addition to two hundred thousand expats residing mostly in Tehran, Kashan, Esfahan and abroad. The Province of Natanz is divided into four regional districts, each along a river originating from the four corners of the Karkas mountain apex (elev. 13,000 ft): Barzrud, Natanzrud, Targhrud and Badrud. Natanz’s pears, the gift offered to the Kings at New Year celebration (Nowruz, the Persian New Year), are famous throughout the country. Most aromatically sumptuous pears, nowadays exported to the Persian Gulf Sheikdoms, grow in small villages as Tameh, Oureh and Bidhand, tucked deeply into the upper valleys of the Karkas mountains. The name Karkas indicates the ubiquitous existence of dakhmeh or the burial mounds and drywells where the Zoroastrian natives left their dead in anticipation of vultures feeding on the flesh, so that the bones dropped down into the well and the soul was released to ascend to paradise.

The western part of the province is traversed from north to south by the old high road between Kashan and Esfahan, with the well known Caravanserai of Kuhrud (elev. 7140 ft.) and Soe (elev. 7560 ft.). This road was practically abandoned when the government’s telegraph line, which ran along it, was moved to a road farther east in 1906. The capital of this little province is Natanz, a sizable township of 12,000 at an elevation of 5670 ft. Jame Mosque, with two 123 ft. minarets, was built in 1315 A.D.

Other historical places in town are Khanegah (the gathering place of the Sufi mystics), the tomb of Sheikh Abdossamad and Gonbad-e Baz. The latter was presumably a Zoroastrian temple atop the hill, overlooking the town. Baab, the reformist Shiite cleric preceding Bahaullah, laid the foundation of the Baha’i Faith in the mid nineteenth century in small villages at the outskirts of Kashan, Natanz, Ardestan, and Naein.

It was surmised the inhabitants along the crescent region of this area did not have a strong adherence to Islam as they were still in transition from Zoroastrianism to Shiite Islam. Before the 1979 revolution, it was not uncommon to find the inhabitants of an entire village practicing the Baha’i faith, whilst their next door village was composed entirely of cultural or pious Muslims and farther south, a village between Yazd and Naein, was populated entirely of Zoroastrians.

In Kashan, there exists a historical Jewish presence. The Persian-British Lord David Alliance is a true example of a humanist Kashani at his best as he shares his life perspectives in two-part interviews. AKA Davood Kashi, as he still prefers to be addressed, his humanity and humility is simply intoxicating as he sees the people of Iran and Israel with the same set of eyes. He states his motherland in his heart remains Iran, but he also respects the need for Israel’s existence as a new country. He further elaborates that the Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe to Israel post World War II, disrupted the millennia long harmony which had existed between the indigenous Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, the Arabs, and the Christians. Most Iranians have strong spiritual and mystical truants that predate Islam by millennia. They have been brought up as Shiite Muslims since the 16th-17th centuries. Although Sunni Islam was ubiquitously practiced by most Muslim Iranians before then, Sunnis currently comprise less than 10% (8 millions) of the population – mostly Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis and the Arabs of the southwest. Iran has for millennia remained tolerant of diverse religions including Judaism and various ethnic groups. In recent times, especially when the Iraqis were bombing innocent urban civilians every night in the 1980s, many Natanzis from the bigger metropolis returned and built houses to escape the raids that had killed and injured tens of thousands. Many of these houses remain underutilised as the city dwellers only return on vacation for a few days each year.

Daily Life in Natanz

Whenever we visited Natanz before emigrating to the US, we spent equal time in Rahan, where my father had inherited the family house, or we would stay at my grandfather’s house or that of my uncle Hassan in Tameh where my mother’s village is tucked deeply into the slope of the Karkas Mountain. Tameh was more renowned for its impressive variety of fruit orchards, honey bee hives, peaks and valleys, as well as many springs. Later on, upon my return for a visit after fifteen years in the US, we would stay in my parents’ newly built, modern two story house in Rahan: a family sanctuary to seek refuge from Saddam’s bombing of Tehran in the 1980s during the protracted war. It has been gratifying to have reconnected with many of my Natanzi relatives, not only in Iran where a large number of them are university administrators and professors in charge of key institutions, such as the National Pharmaceutical Center, but also in the US where some hold key positions as academics, scholars, thinkers, as well as government and corporate executives.

Along the desert villages from Kashan to Kerman, through Natanz, weavers produce a rectangular decorative piece, out of wild rue peas and frankincense, to hang in every house to ward off devil spirits, especially the genies and goblins, commonly believed to exist in the desert and every household, and at times enslaved to do the chores at night or have an affair with a hunted family member! Staring for hours at the deep dark, azure blue sky with its super bright bundles of grape-like stars while lying down on flat roofs on chilly desert nights in Natanz cannot be compared to any other experiences in my life. It seemed, then, that the ubiquitous stars numbered a thousand fold larger than the hazy skies of large cities, and much closer to Earth. We, as children, reached out to grab them until we fell asleep. At times we counted the shooting stars, believed to be the just released souls of deceased innocents dashing toward the northerly paradise, versus the guilty ones traversing toward the southerly hell. The Thursday bazaar in the center of Natanz is far more than a simple merchandise exchange or bartering landmark. Local farmers still bring ripened seasonal vegetables and fruits including apricots, pears, apples, a variety of grapes, figs, pomegranates, quinces, and peaches.

I remember the watermelons and yellow crunchy melons, primarily grown on Koohkar prairies, an area at the descending tail of a village where they were only irrigated in early spring when there was plenty of melting water from snow, and then trusted to scarce rain. These melons are smaller than their more watery counterparts from other parts of the country with more water. Nonetheless, they are sweeter to the palate and have the most pleasant aromas I have ever experienced in life. There were also the vegetable stalls and fresh eggs, meat and dairy. The crash course in haggling one would receive by sheer observation far outweighs completing a doctoral negotiation course at Harvard! In the middle of all this commotion, there were those who were trying to visit local government offices to check on a land title, house deeds, inheritance, birth, marriage or death certificates, or attend a medical checkup before they closed down at noon to return home promptly for the Friday weekend. As well, there were many people wandering about the bazaar carrying on a conversation, seeking brides for their sons, and serving as soothers, snooping around, gossiping, buying and/or selling livestock herds, or honey from beehives, on speculation that there was plenty of honey in the beehive combs. On many occasions though, it would turn out that there was little to none to be found, the bees were dead, or the colony had simply flown away before the next summer arrived. Every village in Natanz had its own distinct, mostly middle Pahlavi dialect with minimal use of Arabic words. This held true for most villages and rural areas in Iran until as late as fifty years ago, when the national radio broadcast was followed by TV which then became ubiquitous. This, in turn, led to the modern Tehrani dialect becoming the norm throughout the country at the expense of an immense number of unwritten dialects which have faded away into oblivion. Later, when I went to the National University in Evin, I would, at times, stay in a newly built modern Mehmansara, or the “Guesthouse,” in existence in every small town in Iran, for approximately $2 a night at the exchange rate of the time. Now it is literally five hundred times that! The many valleys and prairies around Mount Karkas were covered with spherical thorn vetches. These huge gavan bushes are each approximately more than five feet in diameter and three feet high. The local villages each had certain historically designated control over the slopes and valleys closest to their location. As such, they leased these vetches seasonally to an external group, mostly from the Naein area, further southeast. The crew, camping in various parts of the valley, would dig up one side of these gavans and make a horizontal shallow incision into their roots, right below the stem. In three sessions spread out over the whole summer, they would return to collect the gum katira (tragacanth) dried out at the root. The practice is analogous to the making of maple syrup. Katira has been used as a hair cleansing ingredient for millennia and is the main natural component in most domestic and many foreign shampoos, and thus a major export to Europe as well. The most famous village in Natanz province is Abyaneh, one of the most historical villages of Iran, and one registered as a landmark by UNESCO.

Historical Village of Abyaneh in Natanz (registered by UNESCO)

We arrived there from Kashan on the way to Natanz, turning right on Hanjan Bridge and driving along the mostly dried Barz Rud River for about five miles. Abyaneh is tucked in a fertile green valley with red clay mud houses. Most people in this village, and, in fact, a substantial number of inhabitants in greater Natanz, were of a lighter complexion with eye colors ranging from hazel to dark opaque blue and green, and hair colors ranging from brunette to a few natural unusual blonde. The dialects spoken in the region are middle Persian. The mosque in Abyaneh had been built next to the Atashkadeh, the Zoroastrian temple, after the advent of Islam. This village had become the epitome of all villages in Natanz where a large number of affluent educated residents, and/or their children, had moved to Tehran, and later to the West, to take up impressive positions. Their high percentage remains astounding. An urbanised person from Abyaneh, when returning home, especially for the summer holidays, would stop his or her car atop the gorge, change into traditional local colorful clothes, and enter the village. Many villages along the Kashan-Kerman corridor have a mosque and Atashkadeh side by side, but the latter is only open in select villages in Yazd and Kerman to Zoroastrian believers and tourists. The peaceful people from the Kahsan-Natanz-Naein-Yazd-Kerman corridor are regarded in the nation as somewhat guardedly timid, bashful, conservative, laidback, perhaps even naïve or “sadeh del” (simple-hearted, as the Persian saying goes), and yet forthright, and honest, humble, empathetic, helpful, sincere, and compassionate citizens.

Nowadays, most, if not all, Natanz villages are connected via paved roads to the transnational autobahn and equipped with electricity, land based and mobile telephones, satellite TV and radio, internet, municipal services including water and sanitation, and some with municipal gas. The historical public bathhouses have all but been replaced with showers and warm water baths inside every house. The cesspool outhouses have been replaced with two bathrooms inside the living compound of every house, a traditional and one of Western style. The unfortunate reality of the progress is that most villages have also lost their traditional self-sufficiency and instead have become reliant, for almost all essential commodities, on the bigger cities and on imports. One can only remember nostalgically the traditional houses with high open chimneys, “badgers”, in their centers which cooled the houses and brought in much light. There are many new residential buildings in Natanz’s villages, mostly occupied by vacationing returnees of Natnazi heritage, now residing worldwide, for a short period during summer.

May Natanz and all other ancient cradles of human civilization everywhere remain protected eternally from catastrophic wars and violence, such as those inflicted from within and without on Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Amen.

Postscript: This prose was originally published in Diyar Vol . 1, No. 1(J. Iranian Studies, U Toronto, Spring 2016). It is a select excerpt from Rahni’s memoir entitled, From Natanz to New York: The Odyssey of an Ordinary Persian Spiritual Wanderer, (publication in progress).

Davood N. Rahni has served as Professor of analytical chemistry – and the former international associate provost for academic affairs – at Pace University New York since the mid 80s. He has written several hundred manuscripts, essays, and a recent book, Bioimaging in Neurodegenerations. He has also held adjunct professorships in Environmental Law at Pace School of Law, and in dermatology at New York Medical College. As a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in Denmark, he held visiting professorships at the universities of Oxford, Rome and Florence. His main passion, however, is to learn and share his perspectives on the history, culture, and current affairs of Iran and the Iranian diaspora.

Davood N. Rahni

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