Even Today, the Ancient City of Bam is the 'Emerald of the Desert'

Iranian-born professor of architecture at UB offers description of damaged city

Release Date: December 30, 2003 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Last week, as they viewed shocking footage of the devastation that a 6.6 magnitude earthquake had wreaked on the city and on its 2,000-year old Citadel, was the first time most Americans had ever heard of the Iranian city of Bam.

But for native Iranians like Mehrdad Hadighi, associate professor of architecture in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, Bam was, and still is, a city of dramatic beauty, even as much of its ancient heritage now lies in ruins.

"Bam is the evergreen city in the gray of the desert," said Hadighi, "It has been called the 'Emerald of the Desert.'"

Hadighi noted that last week's damage to the world's largest clay structure and its surroundings presents humankind with an almost immeasurable loss.

Yet, at the same time, he added that in his culture, that kind of loss is interpreted and experienced differently than it would be in the Western world.

"The Western model is one of distancing from history and the past, which makes it easy to identify and delegate the past to 'preservation,' while we live our modern lives," he said. "In older, Eastern cultures, like Iran, one is history and a part of history. History is a continuum and we live it everyday; we are history. We will continue to live with the Arg and its ruins." Arg is the Persian word for citadel.

Historically, he said, Bam has been lush and green, with vast palm groves and citrus orchards that flourished thanks to an extensive system of ancient subterranean aqueducts accessing rich, underground water reserves.

While modern industries have begun to thrive in Bam, especially the automotive industry, he said that the city still has a major agricultural role.

"The dates that grow in Bam are among the finest in the world, are internationally known and present a major export for Iran," he said, noting that they are available throughout the U.S. and Europe.

The area also produces sweet lemons and oranges, which are well-known throughout Iran and the city was once a major trade town on the spice road as well as a center for the silk trade.

Now significantly damaged, the city's 2,000-year-old ancient Citadel was a very popular attraction for tourists from around the world.

Some have pointed to the Citadel as an example of early Islamic culture, suggesting that it provides a window into early Islamic cities and the lives of its citizens.

"The Citadel, Arg-e-Bam, and the main fortification walls are pre-Islamic in their original form and date back to 521 B.C.," said Hadighi, adding that there was an important Zoroastrian (ancient Iranian religion) fire temple in the Arg, which was later replaced by a mosque.

The Arg and its vicinities also play a major part in the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), Hadighi continued, a very significant pre-Islamic Persian book of poetry and tales documenting the Persian kingdom.

"This is not to say that the Arg is not a 'window into early Islamic cities,' but that the Citadel is not a pure Islamic example," said Hadighi. "The Arg had been a continually occupied structure for 2,000 years, and naturally with each new ruler or king, it was modified. So, in fact, it is an interesting overlay of 2,000 years of ideologies."

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