The old part of Bam was one of the world’s most spectacular and best-preserved deserted medieval cities. In architectural and archaeological terms, the ancient Iranian palace city was of major international importance. Surrounded by a magnificent 16th century city wall, and entered into through complex gateways, the old town has long been famous in Iran for its vast urban landscape of abandoned houses, and shops.
For two millennia the tawny walls of the ancient citadel at Bam rose from the vast Dasht-e Kavir desert, drawing traders and pilgrims towards the lush oasis. But in just a few minutes yesterday morning, those centuries of splendour vanished as one of Iran’s greatest archaeological treasures was levelled.
The citadel, one of the greatest mud brick structures in the world, had simply crumbled — along with hundreds of houses in the modern city around it.
There could be no greater contrast with the splendour the city once knew. Its citadel, Arg-e Bam, built from mud bricks, straw and the trunks of palm trees, covers almost six square kilometres. Hundreds of houses encircled the ruler’s palace; its central stables housed 200 horses; and it boasted a prison, a bazaar and a gymnasium. It appears that few of those structures remain today.
«The citadel is one of the greatest structures made in mud brick in the world. Outside the fortified walls you have traces of the Parthian period, almost 2,000 years ago, and there are references to the town in documents from earlier periods as well.» Dr Razmjou said that over time the town has developed layer upon layer. «There have been reconstructions and changes to the city in different dynasties. You have almost everything there from different periods: mosques, schools and the palace for governor and houses for the people.»
Bam became an important commercial centre because of its location on the Silk Road between China and Europe, and the southern trade route from Pakistan and India. The city is just 350 km (217 miles) west of modern Pakistan.
It was celebrated for its high quality textiles, and its Zoroastrian fire temple — later replaced by a mosque — attracted pilgrims from across the region. At the height of its power, in the Savafid period, between the 16th and 18th centuries, it was home to almost 13,000 people.
But it gradually declined in importance after an Afghan invasion in 1722, and most residents moved to areas outside the walls in the 19th century, leaving the citadel to be used as barracks until even the army abandoned it in 1932.
«Historically and archaeologically the whole area is very, very rich and a very important part of Iran,» said Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, a curator at the British Museum and editor of Iran, a journal of Iranian studies. «It’s a terrible shame, though the human loss is of course far greater. With this earthquake the damage is probably so, so great that I don’t know whether they can reconstruct [the citadel]. They did a lot of work there with the Cultural Heritage Foundation and have detailed plans so they do know exactly what the outlines are. But of course it would be very difficult — and costly — to reconstruct it.»
UNESCO, the United Nations main cultural agency, has asked Tehran for permission to dispatch an assessment team to examine what remains of the structure.
Photographs by M. Soheili :