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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Trekkers and Mongols in Iran's Desert Plateau
April 15, 2000

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Our home on wheels. That's me typing on my laptop as Abeja naps below
Vrrrrooo... rrrumble, rrumble... and onward we go, making our way along the bumpy roads of Iran in our very own mini-bus... a party on wheels! Since tourism in the Islamic Republic of Iran is a relatively new idea, bus routes and trains aren't very backpacker-friendly, so we had to organize a tour and rent our own vehicle to get to all the places we wanted to see in the short time we are here. Our little Hyundai bus is turning into quite a cozy home, though. We've taken out some seats to make a lounge, where Jazzie and Abeja are napping right now. Monica's staked out the back. Up front, our honorary trekkers for the Iran stage -- our guides Amir, Louie and Hadi, and our drivers Said and Ali -- are jamming to some Turkish pop music, while Brian and I attempt to type dispatches on the limited batteries of our laptop computers. Welcome to our world. It's nice to have you along. But I've got to forewarn you, this ride isn't for the queasy. We're trekking through some pretty uninhabited areas, on beat-up old dirt roads full of potholes, rocks, and all kinds of unexpected surprises. Sharp turns and sudden stops are par for the course on this bumpy little adventure. It's a good thing we've got laptops, though. You would never be able to make out a single word of my chicken scratch if I tried to write by hand on this journey!

We've been winding our way through these bleak desert roads across the Iranian plateau for days now, and for days, the scenery has pretty much been the same. Unlike the smooth sand dunes of the Sahara, or the colorful canyons and mountains of the Sinai desert, the Iranian desert is bleak and rocky.

It seems as though there is nothing but dry, brown dirt and crumbly, gray rocks as far as the eye can see. But then, all of a sudden I see shapes and silhouettes in the hazy skies outside. Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Could life really exist in such desolate conditions? The villages in Iran seem to appear out of nowhere. The small homes, made of the same dirt as their dry environment, blend into the landscape, as if they've been there since the beginning of time.

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We're not foreign invaders; we're just five world-trekkers passing through Iran's desert plateau!
But up ahead in the distance, there's an enormous dome rising over the horizon, about a thousand times larger than the small domes of the mud-bricked homes we've been passing. Surely, my eyes are playing tricks on me this time.

SCRRRREEAAACH!!! WOAH! Hang on! Said's taking a sharp unannounced turn!

Whew! That was a close call. Brian's backpack went flying forward from the back and almost landed on our sleeping beauties in the "lounge"! And my computer almost went flying towards the back of Hadi's seat! Our guides seem to be taking us directly towards the huge dome we see in the distance -- they say it's an important historical site we should visit.

As our rockin' little Hyundai bus arrives at the small village of Soltaniye, its wheels stirring up the dry dirt, chickens run by and a crowd begins to gather. Women dressed in black, old bearded men, and small playing children emerge from their homes to gawk at the weird tourist bus that has arrived.


desolate - devoid of inhabitants and visitors; showing the effects of abandonment and neglect
wreaked - caused the infliction of (vengeance or punishment); brought about; caused
atrocities - atrocious acts, objects, or situations
obliterate - to remove utterly from recognition or memory; to remove from existence; to destroy utterly all trace, indication, or significance of; to cause to disappear
persevere - to persist in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of opposition or discouragement
mausoleum - stately, magnificent tomb

We must appear so strange to these people, a busload of people that all look so different from one another and different from them as well. I look at their homes and think about how little has changed for them over the centuries. I wonder when the last foreigners came through this village. Was it a busload of travelers following the "hippie trail" from Europe to India back in the 60s? Was it ancient traders looking for a resting place as they journeyed along the Silk Road?

Soltaniye, like all the other villages we've passed on the Iranian plateau, appears as though it has remained untouched since the beginning of time, except for one minor difference -- the enormous Gombad-e Soltaniye mosque that looms behind the mud-bricked homes and the dirt alleys. The mosque stands as a huge reminder of a foreign presence that once invaded Iran.

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Brian and Louie in front of Gombad-e Soltaniye
We may be quite a sight to see, but unlike the foreigners that came through in the past, we're just here to visit briefly and be on our way. Hundreds of years ago, perhaps coming over the same hill, a different breed of foreigners rode in, and wreaked the greatest, most savage disaster this land has ever seen. No, these foreigners did not ride in on a clumsy old Hyundai bus; rather they rode ferocious and fast stallions. Instead of digital cameras and laptop computers, they came armed with swords and daggers.

Can you guess who these foreign invaders were? I'm sure you've heard of them before.The very thought of them and their ruthless escapades sends a shiver up my back.

Never before and never since has this region seen such a bloodbath, such merciless devastation, as when these Asiatic warriors came thundering across the Iranian plateau through the very deserts we're traveling today.

It was the Mongols.

Mongolia, nestled between China and Siberia, is a harsh land whose climate is cold and dry. Some people feel that it is this harsh environment that made the Mongols such ruthless warriors. In the first half of the 13th century CE, a prince of unsurpassed >genius and courage ruled the Mongols. He was Genghis Khan -- the Mongol who led an incredibly loyal and vicious army that quickly conquered all of Mongolia and its neighboring countries. The great Mongolian Empire spanned Beijing and Istanbul, and included most of Iran. Genghis Khan and his descendants overran most Iranian kingdoms and destroyed many towns and villages to such an extent as to virtually erase them from existence. The fierce warriors were notorious for such atrocities as butchering children and adults, raping women, and even building towers out of human heads.

After Genghis Khan died, his empire was split among his sons and grandsons, and the Mongols continued to rule over Iran well into the 14th century. In time, though, they began adapting to Persian culture, and later they even converted to Islam.

Learn More About the Mongols at...

The History of the Mongols:

A Map of the Mongol Empire:

A Peek at the Mongol Language and Script:

Tragically, the Mongols obliterated many of the great works of art and architecture from the Persian kingdoms of the past and destroyed most of the documented history. But, what we do know about Persian history is that the Mongols were just one disaster of many. Mighty rulers battled, destroyed beautiful cities and built new ones, and exerted their free will in displays of power over the prized land they had conquered. But the extraordinary thing about Iran that I noticed is that rulers came and went and great empires rose and fell, but the common people of Iran endured and persevered. The Iranian people are proud that they rebuilt every single town that Genghis Khan destroyed.

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Monica and Brian strike a pose under another elaborately decorated doorway in the Gombad-e Soltaniye
Soltaniye is a prime example of that perseverance in the Iranian people. Today, the town doesn't look much different than it always has. Its people still herd their sheep and grow what crops they can, just as they always have. The only reminder that this was once a great Mongol city is the Gombad-e Soltaniye -- the enormous mausoleum of the Mongol Sultan Olijeitu Khodabande. The Gombad-e Soltaniye has one of the largest domes in the world (up there with the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) and is covered in intricate carvings and tile work from top to bottom. It is said to have taken 30,000 slaves over 10 years to complete! As beautiful as the mausoleum is, it is an odd site to behold in the middle of Iran's great desert, much like our little home on wheels. So we pay our respects to the beautiful feat of architecture, pack up our digital cameras and computers, and move along, leaving Soltaniye and its people to the desert plateau they have known for so long.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - The Odyssey is Non-Profit, but Not Non-Prophet
Brian - A Chat with a Mosque
Jasmine - No More No Ruz
Kavitha - An Iranian Dead Poets' Society
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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