Monday, February 21, 2011

A Slice of History

From a distance, the ancient village of Abyaneh looks like a collection of crude buildings hacked from red rock. Up close, it seems as though time stopped a thousand years ago, leaving the place stuck in a preindustrial time warp. Nestled in the foothills of the Karkas Mountains of central Iran, the village is a tangle of narrow, sloping lanes and red brick houses topped by timber, clay, and thatched roofs. Staircases, rough-hewn into the mountainside, climb between buildings and offer close-up views of Abyaneh’s distinctive lattice terraces and decorative brickwork. Wooden doors with traditional brass knockers—a heavy, rectangular one for men and a lighter, circular one for women—guard the entrances and alert the residents to the gender of the visitor at the door. Many also sport ornate carvings or lines of poetry.

Tradition is strong in Abyaneh, whose history stretches back 2,000 years. It took the Abyunakis (as the villagers are called) nearly a millennium to abandon their Zoroastrian religion, converting to Islam only during the reign of the Safavid King Ismael II (late 1500s). The villagers speak a dialect that is closely related to 4th-century Parthian Pahlavi and still wear distinctive traditional clothing: white capes over richly embroidered tunics and calf-length skirts for the women, loose-fitting trousers and round caps for the men.

Abyaneh’s history is written in its architecture. The village has a Zoroastrian fire temple, eight mosques, historic houses dating back to the Safavid period, an imamzadeh (Shi’ite shrine)—and a permanent population of 250. For like rural communities everywhere, Abyunaki youth follow a well-beaten path of migration to the city in search of jobs and an easier life.

I visited Abyaneh on a warm Friday in October, making the long, dusty drive through the desert from Isfahan with my husband and his sister. The road wound into the mountains through a landscape of fields and farms then leafy green forest. We parked outside the village walls, next to one of the mosques, and at first it felt as though the place were entirely deserted. Only one old woman selling bags of pistachio nuts met us on the narrow lane that led into the heart of the village. For the price of one of her wares she divulged the news that everyone was in the mosque at Friday prayers.

We arrived in the center of town just as the Abyunakis emerged from the mosque’s wide doorway, women first in their colorful cloaks, followed by the men in dark suits and finally a white-turbaned cleric in typical loose robes. Even now, several years later, this image is burned in my mind: the pure white, rose, and red of the women’s clothing against the rust-colored walls of the mosque, and overhead a turquoise sky.

Farther down the road, a woman beckoned and invited us into her home. She offered to dress me in Abyunaki garb so we could take a picture—for a fee. My sister-in-law considered the asking price a rip-off, and when negotiations failed to lower it to her satisfaction, we settled for a quick look around the place. And I learned another Abyaneh tradition: a smooth blend between human habitation and the environment. Abyaneh homes have a “summer” room and a “winter” room, each situated to take advantage of the season’s sunlight and offer either cooling in hot weather or warmth in frigid temperatures.

Before leaving Abyaneh, I stood on the terrace next to the imamzadeh and gazed out into the green landscape. Behind me, two Abyunaki women were hawking handwoven bags and dried fruit, while before me lay orchards and fields of grazing cattle. The village has managed to straddle a fine line between vanishing traditions and the modern world, selling its past to tourists while maintaining an ancient way of life in the present. How long Abyaneh will manage to maintain this balance is anyone’s guess, but for now visitors flock to this unique Iranian village and come away with a slice of history.


  1. It is amazing how traditions and clothes "travel" through time and space - the crowd of Abyaneh women in their print shawls in your picture looked just like a bunch of Tatar Grandmas from my childhood - down to their stockings and flat shoes.

  2. Lina, that's fascinating! When I saw these women for myself, I thought their clothing looked very Eastern European. Worn differently, perhaps, but with similar designs So I'd say the clothing has "traveled" far and wide.

  3. What an amazing place, Heidi. I can only imagine the wonder of walking through ancient streets, feeling like you're in a time warp. Thank you for taking us there!