Monday, May 20, 2013

Time Travels in Persia

By Heidi Noroozy

Don’t you wish you had a time machine?

I do. But until someone invents one, I have to travel back in time vicariously through books. One of my favorite time-travel novels is Blackout (and its sequel, All Clear) by Connie Willis. These stories, and the others in the series, feature time-traveling historians from the year 2060 who visit England during World War II to observe history in the making. Because they must blend in while observing the “contemps” (short for “contemporaries”), they take jobs and new identities: a shop girl on Oxford Street during the London Blitz, an American journalist at Dunkirk, and a maid in a country manor that has become a shelter for children evacuated from the bomb-ridden cities.

Clearly I was born many decades too soon. Wouldn’t it be cool to travel back in time and see history in the raw—and experience the events than never made it into the history books? But if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t travel back to the Blitz. (How crazy is that?) I’d set the dial for Persia and seek out some of the happening places in the ancient and not-so-ancient world. Here are my top 3 picks for a historical adventure:

A valley in the Alborz Mountains
My first stop will be in 1930, the year that the British explorer, Freya Stark, embarked on her famous, and often hazardous, trek through the Iranian back country. She was searching for the elusive Alamut Castle in the Alborz Mountains, stronghold of the Nizari Ismaili mystics, also know as the Assassins. (A few years later, she also traveled to Lorestan, a region in the Zagros Mountains, near the Iraq border. In The Valleys of the Assassins, Stark’s account of her Iranian adventures, she describes the area as “that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered.”)

It sounds ominous, I know. But along with the bandits, shifty-eyed tribal chieftains, and policemen whose “protection” bribes were only a few cents less than that those of the outlaws, Stark encountered the last vestiges of traditions that even then were starting to die out. She describes breathtaking landscapes, and that exuberant Persian hospitality that Iranians are still famous for today. Equipped with letters of introduction from authorities in Tehran, she charmed her way past the suspicious natures of people unaccustomed to trusting strangers and ended up documenting the Alborz range’s remote valleys for the Royal Geographic Society. Apart from witnessing history as it unfolds, it would be thrilling to watch this fearless adventurer in action.

The problem with time travel is that you can never say goodbye to your new friends. So after we trek back to civilization from the Alamut Valley, I’ll have to slip away to my time machine and set the dial (or maybe it uses a switch—who knows) for another era. I’m heading far into the past, 2,500 years to be precise, to the time of Cyrus the Great.

To blend in, I’ll need a job, so I’m off to join the chapars, those swift relay couriers who carried the mail throughout the vast Persian Empire, crossing from one end to the other in a matter of days. They rode from one chapar-khaneh (courier house) to the next, which were situated as far apart as a man could ride in a day without stopping to feed and water the horse. And at each stop, they switched to a fresh horse and continued the journey.

I’ll need to brush up on my horseback riding skills. But I’m surely in good physical shape now after trekking through the Alborz Mountains in 1930. Wouldn’t the Persian Pony Express be a great way to see a vast and prosperous empire? True, I’d probably take in little of the landscape, galloping across the country at top speed. But surely I’ll get to rest at the end of the ride and, with a little ingenuity, even sneak a peak into the mailbag. Maybe I’ll discover a story or two that never made it into the history books. To get an idea of what my life as a chapar will be like, check out the blog I wrote about Cyrus the Great’s postal service.

Entrance to the Isfahan Bazaar
After these two heart-stopping adventures, 17th century Isfahan, my final stop on the way back to my own time, will seem almost dull. Or maybe not. It’s not for nothing that Isfahan is called nesf-e jahan (half the world). In the 1600s, after Shah Abbas I built his glorious capital in the Iranian desert, Isfahan became a major stop on the Silk Road. Its squares and bazaars were thronged with people from all over the world. The arts flourished with everything from carpet weaving and miniature painting to bookbinding and calligraphy to tilework and the lovely architecture that still characterizes the city today. Maybe I’ll even get a glimpse of the silk, gold, and silver Polonaise carpets that Abbas commissioned to promote trade with Europe.

What I’d really like to find out, though, is whether there was a tunnel beneath Naghsh-e Jahan Square, connecting Shah Abbas’s Ali Qapu Palace to the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque. A guide at the mosque once told me it existed at one time, but I’ve never been able to confirm the truth of his words. It is said that the mystery passage was built to allow the shah’s wives to pass from the palace to their female-only house of worship without being seen. Since I’m unlikely to get into the palace (or the mosque) to find the tunnel, I’ll have to suss out the secret from the gossips at the bazaar.

So that’s my whirlwind tour of history. What about you? If you had a time machine, where would you go?


  1. What a breathtaking ride, Heidi. I think I got whiplash. And what fun to imagine being in another place and time. I would probably choose Edwardian England, though I'm afraid I'd be the maid cleaning the fireplace brass instead of the great lady presiding over the drawing room.

    1. I doubt any of us "traveling historians" would get the life of leisure roles in our travels. Connie Willis's characters certainly didn't. It's fun to imagine, though.

  2. What a great adventure, Heidi! I think, like you, I would want to experience what was not in the history books, which leaves a great deal of open space in which to explore. Maybe go back to the American Revolution to see what the Founding Fathers truly intended?

    1. Kelly, I'd love to listen to those early debates too. What a revelation that would be!

  3. Wonderful post! I'd go to Belle Epoque Paris. No surprise, since my mystery is set there. And I'd like to go to Elizabethan England to see Shakespeare's plays in the original performances. I don't know if I could settle on a 3rd - probably Paris in the 20s, but Venice when it was bright and shiny new would be fascinating, or Bali in the 20s, when it was an art enclave. There are also a lot of assassinations and deaths I'd like to avert, unwise as that might be for history.

  4. Thanks, Yves! Those are all great choices. I'd love to go along with you to Belle Epoque Paris so you can show me around. :)