From the Wall to the Water: chasing ghosts of history in Iran

In the summer of 2015, I left the United States. After growing up in Taiwan and New Zealand, I went to America to study before working in New York City. But in the end, I was unable to secure my permanent residency through a green card.

As the prospect of my exile drew nearer, I correspondingly grew fascinated with a story I heard even as a child: in AD97, during the Eastern Han dynasty, China sent an explorer and envoy westward along the Silk Road to locate and to make contact with the Roman Empire.

His name was Gan Ying. He had been a veteran of China’s wars against the Huns under the famous General Ban Chao. And he almost – not quite – succeeded in meeting the Romans.

He was an Asian man who almost reached the heart of the ancient Western world, Rome. I am an Asian man who almost got to stay in the heart of the modern Western world, New York City.

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I conceived of the idea to travel along Gan Ying’s path, as recorded in that ancient text of Chinese history, the Hou Han Shu. I studied where he might have gone.

I began in Hong Kong. The journey then took me through parts of China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and finally to Greece and Italy.

The journey took place over the second half of 2015, when the world felt like a very different place.

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book I wrote about that journey.

From the Wall to the Water – the Road to Hecatompylos

Clusters of mud-brick houses stood before the farthest western extension of the Hindu Kush mountains, spread along the outskirts of Herat on the road to Iran.

Their streets were the desert plain. Shepherds led their flocks. Dark silhouettes of covered women went about their day. Bales of hay lay on the opposite side of the road.

Then the mountain range came to an end. The land opened up into a plain that stretched to the horizon. This was Khorasan, the ancient region that encompasses Afghanistan and much of eastern Iran.

At one point in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon digresses to account for the rise of Islam in the seventh century. After the Muslim Arabs defeated Persia, Shah Yazdegard III fled east:

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“[He] solicited … the more solid and powerful friendship of the emperor of China. The virtuous Taitsong [Taizong], the first of the dynasty of Tang [a mistake – Taizong was the second Tang emperor] may be justly compared with the Antonines of Rome: his people enjoyed the blessings of prosperity and peace; and his dominion was acknowledged by 44 hordes of the Barbarians of Tartary,” Gibbon wrote.

“[A]nd Taitsong might be alarmed by the rapid progress and dangerous vicinity of the Arabs. The influence, and perhaps the supplies, of China revived the hopes of Yazdegard and the zeal of the worshippers of fire; and he returned with an army of Turks to conquer the inheritance of his fathers.”

But Yazdegard was betrayed and murdered. After that:

“His son Firuz, an humble client of the Chinese emperor, accepted the station of captain of his guards … His grandson inherited the regal name; but after a faint and fruitless enterprise, he returned to China, and ended his days in the palace of Sigan [Xian].”

Might this later relationship between Persia and China have been what it was without Gan Ying’s mission over 500 years earlier?

I couldn’t help wishing that Persia was still its old self, speaking old Persian without all the Arabic loan words, worshipping fire in the ancient temples of Zoroaster. Wouldn’t the world be a more colourful place if all the cultures that Gan Ying might have encountered along the way were still with us as living communities and even nations?

Reza, the eighth Imam of Shiism, was buried in Mashhad, Iran’s eastern metropolis and holiest city. Waves of pilgrims, women all in black burkas, their husbands beside them, small children in tow, the elderly and disabled in wheelchairs, helped along by sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, all crowded onto the grounds of his shrine.

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Entering each courtyard, they kissed the thick wooden doors. Inside each courtyard one could barely find a spot to stand without being pushed aside or elbowed or bumped into or being told to move along by one usher or another waving a green duster. Chandeliers hung from the ceilings in the lower-level chambers, with glittering pieces of glass on the columns and walls, so that the place had the effect of a glitzy variation on funhouse mirrors.

It was beautiful. But the truth is that I have an atheistic soul. To find myself carried along by thousands of fervent faithful here to commune with their saint was like rowing a small dinghy in the middle of the ocean with a storm blowing all around me.

I escaped Mashhad in pursuit of one more lost city. Hecatompylos would have been quite a place back then, the capital of Parthia of the Arsacid dynasty. Its name, a Greek word, meant “100 gates”, as opposed to the typical four gates of traditional walled cities. Even if not literal, the name still gave an idea of what the city might have been.

My first stop on the road to Hecatompylos was Nishapur, once the capital of Khorasan. The Mongols sacked it in 1221. Local farmers still sometimes dug up skeletons from the massacre back then. The city I saw was a dusty provincial town with nothing to show for its 1,800-year history. Even the monument to its famous son Omar Khayyam was a modernist piece from the 1970s.

I moved on for Damghan, a town of some 50,000. But the bus I caught on the wayside would not actually get there. It supposedly reached the town just before it, Shahrud. On the outskirts of Shahrud I found out that this wasn’t entirely true either when the bus driver told me to get off there and hitch a ride into town. I stood by the side of the road and stuck out one thumb. But then another bus stopped, smaller and more local looking.

“Damghan?” I asked the driver. He waved me aboard.

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The driver told me to sit in the front next to him. “Afghani?” he asked, much to my surprise. I had put away my Afghan clothes.

“Chin,” I said, giving the easy, racially appropriate answer.

“Chin, Chin, Chin,” the driver, a gaunt older man, repeated over and over, slapping one hand on his dashboard maniacally as he did so. I gathered that the bus was a Chinese import.

Behind us, the other passengers bellowed questions and jokes in Farsi, and the entire bus suddenly became a scene of lively comedy and laughter, with me at centre stage. Two names cut through the din: “Jackie Chan” and “Bruce Lee”.

Then one man with a receding hairline in the middle of the lot said “lunch”. I looked his way to see if he’d elaborate. “Home, lunch,” he said gesturing for me to come toward him.

“OK,” I said, unsure if he was serious.

When the bus next stopped, Mohammed got up and took my backpack with him. I followed him off the bus, leaving behind the chorus of hilarity.

Mohammed led me down a quiet and dusty street to a modest house behind a steel gate painted brown. A dented Peugeot was parked in the yard. He led me into his house and invited me to sit down on the carpet. A figurine of a cowboy stood on the shelves opposite along with other odds and ends.

For my benefit, he changed the channel on the television from SpongeBob SquarePants dubbed in Farsi to an English-language (presumably satellite) channel with Farsi subtitles. It was showing an awful American romcom with Zac Efron and Michael B. Jordan. Right as Mohammed landed on the channel, two characters began a discussion about sex. I desperately wanted to know what the Farsi subtitles might have read.

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His son, six or seven years old, came out to greet his father while this conversation was going on. The two of them went inside. Muffled sounds from the back indicated the unseen presence of his wife.

Mohammed returned with our lunch. But he spoke no more English than I spoke Farsi, a fact that left us eating in silence while Efron, Jordan, and friends continued bantering about modern American dating in the background. I had never regretted my inadequacy as a student of the Persian language as much as I did then.

The final stretch of this little treasure hunt occurred the following day, after I finally reached Damghan.

Hecatompylos was now called Qumis, and it barely appeared on the map. I asked around for a driver to take me to the nearest village, Qusheh. But much more difficult than finding a driver was explaining to him that I didn’t really want to go to Qusheh but right next to it. Equally difficult was getting him to in my enthusiasm for the hunt.

Back in Kyrgyzstan I could tell Kostya in Russian why I wanted to see Suyab, Li Bai’s hometown. Here I must have simply seemed the crazy foreigner acting outside all bounds of reason.

And there was a particular sadness in Hecatompylos, a particular desolation, that exceeded what I found in Samarkand or Suyab.

In Samarkand, the old city lay buried, but a museum celebrated what it had been. In Suyab, local peasants pointed the way, and a lone metal street sign confirmed the place.

In Hecatompylos, a capital of the once mighty Arsacid Empire, simply no one cared. In Qusheh, a scattering of mud brick houses on the southern side of the Tehran-Mashhad highway, nothing pointed to the ancient city. Only one local resident seemed to know anything about it and only in the vaguest of terms.

But indifference is mankind’s natural attitude toward the past. Why else would anyone have to rediscover lost ancient cities? Why else were great cities from China to Croatia, from India to Italy, rebuilt over and over again one layer on top of another? So the palimpsest becomes the central paradigm of human habitation, and also of human memory.

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The humble travel writer is limited by his time, by the era in which he happens to live. He marches over the topsoil of the world even as he does his best to look through it to the next layer, and the next, and the next. I cannot travel through the same world as Gan Ying or Marco Polo. My story is of my time, and theirs are of theirs.

Only a few barren hints of the historic Hecatompylos remained. A few mounds in the earth, one of which might have been a Tower of Silence, where Zoroastrians left their dead to be consumed by vultures. There were the last remnants of an archway, which the villagers now used as a garbage dump. Rubber tires helped to shore up some of these structures.

I caught sight of a purplish piece at my feet that looked like it might have been carved, a broken, eroded fragment of a relief. For a moment I wanted to pick it up and take it with me. But I left it where it lay. If it was a relic of Hecatompylos, then it belonged here.

Across from these ruins, a restored and obviously much younger caravanserai seemed the usurping protagonist on this stage. The locals said Shah Abbas of the Safavid Dynasty built it. That would date the building to the late 16th or early 17th century. It too was strewn with garbage.

So this was the royal city. Gan Ying visited Parthia’s King Pacorus II here. What splendours might the Chinese ambassador have seen that were now forever lost? What magnificent feast might Pacorus have served him?

These were fantasies. But the landscape was still here. The southeastern bastions of the Alburz mountains would have guarded the city from the north like red giants that staggered out of the Caspian Sea. To the south, the plains stretched far away, and one could picture real estate developers from 2,000 years ago raising funds to put up new houses and baths and theatres for an expanding city on what must have seemed like endless land and endless possibilities.

As I had failed to convey to my driver my reason for wanting to be here, he was now clamouring to go. He was an old man, hair all white that juxtaposed dramatically against his tanned, leathery skin. But now he displayed the impatience of a teenager.

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I wished to commune with the ghosts of Hecatompylos. I wanted a moment of ceremony, and even the garbage-strewn ground felt as though it obliged such ceremony. Was there not some incantation I could recite, some poetry that would be appropriate as prayer, something to conjure the dead? Nothing came to mind. Only my driver’s barking filled my ears.

I turned to him, still in the driver’s seat, and gestured that I would only be another minute. Then I returned my attention to the layer of dust before me and the city that lay beneath.

But I still could think of nothing to say or to do to mark this occasion of locating the royal capital. The ghosts of Hecatompylos – even if they were never more than the figments of my imagination – drifted away and dissolved into the air.