A few years ago Yuko and I visited the ancient city of Bam, 200 kms south of Kerman in the south of Iran. The surrounding desert is the same ochre colour as Mars and on the morning we arrived rust colored mountains towered in the distance like corrugated sentinels against a glistening azure sky.
A city of 73,000, Bam was devastated in December 2003 when a 6.6 earthquake destroyed over 70% of homes. Many were still in ruins. Crumbling buildings sat alongside rows of metal shipping containers once used for relief aid. They looked empty until I noticed a young girl peering out from one and realized they were actually shelters for families, barbers shops and vegetable stalls.
Bam’s magnificent Arg, or citadel, was once the world’s largest adobe structure, but it was completely flattened during the quake. Built before 500 BC, the government has said it’s committed to its reconstruction, but like the rest of the city it will take years, perhaps decades to complete. Official numbers say the quake claimed 27,000 lives, but locals believe the real number to be much higher. Climbing over the ruins, we looked out over the surrounding desert flushed green in parts with vegetation from the oasis that has sustained Bam for thousands of years. The views are breathtaking. A man approached and identified himself as a security guard. After exchanging a few words, he explained that he had lost his niece in the quake.
When we returned to the car, Sai, our driver, popped in a CD of local singer Iraj Bastami who died in the quake. With Bam receding behind us, his keening voice rose and fell in mournful exultation. We settled in for the long journey north across the Dasht-e Lut (salt desert) to the city of Yazd.