Ancient trees: Postcard from Iran

Seeing as how the actual postcards I sent from Iran haven’t arrived yet (posted 5 weeks ago) I thought I may as well drop an e-postcard to you, dear reader.

Iran was the most magnificent place – friendly people, delicious food and the most wonderful things to see, whether it be ancient archaeological sites, historic gardens, religious/ royal architecture, the eye-watering National Jewels Museum or a stroll through the bazaar. The country’s history is extremely long and complicated but having a knowledgeable and articulate guide, with a sense of humour, is a big help.

Go now, you won’t regret it. (We travelled with Golden Compass which operates out of New Zealand, Australia and the UK.)

The Cupresses sempiverans at Arbarkuh, the oldest tree in Iran at an estimated 4,000 years – and the oldest living thing in Asia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The age I’ve quoted in the caption comes from a Russian scientist and appears on a sign in the small park surrounding the tree, although a Japanese scientist has reportedly calculated the tree to be 8,000 years old!

One story has the tree planted by Japheth one of Noah’s sons (Yafeth bin Nuh in Islam), while another is that it was planted by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), the founder of the Zoroastrian religion. In old Persia/Iran the ‘sarv’ (cypress) was revered as a tree of life because it stays green all year long and its iconography pops up in mosques and gardens, and it is often planted in or near cemeteries.

A tiled cypress at the entry to the Shahzade Garden at Mahan, near Kerman. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I understand (but may be wrong) that the nakhl carried in Ashura processions are traditionally made from cypress wood – the nakhl represents the funerary casket of Hussain, the third imam of the Shia religion and grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed in battle in 680. Men carry the nakhl on their shoulders in the procession.

The nakhl of the village of Abyaneh, near Natanz, stored on a covered terrace. Photo: Sandra Simpson

While once people were able to walk up to and around the Arbarkuh tree, this is no longer possible – a fenced concrete path now encircles the tree (at some distance, thank goodness) and a sign tells visitors: “Old trees are manifestation of the glory of God in the creation of the universe, so treat them with respect”. The sign also contains the dimensions of the tree: 25m high and with a canopy diameter of 14m.

Arbarkuh is near Yazd, one of the driest regions in Iran, so the tree has done well. We saw many young trees in desert areas and were told that March 5 is National Tree Planting Day in Iran with every family given a tree to plant and everyone encouraged to care for a tree on that day. See some photos from last year’s event.