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Iran: Meeting the nomads of Babak Castle

A hike to Babak Castle, in northwest Iran, proves fascinating, although the highlight is an encounter with a nomadic family

Iran: Meeting the nomads of Babak Castle
Image: Getty

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“It’s hard living this way, but I have to because of my husband,” explains Leila, the mother of a nomadic family here in Farsi.

I’ve stumbled across her following my blister-inducing yet rewarding hike up to Babak Castle. Thrusting up for 7,545ft through billowing mist in Kaleybar, northwest Iran, this Sasanid structure is a monument to Babak Khorramdin, a Persian leader who fought off the Arab invaders until 839 and is seen as a revolutionary leader and hero. I’ve been fighting too, battling the burning in my legs and the urge to gasp like a beached fish. Leila is a beacon of light and succour after my sweaty hike.

My cousin, Hoda, had recommended Babak Castle, and after a three-hour drive from Tabriz, I rolled out of a dust-coated 4×4 car and started on the endless slope that sprawled before me. Grit rolled down the steep incline with my every lurch and the harsh ground tripped up the unwary. A rugged pathway hugged the clifftop, protecting it, while mountains loomed all around us. I gripped onto jagged rocks for support, as I reached Babak Castle. Lines of murky grey and dirty brown bricks made up tall rectangular structures with narrow openings once used for firing arrows at enemies.

Leila’s home, her tent, sits close to the crumbly trail leading to Babak Castle. As I staggered past her, we exchanged smiles and Leila beckoned me over — her face etched with wrinkles — and made an ‘eating soup’ gesture. She thrust open the sagging blanket that’s her front door and ushered me inside.

Leila’s husband was out for the day. He originates from a family of nomads and continues this way of life to support his own. He’s searching for new herds of goats; he’s already brought his existing herd to graze here among the cool pastures and chill air of the mountains. I breathe in deeply, smelling the earthy odour of the poppies — the flower of love according to Persian literature. I can see why nomads choose this climate and setting for summer. “This is Zeinab,” Leila gestures towards her daughter, who smiles at me, revealing gaps in her teeth. Zeinab is only eight years old, but she wears an immaculately positioned dainty floral headscarf, just like her mother.

Their home is constructed from long flowing pieces of ripped-up clothes and blankets, which drape from wooden sticks stuck in the ground. Everything in the tent is joined together like a patchwork quilt. A bit of crimson here, a spot of canary yellow there, with a flash of fiery orange. A bulky generator stands in the entrance of the tent, while metal pots hang from torn bits of cloth wrapped around the sticks. A single light bulb droops into the centre. This life is only temporary. After summer, the family will move closer towards the city and Zeinab will go back to school.

“Let’s eat ash-e doogh (yoghurt soup)!” Leila enthuses. Cross-legged, I crack paper-thin bread, shards crumbling over the carpeted floor. Leila dishes up the soup with her metal ladle. The milky, slightly yellow, soup streams into my white plastic bowl with dashes of green and bursts of white. “This is all homemade, including the doogh.” Leila is referring to the soup’s main ingredient, a fizzy, minty yoghurt drink. The soup is warm and sour, leaving light bubbles in my mouth. It’s weighed down by soaked spinach and soft rice. The pungent garlic sizzles on my tongue.

I start to say my goodbyes, but am blocked by the family’s animals — chickens, goats and a large, friendly yapping dog. I meander through them, trailing a dusty cloud behind me. There’s a flash of a welcome breeze and Leila’s tent flaps in the wind as if it’s waving farewell.