We are located in the Zagros mountains, in central-western Iran, far from those great imperial cities known for their history, far from the various wars that have marked and still mark the Middle East and also far from the last inhabited village of this region. We entered the province of Chahar Mahal and Bakhtiari, a mountain area rich of water, inhabited mainly by the nomadic population of Bakhtiari nomads, one of the main tribes of Iran nomads. The nomadic Iranian communities were so numerous that in 1979 the government had to identify three fundamental characteristics to distinguish these groups, scattered throughout the territory and made a census based on three principles: collective annual migration, livelihood tied to animals and tribal social structure.
The Bakhtiari people belong to the Lur ethnic group and are among the most numerous nomadic tribes currently living in Iran. They live in very small urban centers or their tents, immersed in uncontaminated nature. Their lineage has remained almost intact thanks to the fact that marriages are also arranged between cousins. The daily life of these shepherds seems to belong to another era for those who live within European borders, they have a melancholy charm and show no sense of fatigue or danger. Their strength and endurance, consolidated in their bodies during centuries of lives spent outdoors and among animals, are renowned throughout Iran.
They live under large tents made of Persian blankets and rugs. One side of the tent is left open for the fire, to warm up and to cook. Each large family sleeps under one tent, although the time spent resting is very short. They don’t own many assets: cattle and offspring are all they need because they are perfectly capable of practicing self subsistence. They get milk, yogurt, meat, hides, utensils, blankets and money from their animals when they sell them.
The Bakhtiari mainly live on sheep farming, which is why they are a nomadic population who move together with their flocks to find suitable pastures according to the season. There are two important migrations per year (“kuch” in local language): one in spring and the other in autumn. This journey is vital both for their flocks and for their nomadic tradition. The families used to migrate together to help each other but since it is increasingly difficult to move with many animals and people, they prefer to do it in small groups (2 or 3 families). The journey to be undertaken is tiring and the paths are not traced but remembered by heart. During the spring transhumance, sheep and goats are accompanied to the highest pastures, where they can also spend a cooler summer; in the plains at the foot of the mountain, summers are very torrid. When autumn arrives, the flocks are brought back to the pastures on the plains. These types of migrations, if done on foot, have a duration of even 40 days but in recent years the shepherds use motorized vehicles to move the sheep and goats, so the migration time reduced to 1 or 2 days. However, these times are not sustainable as the overuse of pastures has led to an impoverishment of the soil, thus making it more sterile. The routes used for transhumance are always the same with small variations. Each stop is made in defined places, where over the years, stone walls have been built, parts of the ground have been flattened to spread the carpets or set up the tent (in case of bad weather), small fences made of stones were built to light the fire and protect lambs from predators.
Ramazon, the patriarch of the family we followed during the transhumance, continues to walk the old mountain routes, which were once crossed by hundreds of Bakhtiari Iran nomads, with his 5 children and his wife. He got married at 18 while his wife was 15 years old. Their flock is made of about 300 goats and sheep plus the puppies, some mules for the transport of goods, the horse and lastly 2 dogs included in the group with the function to report oncoming dangers. Ramazon’s brother’s family joins their journey, in order to share labor and dangers: an elderly couple with 2 twenty-year-old sons (Mohammad and Ali).
When we arrived at the camp to meet the Bakhtiari it was evening (April 2019). Ramazon made us sit on a large carpet lying on the grass near the fire, then heated some water in a blackened teapot. To welcome guests, it is a good tradition to cut sugar into small cubes to be served with a cup of hot tea and, with his serious and concentrated gaze, Ramazon served us the drink. A little further on, his wife Setareh kneaded and cooked the bread by the light of a lantern. The two daughters stood next to her: Arghavan (5 years old) watching the mother trying to learn the kneading movements and little Azita (3 years old) playing with a ball of flour and water. The eldest son Ferdous (15 years), filled the tanks at the river while the other boys collected firewood, always keeping an eye on the flock which was resting after a day’s walk.
That evening we ate dinner made of bread and doogh (a drink of goat yogurt and water). During transhumance, Bakhtiari’s diet is mainly made of bread, yogurt, wild herbs collected along the way and doogh. Sometimes, a few hens or goats are slaughtered but generally, the shepherds try not to kill their livestock, as their only source of income is the sale of the animals for slaughter. For their personal consumption, they keep cheese and any other product made from animals such as wool (not offered for sale due to the low income it would bring) and they dedicate to breeding only. Meals are prepared by women with the exception of meat whose slaughter and cooking are the responsibility of the head of the family. The Bakhtiari wife and daughters eat secluded and only after the men and guests have finished their meal. In the evening, all the men gather around the fire to sing and tell stories for the boys. During transhumance, the large tent will not be installed except in bad weather and at night the family lies under the stars on the carpets, sheltering themselves from the cold and humidity with large blankets.
In the morning, everybody woke up at dawn. The children went up the slopes of the surrounding hills to gather the flock that had dispersed during the night and they counted them. Meanwhile, the adults prepared the mules and horses, loading all their belongings on the animals’ backs. After grouping the animals, the boys left with the flock while the others took some more time to load the last things. One of Ramazon’s sons, Mehran (12 years old) opened the path, he is the one that all the cattle will have to follow while behind him, Ferdous and Ashkan (8 years old) recover the sheep and goats that have lingered. The older brother (Ferdous) is careful to check that Ashkan keeps up with the lambs while he runs, he wants to show himself strong and confident but at the same time he is shy with strangers. Ferdous feels the responsibility of the two brothers and the animals because his father entrusted the entire flock to him. Mohammad and Ali the other 2 brothers much older and more experienced, were already half an hour ahead with their own flock of sheep. The roles are well established and perhaps even too evident in the eyes of external guests, but they are fundamental for enabling to move efficiently. The head of the family moves on horseback and keeps the 5-year-old girl with him, his wife follows with the youngest daughter. The boys perfectly know the paths of these areas; since they were born, every year in spring and autumn they travelled through mountains and plateaus. They wear shoes with a smooth and punctured sole but run on stones, climb and walk kilometers and kilometers without showing effort. These kids are used to living in wild nature, they have developed enormous agility, endurance and safety precisely because they are used to harsh and difficult places. With professional attention, the children lead the animals by beating them with sticks or branches, clapping their hands and shouting strange calls like “Arrah-arrah”.
They manage to wade a river to a whole flock of 300 sheep, with their feet inside the melting snow water, grabbing the sheep and accompanying them to the other side of the river. They risk slipping or getting hurt every time, but nobody seems to worry about it. These children observe everything and everyone with extreme attention, their only game is to replicate the gestures of their parents in order to be able to help them as soon as possible. Even when they are intrigued by something, they maintain a serious attitude, as small adults.
Mehran is elusive, he walks away smiling if we try to talk to him and, only after asking permission from his father, he agreed to be photographed. Ashkan is the most curious one but does not want to show it, he slowly approaches us to observe the camera with attentive eyes and after a while he is already able to turn it on to watch the videos and images shot during the day. Little Azita has big brown eyes and curly hair, in the evening she plays near her father taking a mirror and a comb from the pocket of his shirt. She mingles with the goats, tries to grab the chickens and we also saw her cry desperately when they took away her favorite donkey to load it before leaving. The shyest of these children is Argavan, always next to her mother and always ready to help her in any job and taking care of her younger sister. Nomadic tribe children attend school for 6 months a year, during the winter. The government helps communities by guaranteeing primary education for all, sending teachers and professors directly to the villages where they are temporarily based. The level of education is not very high, but they learn how to count and read. However, most children after primary school, drop out and start helping the family full-time.
Due to unregulated hunting, the population of bears, wolves and foxes has drastically decreased but not completely disappeared and occasionally it may happen that some flocks are attacked during the night. For this reason, during the transhumance, men take turns at night to watch the animals.
The most difficult part of transhumance is undoubtedly the crossing of the mountain passes that can reach even beyond 3000m. At the end of April, the peaks are still covered with snow which feeds the streams of the surrounding valleys. The passages are difficult and risky, given the slopes and the presence of ice. While sheep and goats easily manage to face the steps, horses and donkeys have difficulties. They are forced to advance through the steep paths between continuous whistles and beatings while they carry big loads on their backs. During the journey, especially in the most difficult stretches, it may happen that someone in the family is left behind and must be called back to make sure that everything is well. When this happens, they recall each other from a mountain to another, shouting and prolonging the vowels of the words, thus creating songs that echo through the valleys.
Only after many efforts that last almost a month, will families arrive in the green plateaus where they will spend the summer and rest. They will settle with their own tent and the flock in the chosen valley; the same one every year, in a frame of rocky mountains and fertile meadows. Ramazon, who knows the hardships of this way of life, expressed the wish to see his children lead a different life in the city, away from certain dangers and with fewer adversities.
In recent years, some families have opened up to groups of tourists (maximum of 6 people) to make their culture known before it will gradually be lost. For this reason, a small agency created by a young nomad (Iran Nomad Tours) gives the opportunity to approach the Bahktiari nomads and get to know their customs. These people are fully aware that the lifestyle they are pursuing will not last long and that it already belongs to a tradition that the new generations will struggle to carry on.