Delving into Hawraman, Iran’s unexplored historical gem

6 min read
07 July, 2022

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are natural areas and cultural, man-made structures judged to be outstandingly paramount to humanity, designated by the United Nations’ cultural agency as landmarks that merit international attention and conservation at home.

Iran, however, as isolated and cornered as it might be these days, hosts 26 such properties dotted across the country, and is the world’s 10th country in terms of the frequency of World Heritage Sites.

The last Iranian monument to be inscribed on the World Heritage Sites inventory in 2021 is the cultural landscape of Hawraman.

Encompassing an extensive area in Western Iran, spanning the provinces of Kurdistan and Kermanshah, Hawraman is a mountainous region that also stretches into Iraqi Kurdistan.

The first evidence of life was reportedly found there in the Paleolithic Period around 40,000 years back.

"Hawraman is an expanse that harbours a revered subculture and accommodates a community that has perennially been an integral constituent of Iran’s civilizational tapestry"

The social symbolism of the recognition of Hawraman, also known as Uramanat, lies in the fact that it is predominantly inhabited by Iranian Kurds who mostly practise Sunni Islam in a Shia country where they are an ethnic minority, often believed to be less privileged and underrepresented.

But the undiscovered historical gem, which largely falls off the conventional itinerary of international visitors to the country who traverse Tehran, Isfahan, Kashan, Yazd and Shiraz and leave out many important stops, is also consequential for cultural and civilizational reasons.

Archaeological discoveries have unearthed treasures in Hawraman that palaeontologists and historians believe are imperative to their understanding of life in the Stone Age, including petroglyph sites, stone tools, rock shelters, caves, cemeteries, mounds and castles.

Animal remains, including those of ibex and the wild goat, have also been found during excavations, attesting to the natural distinctiveness of the region. Indeed, the Irano-Anatolian region, at the heart of which is Hawraman, constitutes one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world.

Pir-e Shaliar's descendants, a Zoroastrian-Kurd tribe, celebrate the wedding anniversary of their ancestor after more than 1020 years [Getty Images]
Pir-e Shaliar's descendants, a Zoroastrian-Kurd tribe, celebrate the wedding anniversary of their ancestor after more than 1020 years [Getty Images]

Hawraman covers 106,000 hectares of land and the semi-nomadic tribes that have been its residents over millennia have traditionally thrived on agriculture, animal husbandry and a pastoral lifestyle.

Due to its rugged, rocky configuration, Hawraman subsumes several stair-stepped villages resembling the scenic Masouleh village in northern Iran. For example, there is the Hawraman Takht village perched on a relatively lush, steep mountainside in which the rooftops of houses on lower tiers function as courtyards for the houses located above.

It is said that Hawraman comprises nearly 700 villages, each of which retains a depository of rich literary, poetic and musical traditions. Although the passage of time and generational evolutions stand in the way of these relics being intactly safeguarded and handed down to posterity, there is still an appetite, both among the youths and the seniors, to shield the heritage of the land from oblivion and neglect.

Kurdish poetry, performing arts and music are the fixtures of the residents’ lives and leisure.

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The folklore songs of this cultural domain, for instance, are mostly produced in the Gorani language and implicate romantic and mystical concepts revolving around the themes of love, the adulation of women, nature, God and the eulogy of lost loved ones.

Indigenous virtuosos say Hawraman music is predisposed to be dominated by nostalgic, melancholic melodies narrating the hardships of a pained, hard-working community that has weathered historical episodes of agony and tribulation to survive.

Every year, the elaborate celebrations of Persian New Year, Nowruz, transform the public mood of the region and afford an opportunity to the locals to be immersed in several weeks of joy and merriment characterised by tambourine playing, cosplay, dancing and lighting of the holy “fire of hope” to welcome the arrival of spring.

The thorough preparations evidence that Iranian Kurds are among the ethnicities most committed to preserving the legacy of Nowruz, an ancient festivity that despite universal popularity, is running the gauntlet of religious fundamentalists scheming to marginalise it.

The winter ceremony of Aroosi Pir Shahriar where man play Daf Drums and Dervishes dance and deliver speeches [Getty Images]
The winter ceremony of Aroosi Pir Shahriar where men play Daf Drums and Dervishes dance and deliver speeches [Getty Images]

A plurality of these customs are rooted in Zoroastrianism, the world’s first monotheistic religion of Iranian provenance predicated on a dualistic cosmology of good and evil.

Scholars suggest even the name Hawraman has Zoroastrian genealogies, and many locations in the terrain have been found to have served as pilgrimage sites for early Zoroastrians.

The practices, crafts and livelihoods of the people of Hawraman are emblematic of their continued interaction with nature over time, an engagement that has rendered them physically and spiritually resourceful as the climate and geology are not always in their favour.

Gardening on dry-stone terraces, livestock breeding and seasonal vertical migration are some of the distinguishing attributes of their lifestyle.

Prompted by the scarcity of arable land and the density of deep valleys, the dwellers started long ago to construct their houses on the hillsides based on a stair-stepped composition and the harnessing of paltry spaces that remain available to mount platforms using them for gardening and growing crops.

They have historically relied on their surrounding nature to procure construction materials for their lodgings: quarries, rock, metals and wood.

The Kurdish people living across Uramanat clothe themselves in the most colourful, animated apparel that can be seen anywhere in Iran.

Women’s attire consists of lively colours such as red and orange. Floral and animal patterns are ubiquitous, derived from natural dyes that are usually prepared in workshops locally.

Some sources say the Iranian Kurds’ garments are inspired by the traditions of the Medes, an ancient Iranian people living around 11th century BC who occupied the same parts of the country the Kurds presently live in.

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Hawraman is an expanse that harbours a revered subculture and accommodates a community that has perennially been an integral constituent of Iran’s civilizational tapestry.

There are unique stories here to be retold and listened to about people whose pride and resilience inspire hope.

With the newly elevated status bestowed on this territory by UNESCO, it should brace itself for more international connectivity bringing about a better public understanding of the nuances of its people’s lives and their cultural luxuries.

Perhaps it’s time for globetrotters to entertain the idea of delving into this corner of the world and embracing what it has to offer, even though it doesn’t show up on many must-see lists.

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iran correspondent of Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.

Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari