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Legacy of Kerman's Gabr-Mahalla [i]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A mayor of Kerman, Iran residing over the business of the city about sixty years ago, once expressed to visitors from the capital his wish that the rest of the city would follow the lead of the residents of Gabr-Mahalla[ii] (Zarathushti quarters).

To the surprise look of his visitors not expecting such a complement to be paid to a minority group, the mayor went on to explain that the residents of the Gabr-Mahalla on a regular basis clean inside their houses as well as broom the alley and public passages outsides their houses. After brooming the alleys outside their homes they regularly spray water (that they labor hard to get) to keep the dust down (most city alleys and roads were not paved yet), and in the morning they regularly burn good smelling scents over the fire that helps keep the air nice smelling and fresh.  The mayor who could have been equally talking about the Gabre-Mahallas of Yazd or villages around Yazd, went on to say. Compare that with the rest of the city, where the residents treat the public walkways outside their homes as their local garbage dump and show no regards for the environment. [iii] 

Kermanís Gabr-Mahalla in its current locality became home to the surviving Zarathushtis of Kerman some two centuries ago. [iv] In time it became very self sufficient with complete set of schools for boys and girls (Kermanís first high-schools), a kindergarten, Fire temple and other Zoroastrian religious centers, a sports facility, community halls, Medical clinic, a hostel all provided through private donation of the residents of the Gabr-Mahalla whose pride of ownership made it a model neighborhood in the city.

A unique feature of the Gabr-Mahalla was the fortress like walls of each home, and the crocked and narrow alleys snaking through much of the neighborhood - all designed to provide maximum protection to its inhabitant. The tall walls would have made it difficult for the ruffians and Moslem Zealots to scale and cause harm to the vulnerable Zarathushtis who had no protection under the Qajars. The narrow alleys served to make it difficult for the herds from rushing the houses.  Each house was built with condensed living quarters, basements and secret places to store preserve-able food items for the times of duress and during the winter months. There were also secret passages between homes including joint roofs, through water canals to be used as a last resort if a house fell to the ruffians and the inhabitants had to run for their lives. Most houses had their own water well, and a courtyard with trees, mostly fruit trees, but often a Cypress (evergreen) tree.

The occasions that proved most stressful for the inhabitants of Gabr-Mahalla included times of national upheavals such as regicides, when there could be a total break down of law and order at local levels, and the minorities would have been the most vulnerable groups. Also during the Muslim Holy months of the year, firebrand Islamic cleric speaking to Mosque crowds and inciting violence against the Zarathushtis could have sent mindless followers running in the direction of Gabr-Mahalla to inflict harm. 

Although the Gabr-Mahalla was predominantly inhabited by the Zarathushtis, there were few Moslems inhabitants mostly converts to Islam residing in the homes inherited from their parents. There were also some wealthy families belonging to minority Moslem sects who preferred and felt safer setting up residents in the company of Zarathushtis in the Gabr-Mahalla. The foreign consulates that at one time operated in Kerman preferred the ambiance of Gabr-Mahalla. The consulate of Czarist Russia as well the brief period the Ottomans operated a consulate in Kerman had set up shop within the perimeter of the Gabr-Mahalla or just on its boundary where the consulate staff would live too.

The large consular complex the British operated in Kerman, although not within the bounds of the Gabr-Mahalla, was closer to the Gabr-Mahalla than the rest of the city and was bordered by properties owned by Zarathushtis.

The few long terms foreign residences of Kerman, including Greek merchants, a Bulgarian prince (fleeing the communistsí take over of Bulgaria) also preferred the Gabr-Mahalla. One of the survivors of Ottomanís Genocide of Armenians of Anatolia who had fled Eastwards to Kerman, was also anchored to the Gabr-Mahalla and had taken up residence just on the boundary of the Gabr-Mahalla.

One of the oldest movie houses of the city - set up by Zarathushtis - was also on the boundary of the Gabr-Mahalla. 

The security and prosperity of the inhabitants of Gabr-Mahalla improved drastically after 1925 when the Qajars were ousted by the Parliament of Iran and the Pahlavi dynasty was voted to replace them. From that point with the protection of law being extended to all Iranians including minorities, and with major improvements in the conditions of the nation, the Zarathushtis of the Gabr-Mahalla started a gradual move to the upcoming national capital of Tehran in realization of greater opportunities. The pace of departure increased further following the 1979 Islamic revolution with many Zarathushtis heading overseas.  A small number of Zarathushtis remain in the Gabr-Mahallah, and some have moved to more upcoming-affluent Western neighborhoods of the city.

The improved conditions the Pahlavi era afforded Iran and the Zarathushtis of Iran, also meant the old protective housing structures were no longer needed, and new architectures started to be introduced. The improvement the Iranian cities saw in that period, also meant paved broad streets were introduced by the city government into the Gabr-Mahalla to replace some of the narrow alleys.

Some departing Zarathushtis sold their parental homes. There was no shortage of willing buyers interested to move in. Other departing Zarathushtis kept their properties or rebuilt them and maintain them long distance. Another group donated theirs to the Kerman Zartoshty Anjuman for use and upkeep, and yet another good trend emerging is to convert the houses they grew in, into student hostels to be donated to the Kerman Anjuman for the benefit of Zartoshty students from other parts of Iran attending one of the many universities set up in Kerman. One of the universities has its campus at the stately home of a Zartoshty family on the boundary of the old Gabr-Mahalla.

The only time during the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty that the security of Gabr-Mahalla was threatened by mobs, happened in August 1953 in the aftermath of the political upheavals in Tehran fostered by prime minister Mossadegh (also spelled Mosadeq, Mossadeq) that led to Shah Mohamed-Reza Pahlaviís departure from Iran. Although much of the drama played out in the capital, leftist mobs in Kerman inspired by Mossadekh attacked the house of a Zartoshty family in the Gabr-Mahalla that had hosted a family wedding few days earlier. The mobs stormed in to loot the house, broke the arm of the lady of the house inflicting injury on her. Through the fast action of some of the guests who slipped out, and called upon a Zartoshty military leader for help, the damage done was limited. Although, the army was staying in their barracks and had not received any orders to deploy, that young Zartoshty officer, Arastu Khosrow Soroushian, who was very much respected by his troops and colleagues, ordered the soldiers under his command out of the barracks and towards the Gabr-Mahalla. Hearing about the approach of the troops, the mob disbanded. The troop stayed and provided protection to the Gabr-Mahalla. Law and order was restored once the Shah returned a few days later.  

The term Gabr was given a new dimension in the Persian vocabulary by those who meant to demean the adherents of ancient Iranian religion, something that was not of Zarathushtisí choosing. Gabr-Mahalla on the other hand, a place of their making, where they could control and despite their meager means, they turned it into a prime location reflective of their rich heritage. Now the legacy of the Gabr-Mahalla - that even includes a derogatory term - is part of that proud heritage.

A view of the ancient mountainous fortress named after Sassanian Shah Ardeshir overlooking the Gabr-Mahalla from the South side.

View of the rear of a Stately home of a Zartoshty family defining the boundary of the Gabr-Mahalla, now serving as a university campus.

One of few remaining old alleys of Gabr-Mahalla reminiscent of yesteryears.

New Fire Temple of Gabr-Mahalla fueled by Natural Gas

New housing complex built on the premises in the Gabr-Malleh where once the Russian Consulate in Kerman stood

A Zartoshty community Hall in the Gabr-Mahalla built with donation from Rustom Soroushian Kermani, a byproduct of the Gabr-Mahalla, who moved to upstate New York in early 20th century and became a successful businessman.

More and More the New Face of Gabr-Mahalla

The Campus of Iranshahr Zoroastrian Boys High School of Kerman, the first high school in Kerman, that was run a community school by the Zoroastrian Anjuman, now taken over by the government

The Campus of Kaikhosrow Shahrokh Zoroastrian Girls HighSchool of Kerman, amongst the first high-school for girls in Kerman, that was run a community school by the Zoroastrian Anjuman, now taken over by the government and used an a high school for boys.

A Medical clinic in the Gabr-Mahalla built on donation by Mr. Khodad Mehrabi, a businessman who grew up in the Gabr-Mahalla and moved to London in the early part of the 20th century.


[i] This visual essay was posted on October 24, 2004 based on photos taken on site in Kerman in 2003 and 2004.

[ii] The term Gabr, a derogatory term used by fanatical Moslem in Iran implies adherents of the Zoroastrian religion. Mahella is a Farsi word meaning neighborhood.

[iii] The mayorís quote was reported by Emeritus professor of history Mohamed Ibrahim Bastani Parizi of Tehran University in his book on history of Kerman. He does not mention the mayorís name.

[iv] For more information on Kermanís CaberMahella refer to the book, City and Village in Kerman, Iran, by Professor Paul Edward English, University of Wisconsin Press, 1966, pps. 45-49.