Driving with altitude.
From our hotel room window you could see the snow capped peaks of the border. About 40 kilometers to the southwest Iraq and due west Turkey. But today we were headed north to Maku in the north west corner to Iran, our last stop before the border crossing. Maku is situated just across the border from Armenia and a little to the east Azerbaijan.
The morning was cool and crisp. The sky, the clearest we had seen for ages. No smog, desert dust or salt haze. The rugged, rocky brown mountains were vivid. The locals must have all been sleeping in after a late night celebrating the closing stages of Ramadan as the roads were deserted. Along the roadside the melon vendors were our limited company.
In the fields a multitude of crops were being cultivated, from sun flower to canola and wheat. We even spotted an ostrich in a cage. While the mountains were bare the valleys were wall to wall cultivation with irrigation ditches running through the paddocks.
We had some ambitious challenges set for the day, a couple of sites and a BBQ lunch. A number of us were sceptical that this feat could be pulled off, but Hesan our guide assured us that with the help of the MG Service team he had things under control.
First stop for the day was a tower in the town of Khoy to visit the burial site of Shams Tabrizi a Muslim - dervish philosopher of the 13th century who is reputed to have put Rumi, the great Persian poet on the right track. It is marked with a 20m brick tower adorned with sheep skulls and horns.
It was a challenge to get there as the main streets were all blocked off with barriers and police. A spontaneous demonstration had been organised across the country to protest against the US treatment of Palestinians. We were not sure what that actually meant, and so were anyone we met.
From there off to find a spot for a BBQ. Its not easy when all the flat ground is cultivated, the rocky, arid hills are exposed and flat, and the villages are no go zones because its Ramadan and the locals will kill us for eating. An out of the way spot was selected amongst the vegetable patches after a short negotiation with a local farmer, but as soon as we stopped all the local kids arrived on their push bikes, shortly followed by their parents. There was of course no a scrap of fire wood to be found, but the ever thoughtful MG Service team had contemplated this and had a couple of bags of charcoal. A few river stones to rest the skewers on and we were cooking. The sceptics had to eat humble pie.
After lunch we headed off for the Qareh Kalisa (black church) of St Thaddaeus. The road climbed and we were driving through rolling, arid hills up to 2000m. Broad acres of golden wheat swayed in the breeze, waiting for harvest. The cars swept and dipped on the smooth, deserted road. It was magnificent driving.
And then over a short rise, the Church appeared. It is the best maintained of all Iran’s medieval churches. Today it stands alone, not far from a small Kurdish village. Buts its difficult to understand how it had come to be built in this remote location. It is believed that St Thaddaeus established the church on this site in AD43. As the story goes, he was either an apostle of St Bartholomew or was St Bartholomew. But whatever the case he was so successful, that the Armenian king, who ruled this area, lopped off his head and that of 3000 of his followers in AD66. The chapel was built here in AD371 on the site of his supposed grave. Like all these things, what you see today may not actually be the original church. It’s been extended, renovated, fallen down in earthquakes and rebuilt over the past 17 centuries. But is was a very moving site.
Today the nearby Kurdish village, carries on life much as they must have done at the time the church was originally built. Low mud huts, piles of dung stacked up against the walls to provide fuel for their stoves and a few sheep scatted around the hills. I suspect that life would be fairly challenging for them in the middle of winter.
We descended down out of the hills to Maku, our destination for the night, a few kilometres from the border. The town sits boxed in a soaring, rocky canyon. A long time gateway through the mountains, Maku guarded the Ottoman – Persian frontier. To get a better view, we clambered up the steep slope to the crumbling remnants of the old citadel, built under a massive overhanging cliff.
Despite this being the major border crossing with Turkey, open 24 hours a day, the town showed very little benefit from the traffic (nearly all trucks) passing through.