My Blog

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014


Finally there was Mashhad, the capital of Khorasan Province in the far northeast. The name means literally “Place of Martyrdom,” a reference to Imam Reza—eighth patriarch of the Shia sect—who was poisoned there in the ninth century. His memorial, Imam Reza Shrine, ranks as the holiest of Iran’s sanctu¬aries (preceding pages).

In another sense the city’s martyrdom stems from the historic tide of invasion that swept alternately east and west through the great natural crossroad between Europe and Asia. In its time Mashhad suffered the depre¬dations of passing Mongols, Uzbeks, Turks, and Afghans, and endured the additional hardship of several earthquakes.

Today the historic crossroad is sealed off by the iron security of Khorasan’s next-door neighbor, the Soviet Union. One morning I stood with Col. Ismail Yganegy, a member of Iran’s crack border patrol, gazing across a mile or more of bleak no-man’s-land separat¬ing the two countries.

“Unlike the Iraqi border,” Colonel Yganegy said, “this one is quiet. The Soviets let no one cross from our side, and it is certain none of their people comes over to us. It is sad, for the inhabitants on both sides are Turkoman and feel very close to one another.”

We inspected the border itself, a small slug¬gish river called the Tedzhen, and Colonel Yganegy gestured toward a flimsy barbed-wire fence along the opposite bank.

“There the U.S.S.R. begins,” he said, “but the fence is merely show. The real barrier stands about a mile farther back, in the form of a high electrified fence complete with mine¬fields, frontier guards, and watchdogs. At night we can see the searchlights sweeping the area from observation towers spaced a mile or two apart.”

Sealed Border Divides Turkomans

Colonel Yganegy shares a 300-mile stretch of frontier with his Soviet counterpart, an army colonel named Kologyn. Now and then the two officers meet to solve minor problems in an atmosphere both cordial and correct.

“He is not a bad sort,” Colonel Yganegy said of his opposite. “He has his orders just as I do, and he knows the area thoroughly. We get on reasonably well. Sometimes we even enjoy a cup of tea together.”

With the typical foreigner’s ignorance I asked if Kologyn was a Turkoman name, and Colonel Yganegy gave me a startled look. “Certainly not,” he answered. “The Soviets would never dream of permitting a native to patrol his own district. He would have con¬nections among the people and therefore would be too sympathetic. Kologyn is a de¬cent enough fellow, but he is a Great Russian from Moscow.” Colonel Yganegy smiled with sudden inspiration. “Perhaps the district com¬mander there is a Turkoman.”

Back in Tehran once more. I dropped by the street corner where young Ali Moradi had introduced me two months earlier to his country and to good fortune. He was else¬where, of course, and the ashes of his fire were long scattered by Tehran’s summer winds.

I wished for him briefly, to thank him for both introductions and to say that in a sense they had turned out to be one and the same. But then Ali is wise beyond his years, and I suspect he already knows.