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Gilan, Iran: A visit to an ancestral home

Gilan, Iran: A visit to an ancestral home

By on Jul 14, 2016 in Blog, Featured, Travelogue, Uncategorized |

Sana Gillani

This story begins in approximately 1095, when the great scholar, teacher and saint, Shakyh Abdul Qadir Al-Gilani, left his hometown in the province of Gilan, Persia, and ventured to Baghdad to further his studies in the sacred sciences. He was the son to the pious Abu Salih Musa al-Hasani or “Jangidost” (one who loves God) and mother, whom I only know to be “Bibi Nisa”, also a pious Saint with Prophetic lineage. Al Gilani settled in Baghdad, which at the time was under Seljuk rule and very much a centre of knowledge, full of expansive libraries and students from many parts of the Muslim world. Al Gilani had many sons, who settled in different regions to spread their knowledge, becoming one of the most highly regarded and influential families or tribe wherever they went. My ancestor, Musa Pak Shaheed, was a descendant of one of these sons. After a long journey through Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, Musa Pak eventually settled in Multan, Pakistan, during the reign of Shah Jahan, the king who built the Taj Mahal. My Dad’s family have been in Pakistan for roughly 400 years, and obviously our links to the Middle East have since been lost.

Fast forward to 2007 when I first started studying at University in Canberra and befriended a young peer by the name of Jowan Nakshbandi. Jowan is an Iranian Sunni whose family hails from the Gilan province of Iran as well. More recently, when I told Jowan I would be traveling to Gilan, he kindly offered to get in touch with his father who was going to be there at the same time as us. Jowan’s father, Mr Nakshbandi, was incredibly obliging and went out of his way to meet us at our hotel in Rasht and take us around to see a few places.

Gilan is situated in the north-west region of Iran, and meets the famous Caspian sea to its north. It is mostly acclaimed for its distinct cuisine, culture, its rain and its astonishing natural beauty. Gilan’s landscape is lush, green, fertile and mountainous and sees many, mostly domestic, tourists pass through each year. It is for this reason that we felt that we really needed somebody to show us around. The sad thing was that we only really had two full days in Gilan, because of the amount of time needed to travel from Shiraz to Rasht. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to what I would do once there, but in my brief discussions with Mr Naskshbandi, I had expressed an interest in visiting the Caspian Sea and most vitally, visiting the resting places of the mother and father of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Gilani.

Mr Nakshbandi was held back on the first day that we arrived, and was not able to meet us. He had to travel back all the way from Sanandaj, closer to the Iraqi border, where he was attending a relative’s funeral. The roads through the mountains on the way back were blocked by snow and Mr Nakshbandi made a mighty effort to drive back without much sleep in order to meet us on our second and last full day in Gilan.

Our first day in Gilan, however, we were to have no guide or friend to show us around. We decided to hire a taxi driver for the day to take us to Lahijan, a touristy town where we could take a cable car to enjoy views of the village below with its lush greenery and beautiful red-roofed homes. What we found out later was that there wasn’t much else than that to do, and we felt like we could have used the time to head further west from Rasht to visit other villages and sights. The drive and views were quite enjoyable nonetheless and our taxi driver was also very sweet, trying his best to communicate with us by using his daughter as an English interpreter over the phone.

Lahijan, Gilan province. © Sana Gillani

When we got back to Rasht we walked down the busy streets near our hotel to find some chocolates for Mr Nakshbandi. Rasht understandably had a much more laid back vibe than Tehran and the other cities we had visited. Locals were friendly and silently curious about us at the same time. We were keen to test out some of the local Gilani cuisine and ordered Fesenjan, a pomegranate based stew with quail and we tried Ghormeh Sabzi which is made from a combination of sautéed herbs. We headed back to the hotel and spent a lot of the night sitting in the hotel lobby, Abdul Hadi studying Farsi with the courteous and entertained hotel staff and me trying to interpret Iranian news on the lobby TV which was reporting the Paris attacks. Eventually we made our way back to our room to rest after the long day, our hearts and minds full of anticipation and excitement to explore more of this beautiful region the next day.

We were up bright and early and Mr Nakshbandi arrived promptly to pick us up at around 8am. When we first met him, I felt like I was meeting an older version of his son Jowan, my friend. Mr Nakshbandi was one of the many heroes we met on our trip, he was yet another perfect exhibit of Iranian hospitality. We were overwhelmed by his generosity of driving hundreds of kilometres to show us around even though he must have been exhausted from his journey home from Sanandaj. He never showed it.

Our first destination on this express roadtrip around Gilan was the mountainside village of Masouleh. As we drove out of the city and towards Masouleh we were in awe of the pristine natural beauty we were witnessing. We both agree that this was the most heavenly landscape we had seen in all our travel. The sky was a flawless shade of blue, the road was framed by the lushest of greenery and we marveled at the view of the green mountains in the horizon, illuminated by snow on their peaks. The wind was clear and pleasant, and when we stopped at a lookout, we found that the cold wasn’t as assaulting as I imagined, and as it can be in winter months.

On the way to Masouleh. © Sana Gillani

The hill village of Masouleh is over 1000 years old and has a beautiful charm to it as a result of the sweet natured residents and unique construction. If you go to Masouleh, you’ll get a good view of the village by walking up to the cemetery near the running stream. From here you will be able to notice the style of dwellings – one house atop another, one person’s courtyard serves as the below residents roof. I was delighted most by the view of the adorable mosque with its jade green dome and colourful minarets. We walked through the pathways of the village past tourist shops, cafes hosting tourists and locals alike, smoking qalian (hookah), and cup after cup of tea. We also enjoyed some tea there with Mr Nakshbandi, took some photos and bought some souvenirs. I found the famous Gilani style woolen dolls in Masouleh, and bought some for my nieces and myself.

A first look at Masouleh. © Sana Gillani

A mosque in Masouleh. © Sana Gillani

Purchasing locally made handicrafts. © Sana Gillani

Mr Nakshbandi and a shopkeeper. © Sana Gillani

Walking through the alleyways of the village. © Sana Gillani

Beautiful Masouleh. © Sana Gillani

Snow-capped mountains in the distance, Masouleh. © Sana Gillani

Our next stop was Qaleh Rudkhan, a Seljuk era Ismaili fort boasting 65 well-preserved towers, with its outer-walls stretching 1500 metres. To reach the castle you had to hike up an extensive set of stairs surrounded by luscious foliage and flowing streams. Mr Nakshbandi waited for us as we ventured up. It was a semi-perilious walk up as there had be rain and the steps were very leafy and muddy. Delicately, we traipsed up as far as we could, enjoying the views amidst all the caution and were joined by Iranian tourists who were making their way up as well in droves. We decided it would be better to head back down before reaching the castle because as much as we wanted to see it, we were running out of time. We had very important places, or people, to visit.

At Qaleh Rudhkan. © Sana Gillani

Mr Nakshbandi was able to give us great insight into many things. He told us about his time growing up in Iran, pre and post revolution, during the Iran/Iraq war and also told us about his esteemed so Sufi tariqa. It so happens that Abdul Hadi is a follower of the same tariqa through his Sheikh. Abdul Hadi was familiar with the well-known Uncle of Mr Nakshbandi, Sheikh Usman Siraj-Uddin. Abdul Hadi felt very blessed to be able to hear stories about this noble family, including detailed accounts of Mr Nakshbandi’s childhood in the tariqa and the amazing spirit and dedication of Mr Nakshbandi’s deceased mother. After a peaceful drive through more villages, passing farms and plenty or quaint red-roofed homes, we reached Sowm – e –Sara, the village and resting place of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani’s blessed mother, Bibi Nisa. After obtaining directions from a string of locals on the streets, we eventually reached the maqam. Mr Nakshbandi recognised it as he explained that his mother used to organise busloads of mureeds to make ziyara to her grave during his youth.

The plaque denoting Bibi Nisa's resting place. © Sana Gillani

The weight of what was occurring did not become immediately apparent. I walked through the turqoise gates of the maqam, which looked like a small house, sitting unassumingly between other homes in this village. Abdul Hadi took photos of me standing outside the sign of her maqam and after taking turns making wudu, we entered the building. It was one large room which hosted the tomb, and the room was filled with older women sitting in one big circle around the tomb, which stood in the centre. As I entered, devotional chants were being sung loudly and heartily by these women. I felt very out of place, yet comforted by the fact that my ancestor was being taken care of by women like these, and having their prayers offered for her. I couldn’t understand what they were singing, and was conscious that the women may be quite curious about who us strange visitors were, but still I tried to connect with their songs and join in with their prayers through my heart. The men stayed outside for a while until the women eventually stopped singing and they came inside to make their ziyara. As I approached the gold gates that signified the resting place of Bibi Nisa, I gave thought to all the changes and transformations she would have witnessed from this location. I wondered what her resting place looked like a few hundred years ago, I wondered exactly what kind of person she was, and what her reaction would be knowing that a distant descendant of hers, had travelled from faraway lands she would not have even known about, to see her. And finally, I was inspired into reciting sincere prayers and verses of the Quran for her, and in doing so, revived a long lost connection on behalf of my family. I had found a missing part of the puzzle in the tapestry that is my heritage and origins. I was fulfilling something important and representing those in her family line that couldn’t be there but valued her sainthood and contribution to the Ummah. I hoped that like any mother would with their daughter, she was happy to receive me, welcoming, unconditionally, and in the highest of states with her Lord.

After we each offered prayers, we were approached by a woman from the group who looked to be one of the maintainers of the maqam. She asked us for some details on where we had come from and Mr Nakshbandi had to explain to her in farsi, on our behalf. She appealed to us for donations, stating that she was genuine and was the most responsible to be collecting funds for the cause. I was a bit confused, but followed Mr Nakshbandi’s knowledgeable lead, and proceeded to make a small donation on behalf of my family and I. The woman was thankful and gave us sweets as well as ribbons from the cloth of the maqam for ‘tabaruq’. I was a bit unfamiliar and skeptical with the tabaruq practice but Abdul Hadi explained to me that is was widely practiced and not necessarily ‘shirky’.

The maqam of Bibi Nisa. © Sana Gillani

Our next stop on the journey was unexpected and a pure treat. We got to visit some of Mr Nakshbandi’s relatives on his Wife’s side, his sister in law, to be precise. They had prepared a feast for us, as Mr Nakshbandi had advised them that we would be in the area. When we arrived, we were made to feel very comfortable, once again, in the home of people we had just met. We rested, ate, and shared a few words with our guests. I was told by the father of their household that I looked like the Gillanis of Iran, which I took with a grain of salt as Pakistanis share similar features to Iranians. It prompted me to think about what it would be like to meet other members of the Gillani bloodline in the region, and that I should have tried to research that a bit more, perhaps.

We thanked our hosts for their immense hospitality and Mr Nakshbandi discussed the prospect of driving to the location where Seyed Saleh, the Saint and father of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Al-Gilani, was buried. Mr Nakshbandi’s relative informed us that it would be a long drive up the Mountain, on rocky dirt roads for a good part of the way as well. We resigned to the fact that it would now be too difficult to visit Seyed Saleh, and decided to make our way back to our hotel in Rasht. I felt a bit disappointed by this, but knew this was probably safest and most convenient for Mr Nakshbandi. I didn’t want to put him out of his way too much.

Being treated with the local cuisine, prepared by relatives of Mr. Nakshbandi. © Sana Gillani

As we were driving back, I was coming to terms with not being able to complete part of my mission in Gilan and reasoned that this must be Allah’s divine plan for me. As these thoughts were running through my mind, along with “what ifs” and “how abouts”, we happened to pass the sign indicating the route up the mountain to Seyed Saleh’s maqam, as pictured below.

The road leading to Seyed Saleh's maqam. © Sana Gillani

Mr Nakshbandi brought this to our attention and stopped by the road for us to take photos of the sign while he chatted to a few locals. I was happy that I had come thus far, at least, and was ready to continue back home, especially as maghrib was approaching. Mr. Nakshbandi turned to us and asked us, challenging us almost, “Do you want to drive up to complete the ziyara?”

“But it will be dark soon, and your car might struggle on the roads”, I replied.

“InshaAllah, we can do it, if you want, it doesn’t matter”, he said, encouragingly.

 “Abdul Hadi, what should we do?”, I appealed to my husband for guidance. Abdul Hadi beamed back without much concern and said, “Why not? Let’s give it a try!”

 I knew in my heart there may be a chance I would never again have the opportunity to embark upon this journey again and decided to live in the moment, without fears or inhibitions. This was turning out to be a true adventure, and as my fellow delinquent millenials would declare, YOLO!

“Ok, I want to go. Let’s do this”.

And so, in our not-so-ideal vehicle and with dusk shortly approaching, we made our way up the mountain, near Fuman, upon which Seyed Saleh’s maqam lies. It was at this time that the full extent of Gilan’s natural beauty exposed itself to us. In the words of Syed Hossein Nasr on Autumn,

“Forests become a rainbow of shimmering hues
Yellows and purples and reds vie with the greens
In a geometry sublime, intricate beyond our ken
To create a symphony of endless beauty…”.

It was just that. The sight was absolutely majestic. As the sun bowed its last grace over the mountain for the day, the auburn afternoon light brought out the most beautiful array of Autumn colours. The greenery was picture perfect, and Abdul Hadi and I were glued to our windows in awe, witnessing the heights we were treading and the immaculate views of this forest. It was as if we were receiving a grand welcome to Seyed Saleh’s resting place, a vision of what his saintly spirit encapsulates. What an honour, I thought, to be given such a peaceful final abode in this trouble-plagued world of ours.

On this note, I had to ask Mr Nakshbandi, “Why is Seyed Saleh buried so far away from his wife, Bibi Nisa?”

“The Sufi Saints are known to flee from bigger cities and towns and seek solace in in the calm of places like this, high up in the Mountains”, he explained.

The mountain we were travelling up appeared to achieve just that. I felt like I was the furthest possible away from the tribulations and corruption of the world. In my wild imagination, it was as if we were venturing into some mythical realm of serenity. Think Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, kind of beauty. We witnessed the signs of what appeared to be remote mountain-living by a few locals. Simple structures for homes, cattle, the odd car driving back down the mountain, acknowledging us, and probably thinking we were mad for undertaking such an ambitious journey at this time of day. The full dark fell dark fell upon us as we ascended further deeply into the mountain. We decided to take the shafei dispensation and pray our maghrib and isha in conjunction. Mr Nakshbandi continued to share stories about his family, the tariqa and his childhood and I plugged in my earphones to listen to some nasheed.

I didn’t want to express it at the time, but I felt a little nervous as the road got rockier and the night, darker. I kept wondering how much longer we had to drive to get the maqam, and anticipating the equally long drive back down the mountain. I also felt a sense of guilt for troubling Mr Nakshbandi, although he seemed a great sport, enjoying himself with our company. He shared a genuine sense of pride for the Gilan region of Iran and appeared very well connected to the place, even though he lived, for the most part, in Australia. Their family had purchased a farm in the region and returned to Iran often.

Eventually we saw the green-lighted figure of the maqam in the distance, and knew we were now close. Since it was past maghrib, entrance into the maqam would be closed and we wouldn’t be able to enter it. I was ok with this, and didn’t want to trouble anyone to come back in the cold, when they were probably resting and having dinner with their family. No, I just had to make the most of this somewhat bizarre set of circumstances, and make my salams and prayers for Seyed Saleh. So we walked up to the door of the little musallah encompassing his grave, and offered our salam and prayers. It was all rather quick, and with little more reflection or activity, we jumped back into the car and made our way down the mountain. Mr Nakshbandi attempted to speak to a local to try and ask for help with opening the door to the maqam, but we told him we didn’t want to bother the custodian.

The maqam of Seyed Saleh. © Sana Gillani

“Ziyara qabool, inshaAllah”, announced Mr Nakshbandi, reassuringly. It would take me the trip down the mountain, and back to Australia, to collect my thoughts on the journey we had undertaken. It was no doubt, on the whole, amazing, to be given the opportunity by Allah (swt) to travel to such places, visit the resting places of such people, and connect with that part of my heritage. What was even more fascinating was how it was facilitated. It was part of God’s plan all along in me befriending Jowan in University, to one day be able to use this connection to retrace my family history with the aid of Mr Nakshbandi, and be given an insight into a minority Sufi community in Iran, which my husband was in some way connected to as well.

Mr Nakshbandi delivered us safely back to Rasht and we prepared for an early journey to Mashhad via Tehran the next day. After thanking him profusely and promising to stay in touch, we prepared for the rest of our journey and rested after the longest and most exhilarating day of our trip so far. There was yet more of Iran to see.

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