The famous river bridges in the Iranian city of Isfahan are a favorite attraction for tourists – but most of the time their stone arches stretch only between sand and rock, not water.
Zayandeh Rud, the “fertile river” in Persian, has been drying up since 2000, with the rare exception of drought and upstream water.
Sitting on a wharf with two friends, 60-year-old Jalal Mirahmadi stared sadly at the riverbank, which became the site of a farmers’ protest late last year.
“When I was younger, water flowed under the arches of the bridge and sometimes overflowed to spread to the surrounding streets,” he sighed.
The river flows about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the Zagros Mountains in the west to Lake Gavkhauni in the east, making it the longest waterway in central Iran.
Passing through Isfahan, it passed under several beautifully carved bridges of the 17th century, the golden age of the city when it was the capital of Persia.
Ali Mohammad Fasihi of the Ministry of Heritage and Tourism said, “When the waters of the Zayandeh sun flow, the bridges have a special look and beauty.”
“These historic bridges are meaningless without water.”
Heat and drought
Largely arid Iran, like other neighboring countries, has been the victim of prolonged dry spells and heat waves over the years, which are expected to worsen with climate change.
Iran sometimes suffers from summer blackouts when blistered heat increases the use of air conditioners while low rainfall reduces the reservoir of hydro-electric dams.
The reduced flow of the Zayndeh Road is also man-made because most of its water has been diverted to supply to the neighboring province of Yazd.
Last November, thousands of people, including farmers, gathered in the dry riverbed to complain about the drought and to blame officials for removing the water.
As the protests turned violent, security forces fired tear gas and said they had arrested six people.
The municipality later launched an awareness campaign on the fate of the river, setting up several landmarks in Isfahan, the third largest city in the country with two million people.
Young people in the city say they are used to seeing only the dry bed of the river.
Amir, a 18-year-old high school student, said he rarely went there because “it is no longer comfortable without water.”
“Most of my and my generation’s memories are associated with the aridity of the river,” he lamented.
Selfie by the river
From time to time, authorities briefly open the floodgates of upstream dams to irrigate wheat fields east of Isfahan – to the delight of thousands of people who rush to the river.
It happened in mid-May when locals and tourists rushed to the waterway to capture the fleeting scenes with their eyes and selfies.
Families drank tea and drank shisha in the shade of the trees on the banks. Some walk and others pedal on swan-shaped boats, which are reused after being dusted.
At the royal CO-O pole bridge, portrait painter Mohammad-Reza Abdullahi, 50, draws the yellow-brick bridge while waiting for clients.
“I did not go to Isfahan for 10 years because there were very few tourists there due to the drought in Jayandeh Rude,” he said.
He planned to stay only a week or two, but said that when the dams were opened, “I extended my stay.”
Mahnaz, a 27-year-old art student holding her camera, said she was happy to capture the beauty of the river.
“I don’t have a good picture of the reflection of the bridge on the river because it has dried up since I learned photography,” he said.
Mirahmadi, 60, looked at the river visitors with mixed feelings.
“Do you see this crowd today?” He said. “After a few days, when there is no more water in the river, you will only see old people like us. And we will come just to remember.”
The floodgates were closed again, and the change was already evident: water flowed beneath the two arches of the Khajau Bridge, known for its decoration and its flow.
“Zayandeh Rud is a meeting place for all the people of Isfahan,” said Borna Mousavi, who is campaigning for the preservation of the river and Isfahan’s heritage.
“When they are happy, they come to this river and its bridge to celebrate. And if they are sorry, they come here to be calm.”
For him, the complete disappearance of the river would be like losing a loved one.
“Jayandeh Rudd is like a mother to us,” Mousavi said.
Mirahmadi felt the same way: “This river has kept Isfahan alive.
“Without the river, Isfahan will become a desert and everyone will leave the city in four or five years.”
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)