November is not a high season here, which is exactly what we want – to see the village as it is, without groups of tourists roaming the narrow streets on the town. Since transportation is banned in Masuleh, we park the car near the entrance to the town and take a walk up into the forest first, passing by the local cemetery. A group of workers is working in a grave, installing a tombstone. But as we climb up, it starts raining, so we change our route and walk back into the town to explore its streets.
The old village of Masuleh (Old Masuleh, or Kohne Masuhel in Persian), which was located about 6 kilometers northwest of the present-day town, was founded around 1006 AD. But an epidemic disease as well as attacks from neighboring villages and towns forced the inhabitants to move to the current location. It may sound like a cliché, but Masuleh is a unique town, indeed.
Nestled on the side of the mountain at an elevation of 1050 meters above sea level, the town itself has an elevation difference of about 100 meters. And what makes Masuleh unique is that the roofs of the houses are actually serving as streets and courtyards. As people say, the yard of the building above is the roof the one below.
As we wander around the streets (or the roofs?) of the town, the rain only gets stronger, so we enter a local chaikhane (tea house) to drink some hot tea and warm up a little (paid 3000 toman for 6 cups of tea). The tiny tea house has sheltered a few more visitors, local men who gathered around the gas oven. Engaged in a lively conversation, they drink tea and stare at us from time to time. I listen hard trying to understand what are they talking about, but even our friend Nima understands nothing. The natives of Masuleh speak Talysh, a Northwestern Iranian language spoken in Iran’s Gilan and Ardabil provinces as well as in the southern parts of the Republic of Azerbaijan today.
With the help of our friend we get a chance to exchange a few words with the Talysh men, who immediately switch to Persian. Although Masuleh was a major trade center of Gilan province in the past, today is a major tourist attraction in this region, and the English language signs and the souvenir shops only prove that the inhabitants, whose number declined in the recent years, make their living from the travelers visiting Masuleh. “There are many tourists from Europe and the US in the summer time. They come here, see the landscapes and the architecture, and take photos, a lot of photos. They’re different from the Iranian tourists: unlike travelers from the West, the first thing they do is they enter every single shop,” says one of the men.
We spend about an hour in the tea house waiting for the rain to stop, but seems that we are out of luck this time. When the rain weakens a little, our company of three leave the tea house and walk under the rain for another five-ten minutes, before driving back to Rasht. On the way back we make a stop in the town of Fuman to try a local pastry – “kuluche fuman” – small round cakes stuffed with mashed walnuts and cinnamon (700 toman per piece). The taste of Fuman’s special kuluche will remain in my memory for the rest of our journey in Iran.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015. The historical town of Masuleh in Gilan province of Iran, founded in the 10th century AD, is located about 70 km southwest of Rasht in the mountains of Alborz. We arrive here on a car with our friend, driving through the town of Fuman and passing by the rice paddies and tea plantations resting under cloudy skies. At this time of the year, the road is especially beautiful – forests are burning in orange, brown, red and other colors, creating a fairy tale atmosphere.