What is Bam?

Brendan McGuigan

Bam is a city in Iran, associated with a long history of settlement in the region. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 2004. It is currently considered an endangered site, following an very large earthquake in 2003.

Bam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iran.
Bam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iran.

The ancient name of Bam, and the name given to the citadel that is one of the high points of the city, is Arg-e-Bam. The city was founded sometime during the Sassanian dynasty, nearly two-thousand years ago. The city is built entirely out of traditional materials, including palm trunks, clay, straw, and bricks made from mud.

A few of the structures in the city are from the very early Sassanian period, but the vast majority come from later, during Safavid rule, from the early-16th century on. The city at this time covered just over two square miles (6 sq. km), and had over ten-thousand inhabitants.

Early Bam was an important stop on the Silk Road, and also played a role as a pilgrimage point, as a result of a Fire Temple of the Zoroastrian faith. The Zoroastrian temple was eventually destroyed sometime in the 9th century, and in its place was built a Muslim mosque, the Jame Mosque.

In the 18th century Bam was invaded by Afghans, and was substantially damaged. Its importance as a trading hub and destination for pilgrims began to decline at this point, culminating in the eventual closure of the city to civilians at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1930s it was abandoned by the military that had made the city its base, and was left vacant for the next two decades. In the 1950s the city began to be resettled and restored.

On 26 December, 2003, the city suffered a 6.6 earthquake. Between 20,000 and 80,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands more were seriously injured. The high death toll was in part attributed to the city's unique construction. Unlike most cities, which have structures made of stone or concrete, Bam was made entirely of mud bricks. Therefore, instead of collapsing into piles that contained pockets of air for people to survive in until rescue, the buildings simply turned into dirt, burying people completely and killing them quickly. Since the earthquake, the Iranian government has invested substantial time and resources into designing a new city to replace the ancient city with modern construction and a layout that will help to ensure the safety of its citizens.

The Bam Citadel is the main attraction for tourists. It is located at the top of a small hill, looking over the entire city to give a strategic defensive view. The Citadel is nearly 2 million square feet (180,000 sq. meters), and before being partially destroyed by the earthquake was thought to be the largest single adobe structure in the world. The earthquake destroyed more than three-quarters of the Citadel, but a large consortium of countries, including France, Italy, and Japan, have joined with the Iranian government to restore it.

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