No one knows exactly where the Bakhtiari people came from before settling in the Zagros Mountains. But over the past several thousand years, their roots have grown deep into this land — in what is now western and southwestern Iran — alongside the native oak trees that serve as a vital source of their sustenance. In the face of modern forces, they're standing their ground.
Urbanization began to take hold in this region a century ago, and over the years, the majority of the Bakhtiari have assimilated. Many vaulted into the Iranian elite, becoming academics, actors, ambassadors and athletes. There's even a National Football League player with Bakhtiari roots: David Bakhtiari of the Green Bay Packers.
And yet, some tribes of Bakhtiari continue to raise animals, grow barley and migrate between pastures with the seasons, just as they have for generations, explains Alam Saleh, of the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. "Their habits, way of dressing and lifestyle are still maintained," he says. "If they don't live this way, they don't exist any more. For those who continue — the numbers are diminishing — they persist to maintain identity."
Rostam, a Bakhtiari who goes by one name and says he is 40, notes: "I am used to this lifestyle, I can't live any other way. traveling in these mountains, grazing the herd and hearing the bells of the goats is a pleasure for me. It's the only thing I've done since I was a child, and I'll teach these [ways] to my children, too."
Women play an outsized role in this community, carrying out customs and keeping families together. "Because of their rough way of living, the structures force women to get involved in every aspect of life. Women participate in fighting and physical work, and at the same time act as mothers and wives," Saleh says. "She needs to be strong." This has been true throughout the group's history, with revered figures such as Sardar Bibi Maryam Bakhtiari, a revolutionary military commander who helped tribal forces capture Tehran in 1909.
But the name Bakhtiari, which means "bearer of good luck," doesn't reflect the current situation for these women, who must also deal with child marriage, domestic violence and poverty.
And their lives are not growing any easier. Most of the remaining nomadic tribes have limited access to medical and educational facilities. Dry winds and dust, combined with a lack of water for their livestock, force them to travel longer distances during their annual migration from the plains to higher, cooler pastures. Wildfires, stoked by heat and drought, burn their grazing land.
This photo collection, made in 2020 and 2021, reveals the world of three Bakhtiari tribes and the women who raise the children and carry on the agricultural traditions — even as the realities of the 21st century may mean that their days as nomads are numbered.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Enayat Asadi is a photojournalist in Iran. In 2020 he began a project he calls "Hard Land," Bakhtiari nomads in southern Iran. He lived with the nomads for a month in 2020 and three months in the spring and summer of 2021, aiming to "captured their strength and rich culture in front of the hardships they endure." His new project is called "Survivors of Death Row" and chronicles convicted murderers who were sentenced to death.
Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to NPR.