The Zagros mountains, in Western Iran, stretch for nearly 1,000 miles, from the sands of the Persian Gulf northwest along the modern border with Iraq and Turkey, separating the plains of Mesopotamia from the expanse of the Iranian plateau. Deep gorges and jagged peaks surpassing 14,000 feet buffered ancient empires from one another—Babylon in the Fertile Crescent and, to the east, the great metropolises of ancient Persia. They frustrated more than one invader, including Alexander the Great. But this forbidding mountain range is also rich in grasslands and rivers fed by winter snows, and for thousands of years tribal groups have migrated through the Zagros with the seasons to pasture their goats and sheep. That grueling, often dangerous feature of nomadic life has evolved, but it has not entirely disappeared. It persists to this day not only for practical reasons but also as a meaningful ritual for people whose history is rooted in the mountains.


Last October, the Mokhtari family, members of the Bakhtiari tribe, prepared to set out from their summer encampment in Iran’s Isfahan Province. They were parents Hossein and Jahan, three of their nine children and several cousins and other relatives. Following timeworn paths through the Zagros, allotted by custom to their tribe and clan, they would travel with around five horses, ten donkeys and mules, and hundreds of goats and sheep. Their destination in Khuzestan Province was some 150 difficult miles away. The journey, known in Farsi and in the local Luri dialect as kuch, would take two weeks. 


Supported by IRANomad


Commissioned by Smithsonian Magazine, June 2021

Abulfayz looks over his flock as the Chabori family summits one of the Zagros mountains spiny thorns during the midday heat.
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Abulfayz looks over his flock as the Mokhtari family summits one of the Zagros mountains spiny thorns during the midday heat.

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Abulfayz looks over his flock as the Mokhtari family summits one of the Zagros mountains spiny thorns during the midday heat.

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Zagros mountains at dusk as the Charbori family sets up camp for the night.
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Zagros mountains at dusk as the Charbori family sets up camp for the night. ×
Zagros mountains at dusk as the Charbori family sets up camp for the night. ×
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Mehri and her youngest son Pourang sit around their fire. ×
Mehri and her youngest son Pourang sit around their fire. ×
Mohammad, Pourang and Abulfayz discuss the decreased bear population and the future of hunting in the Zagros mountains near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains. Mohammad [left] "I haven't seen a bear in maybe 20 years. Before that, I saw them a lot".
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Mohammad, Pourang and Abulfayz discuss the decreased bear population and the future of hunting in the Zagros mountains near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains. Mohammad [left] "I haven't seen a bear in maybe 20 years. Before that, I saw them a lot". ×
Mohammad, Pourang and Abulfayz discuss the decreased bear population and the future of hunting in the Zagros mountains near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains. Mohammad [left] "I haven't seen a bear in maybe 20 years. Before that, I saw them a lot". ×
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Donkeys and mules climb up the mountainside towards the evenings camp. ×
Donkeys and mules climb up the mountainside towards the evenings camp. ×
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Abulfayz carries a pregnant sheep across a river. ×
Abulfayz carries a pregnant sheep across a river. ×
Jahan, Kianoush and Afsaneh walk towards a wild walnut grove as the light begins to fall in the Zagros mountains, Iran
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Jahan, Kianoush and Afsaneh walk towards a wild walnut grove as the light begins to fall in the Zagros mountains, Iran ×
Jahan, Kianoush and Afsaneh walk towards a wild walnut grove as the light begins to fall in the Zagros mountains, Iran ×
Hossein shaves his moustache, a symbol of manhood, with a broken mirror. During kooch, depending on time and access to water, Bakhtiari families will wash every one to two weeks.
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Hossein shaves his moustache, a symbol of manhood, with a broken mirror. During kooch, depending on time and access to water, Bakhtiari families will wash every one to two weeks. ×
Hossein shaves his moustache, a symbol of manhood, with a broken mirror. During kooch, depending on time and access to water, Bakhtiari families will wash every one to two weeks. ×
Hossein smokes opium with his childhood friend Mohamed around a slow burning fire, and solar powered lamp. In Bakhtiari culture, smoking opium is seen as recreational medicine and will be given to guests as a sign of respect.
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Hossein smokes opium with his childhood friend Mohamed around a slow burning fire, and solar powered lamp. In Bakhtiari culture, smoking opium is seen as recreational medicine and will be given to guests as a sign of respect. ×
Hossein smokes opium with his childhood friend Mohamed around a slow burning fire, and solar powered lamp. In Bakhtiari culture, smoking opium is seen as recreational medicine and will be given to guests as a sign of respect. ×
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Hossein arriving at our high altitude camp for the night. ×
Hossein arriving at our high altitude camp for the night. ×
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Kianoush shares foraged Seistan [a local fruit, like a miniature apple] with his family. ×
Kianoush shares foraged Seistan [a local fruit, like a miniature apple] with his family. ×
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Jahan sits beside her son Morteza and nephew, Alboorz as a full moon rises in the Zagros mountains. ×
Jahan sits beside her son Morteza and nephew, Alboorz as a full moon rises in the Zagros mountains. ×
Hossein's son, Morteza, looks out into the distance while his father negociates the livestock deal outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains.
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Hossein's son, Morteza, looks out into the distance while his father negociates the livestock deal outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains. ×
Hossein's son, Morteza, looks out into the distance while his father negociates the livestock deal outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains. ×
Alboorz begins to move Mohammad's flock of sheep towards the mountain pass as the sun rises in the Zagros mountains.
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Alboorz begins to move Mohammad's flock of sheep towards the mountain pass as the sun rises in the Zagros mountains. ×
Alboorz begins to move Mohammad's flock of sheep towards the mountain pass as the sun rises in the Zagros mountains. ×
Moussa smokes a cigarette at dusk while watching his brother Mohammad's flock of sheep and goats in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Moussa smokes a cigarette at dusk while watching his brother Mohammad's flock of sheep and goats in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Moussa smokes a cigarette at dusk while watching his brother Mohammad's flock of sheep and goats in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
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Jahan by the firelight ×
Jahan by the firelight ×
Kianoush sleeps under a blanket by firelight in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Kianoush sleeps under a blanket by firelight in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Kianoush sleeps under a blanket by firelight in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
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Kianoush, Alboorz and Morteza prepare mutton ribs. ×
Kianoush, Alboorz and Morteza prepare mutton ribs. ×
Jahan prepares butter from yoghurt inside a leather bag known "khig". This traditional practice involves shaking the bag to separate the fat from the yoghurt. The sour yoghurt that remains is called "dough" and is drunk with most meals.
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Jahan prepares butter from yoghurt inside a leather bag known "khig". This traditional practice involves shaking the bag to separate the fat from the yoghurt. The sour yoghurt that remains is called "dough" and is drunk with most meals. ×
Jahan prepares butter from yoghurt inside a leather bag known "khig". This traditional practice involves shaking the bag to separate the fat from the yoghurt. The sour yoghurt that remains is called "dough" and is drunk with most meals. ×
Mehri climbd up the mountainside on her horse towards a summit in the Zagros mountains, Iran
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Mehri climbd up the mountainside on her horse towards a summit in the Zagros mountains, Iran ×
Mehri climbd up the mountainside on her horse towards a summit in the Zagros mountains, Iran ×
Children watch as Hossein makes a deal with a nomad shepherd to sell his white horse for a ram outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Children watch as Hossein makes a deal with a nomad shepherd to sell his white horse for a ram outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Children watch as Hossein makes a deal with a nomad shepherd to sell his white horse for a ram outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Dusk on the Zarak river beside Ir settlement in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Dusk on the Zarak river beside Ir settlement in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Dusk on the Zarak river beside Ir settlement in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
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Kianoush shows presents two fish he's caught on the river bank. His hand's are stained with the dye released from walnut husks. ×
Kianoush shows presents two fish he's caught on the river bank. His hand's are stained with the dye released from walnut husks. ×
Abulfayz comes to terms with losing five of his uncle Mohammad's sheep. Mohammad blames him for not counting them before we left Chin village and climbed to 3,200 metres in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Abulfayz comes to terms with losing five of his uncle Mohammad's sheep. Mohammad blames him for not counting them before we left Chin village and climbed to 3,200 metres in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Abulfayz comes to terms with losing five of his uncle Mohammad's sheep. Mohammad blames him for not counting them before we left Chin village and climbed to 3,200 metres in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
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Kianoush cuts fat from a sheep skin. The skin will be boiled, and turned into a "khig" to store yoghurt. The fat will be boiled, and the oil used for cooking. The fat is removed from a sheep skin. ×
Kianoush cuts fat from a sheep skin. The skin will be boiled, and turned into a "khig" to store yoghurt. The fat will be boiled, and the oil used for cooking. The fat is removed from a sheep skin. ×
Hossein drinks chai in the Zagros mountains, Iran. His cracked hands are stained black from the dye released from walnut husks.
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Hossein drinks chai in the Zagros mountains, Iran. His cracked hands are stained black from the dye released from walnut husks. ×
Hossein drinks chai in the Zagros mountains, Iran. His cracked hands are stained black from the dye released from walnut husks. ×
Kianoush and Alboorz prepare mutton ribs near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Kianoush and Alboorz prepare mutton ribs near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Kianoush and Alboorz prepare mutton ribs near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Hossein's sheep gather around a natural spring. The sheep are typically stained with the yellow dye produced from the madder root from in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Hossein's sheep gather around a natural spring. The sheep are typically stained with the yellow dye produced from the madder root from in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Hossein's sheep gather around a natural spring. The sheep are typically stained with the yellow dye produced from the madder root from in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
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Kianoush jumps across stones as he waits for his father to return from a Ir, nearby village on the banks the Zarak river in the Zagros mountains. ×
Kianoush jumps across stones as he waits for his father to return from a Ir, nearby village on the banks the Zarak river in the Zagros mountains. ×
The Zagros mountains at dawn, near Heiran village, Iran
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The Zagros mountains at dawn, near Heiran village, Iran ×
The Zagros mountains at dawn, near Heiran village, Iran ×
Pourang watches over his families flock of sheep and goats along the Zagros mountains in south west Iran.
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Pourang watches over his families flock of sheep and goats along the Zagros mountains in south west Iran. ×
Pourang watches over his families flock of sheep and goats along the Zagros mountains in south west Iran. ×
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Bibi, a Bakhtiari woman settled in a village that connects to the Kooch route, stands in her home. She wears a beaded band called "meyna", a traditional garment worn by Bakhtiari women. Often Bakhtairi women will attach symbols of the sun and moon to their "meyna" to reinforce their connection to nature. ×
Bibi, a Bakhtiari woman settled in a village that connects to the Kooch route, stands in her home. She wears a beaded band called "meyna", a traditional garment worn by Bakhtiari women. Often Bakhtairi women will attach symbols of the sun and moon to their "meyna" to reinforce their connection to nature. ×
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Jahan seperates the fat and milk. She pours the remaining goats milk into a leather bag known as "mashk". ×
Jahan seperates the fat and milk. She pours the remaining goats milk into a leather bag known as "mashk". ×
Bibi Mehri rides her horse across the Zarak river in the Zagros mountains. Elder women who are highly skilled and respected are named "Bibi" [meaning deeply respected] within their sub-tribes. Bibi's will own a gun, and become the leader of the tribal fam
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Bibi Mehri rides her horse across the Zarak river in the Zagros mountains. Elder women who are highly skilled and respected are named "Bibi" [meaning deeply respected] within their sub-tribes. Bibi's will own a gun, and become the leader of the tribal family. ×
Bibi Mehri rides her horse across the Zarak river in the Zagros mountains. Elder women who are highly skilled and respected are named "Bibi" [meaning deeply respected] within their sub-tribes. Bibi's will own a gun, and become the leader of the tribal family. ×
Mohammad with his sheep flock at  dusk near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran
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Mohammad at dusk with his sheep. Mohammad with his sheep flock at dusk near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran ×
Mohammad at dusk with his sheep. Mohammad with his sheep flock at dusk near Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran ×
Bibi weaves a band that her family will later sell at a nearby nomad market in Heiran village. This decoration will be hung above the black nomad tents to honour the arrival of guests. During the time of kooch, these bands will be used to tie saddle bags
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Bibi weaves a band that her family will later sell at a nearby nomad market in Heiran village. This decoration will be hung above the black nomad tents to honour the arrival of guests. During the time of kooch, these bands will be used to tie saddle bags to the donkeys and horses. ×
Bibi weaves a band that her family will later sell at a nearby nomad market in Heiran village. This decoration will be hung above the black nomad tents to honour the arrival of guests. During the time of kooch, these bands will be used to tie saddle bags to the donkeys and horses. ×
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Abulfayz and Moussa discuss the missing sheep. Hossein will return in the morning with Mohammad, and only then will they know if the sheep have been found. ×
Abulfayz and Moussa discuss the missing sheep. Hossein will return in the morning with Mohammad, and only then will they know if the sheep have been found. ×
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Hossein by the firelight. Don't use sleeping bags, as they know they will sleep too deeply. "We need to be cold, not to sleep deeply so we can monitor the sheep and goats". ×
Hossein by the firelight. Don't use sleeping bags, as they know they will sleep too deeply. "We need to be cold, not to sleep deeply so we can monitor the sheep and goats". ×
Hossein makes a deal with a nomad shepherd to sell his white horse for a ram outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Hossein makes a deal with a nomad shepherd to sell his white horse for a ram outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Hossein makes a deal with a nomad shepherd to sell his white horse for a ram outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
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Kianoush washes with soap near a fresh water spring. During kooch, families will wash once every one to two weeks. ×
Kianoush washes with soap near a fresh water spring. During kooch, families will wash once every one to two weeks. ×
Jahan and Hossein walk towards a nomad shepherd to negociate a livestock deal outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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Jahan and Hossein walk towards a nomad shepherd to negociate a livestock deal outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
Jahan and Hossein walk towards a nomad shepherd to negociate a livestock deal outside Heiran village in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
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Seyedaslan, aged 110, inside his home in a Bakhtiari village ×
Seyedaslan, aged 110, inside his home in a Bakhtiari village ×
Kianoush sits on his mother's horse in the Zagros mountains, Iran
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Kianoush sits on his mother's horse in the Zagros mountains, Iran ×
Kianoush sits on his mother's horse in the Zagros mountains, Iran ×
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Hossein and his younger son Kianoush leave the livestock deal after Hossein was unable to sell their white horse. They are returning to Heiran village, and from there, they will continue kooch through the Zagros mountains.

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Hossein and his younger son Kianoush leave the livestock deal after Hossein was unable to sell their white horse. They are returning to Heiran village, and from there, they will continue kooch through the Zagros mountains.

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A settled Bakhiari village in the Zagros mountains at dusk. ×
A settled Bakhiari village in the Zagros mountains at dusk. ×
A traditional Bakhtiari graveyard in Lebd, in the Zagros mountains, Iran.
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A traditional Bakhtiari graveyard in Lebd, in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
A traditional Bakhtiari graveyard in Lebd, in the Zagros mountains, Iran. ×
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