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Journey to Urmia Island

Copyright Behzad Sarmast 2007

Lake Urmia is located in the northwestern tip of Iran, close to the Turkish border, and in the “Azerbaijan” region. It is inhabited mostly by Turks and Kurds and there aren’t many Persians there. I spent a couple of years of my childhood in Tabriz, just to the east of Lake Urmia, when my father had a job there.

Lake Van is on the other side of the high mountains to the west of Lake Urmia, over the Turkish border. According to the Urantia Papers, Jesus traveled from the Lake Van area to Urmia, where he stayed for a few weeks, and led a caravan eastward through the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. It was on an island located in Lake Urmia that he was asked to speak at Cymboyton’s school, and he gave one of his most profound lectures there.

Group of four islands in the southern end of Lake Urmia

All we know from the Urantia Papers was that the island was the largest of a group of islands in this lake, and my aim was to find this island. Satellite images of the lake have been available for years and it was quite evident that there are four islands in its southern area – one of which is clearly larger than the rest. The question was how to get to it. My father had told me some years ago that the islands are not inhabited and are full of game, and that the Shah of Iran used to go hunting there. But information about the area was scarce and I realized that without traveling to the region I would never be able to find out exactly where Cymboyton’s school was located.

This area of Iran is close to several borders and there are many ethnic communities who do not particularly like each other. There are also many different religious communities, including Christians. They have no idea that Christ himself was there for a good while, but they do contend that one of the first Christian churches in the world was founded there. Urmia is also the area where the prophet Zoroaster was born so it is quite historic.

Unfortunately, my trip to this region was not during the best of times. Although there are now five million Turks in Tehran alone, the Turks and Persians are different in many ways and do not have the highest regard for each other. The Kurds are likewise not fond of the Turks or the Persians, and are actively seeking to overthrow the Islamic government, at least in their turf. Just before going to this region the Persian TV station of Urmia was burned down after some derogatory reports about the Turks aired, and the whole area went on high alert. We were told in our hotel that we should probably not go out, and if we really dared to go out, we should not speak Farsi (Persian). The fact that an Iranian was warned not to go out and speak Iranian, while in Iran, should give the reader an idea of how complicated an area this is.

I only had two days there so there was no choice but to risk it. In the city of Urmia, I found virtually no one that could help me with any information about the lake. Lake Urmia is extremely salty so there’s no fishing there, and is therefore pretty much left alone. I was finally informed that there was an environmental agency that may be able to help, and that I would also need permission from this same agency to go visit the islands since they are all uninhabited and the wildlife is protected. After visiting the agency, where my motives were seriously questioned, permission was granted; however, I was informed that I would have to be taken to the main island by a ranger close to the lake.

It took about an hour to get from city of Urmia to the remote southwestern side of the lake, where the ranger was waiting by his cabin. It was a cold, windy morning, and his boat was all but inadequate. Standing by the lake and looking at the distant group of islands, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would want to build a school in such a faraway and desolate place. It would be difficult to get there and back, especially two thousand years ago, and the islands themselves were bare and inhospitable to say the least. It just didn’t seem to make much sense. The ranger checked my papers and asked why I wanted to go to the island, and my answer was that there was once a lecture amphitheatre there that was subsequently burned down. He scratched his head and said that in all his years wondering these islands, he had never come across such a thing nor could he believe that anyone would build something like that in such a remote place. When I told him that I had to go and see it for myself, he told me that regrettably, as much as he would like to take me, the wind was strong and his boat was not up to the job. He told me that in such an environment, if the boat failed or capsized, we would be in serious trouble and he was not ready to take the risk.

It had taken a lot of effort to reach this place and the disappointment must have been written all over my face, because the ranger, wanting to help out, advised me to go back to the agency and get some discs he had produced a year earlier. Those discs, he told me, had lots of pictures from the islands and they would perhaps provide me with some answers. This was good news for me and I hastily went back to Urmia by cab.

Now it just happened that on this day, the environmental agency was holding an exhibition about Lake Urmia. There were booths everywhere with various displays about the wildlife, the ecology and scientific information for Lake Urmia. To my astonishment, a large satellite picture of Lake Urmia was on display in one of the main booths, and showed a huge island in the middle of the lake that I had never seen before. But how could this be? A large island in the middle of the lake that didn’t appear in any of the maps/images I had seen before? How does this happen?

While I stood there in front of the poster, gazing at it wide-eyed and in total confusion, one of the visiting scientists that just happened to be there that day for the exhibition, informed me that Lake Urmia had dried out in the last few decades, and that the water level used to be higher. The poster there showed the lake as it was twenty or thirty years ago, not now, and the large island in the middle of the lake was now joined to the mainland. No wonder that none of my maps had shown it!

I could hardly believe it. To make it even more interesting, I was informed that this island is called “Sepeyton,” which is eerily similar to Cymboyton. After some research I learned that this large island, which has several villages, serves as a stepping stone to the other side of the lake. Before the Iranian revolution a stone road/bridge was being built from the western side of the lake to this island in order to allow easier access from one side of the lake to the other, but it was never finished. The revolution had disrupted its construction, but a portion of it is in use and gets you close to the island. A ferry now carries cars from the end of the road to the island. This is still a lot better than having to travel all the way around lake, and it would only make sense that in the old days, people traveling from Urmia City toward the Caspian Sea would take ferries to this same island instead of traveling all the way around the lake.

The island itself looks like a large mountain that is split right down the middle, allowing for easy passage from one side to the other, and making it an ideal stepping stone.

A road/bridge connects the mainland to the island

It occurred to me that if it hadn’t been for the windy day, I would have been sailing to the southern islands and would have never learned about the real island, since I would not have come back to the agency. But this was my second and last day in the region, and there was only half a day left in my journey. The taxi driver, who by now was familiar with my quest, made a mad dash for the bridge as I had to see the island with my own eyes.

It took a couple of hours to get there and the road/bridge was busy with cars and trucks eager to reach Tabriz, a major Iranian city on the eastern side of the lake. We moved as quickly as possible on the straight road toward the large island and it finally came into view. Cymboyton’s school was undoubtedly located on this island, probably somewhere near the main road which cuts through the middle of the island. In those distant days, this same road would have seen caravans and travelers from all over the world as they cut through the lake and carried goods on and around the Silk Road. One of them was the creator of our universe, a Creator Son on a grand mission, disguised as a young and friendly caravan leader that would later be known as the Son of Man – Jesus Christ.

It was now the end of my journey and we had reached the end of the road – literally. I took a few snapshots of the island that had captivated my imagination for so long and wondered if any remains of Cymboyton’s amphitheatre could possibly still be there, waiting to be discovered. But that would have to wait for the next trip…

The bridge/road leading towards Cymboyton’s island.

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