Bibi Fatima

Vichkut, Gorno-Badakshan, Tajikistan

Behind the door, a flight of stone steps led down into an unlit changing area, from which a further flight of steps descended to a steamy cavern where the stream rushed and gurgled.

The Wakhan valley is full of wayside shrines dedicated to members of the Islamic holy family, principally Ali. Along the way we had stopped at several of Ali’s shrines, whose walls and doors were topped with the skulls and horns of mountain goats and Marco Polo sheep. The horns, like the prohibition against cutting any wood from the sacred grove within the sanctuary walls and the firepits, were fairly clearly a survival from the Zoroastrian places of worship that had previously occupied the same spots.

At Vichkut, Ali had paused to dispatch a local giant (the brother of one who he had slain a few miles further down the road) and then handed his sword to the Prophet’s daughter for cleaning. Fatima, displaying the resourcefulness typical of miracle-working itinerant saints, summoned up a hot spring that still flows to this day.

The woman from whom we had borrowed the key had impressed on us that it would be haram for men and women to bathe together, so we had to wait in the brisk mountain wind while M. splashed in the warm waters within. When she finally emerged, beaming contentedly, the men of the party descended into the warm damp darkness for our turn.

The water, uncomfortably hot at first, quickly became comfortably and then luxuriantly warm. I sat down on a convenient shelf of rock and let the water wash over me. At the upper end of the cleft, water running down two vanes of rock - Fatima’s Sleeves - provided a hot shower that would have been hard to better.

“This water is very useful,” W. informed me. “Among other things, it helps in the fertility of women.” I muttered something carefully non-committal.

When we came out, we discovered that the party in the green Lada that had broken down lower down the mountainside had finally struggled up and it was the women’s turn again. M., for whom hot water exerts a more than magnetic attraction, plunged back into the bathhouse with her new friends.

She came out giggling. Two of the other women had possessed a smattering of German, and had apparently enlightened her as to the special properties of the spring. “I think I’ve just been put through some kind of fertility ritual,” she told me. Seemingly, her companions had initiated her into the significance not merely of the Sleeves of Fatima but also her Womb (a smooth-edged crevice in the rock) and other assorted body parts as well.

The charm, apparently, requires a return visit in the morning. M.’s bathing companions didn’t specify how the intervening hours are supposed to be spent, but I think I can guess.