Why you should care
It’s your chance to see a 700-year-old craft at work.
Stepping into the small factory, you walk into a different time. First, you are struck by the light coming through the skylights, striking down through the dust to the stone floor in the dark, cavernous space. Next, you notice the haylike scent and the sound of stone on stone. And then you see the workers crafting something ancient and venerated. You feel like you’ve been invited to an unexpected play, where every worker’s movement is part of a choreographed performance lit from above.
This is Mazari, a henna-grinding factory in my hometown of Yazd. Iran is a major producer of the celebrated powder, and Yazd is the only place in the world where it continues to be traditionally ground and processed. Mazari is one of just three factories where these ancient techniques are still used — all the others are automated.
In many cultures, henna is believed to bring good luck. In Iran, it’s revered as a magical plant that brings happiness, integrity and fortune, and also as protection from the devil’s eye and a guarantee to a heavenly afterlife. This is why henna is used in many ceremonies and rituals.
Henna plants are grown in Birjand, a city 370 miles from Yazd. Because of its dry, warm climate, the desert city of Yazd is the only city in Iran where the leaves can be ground. Henna leaves must dry out to reach the best color; the drier the leaves, the greener the powder. The business of henna grinding dates back more than 700 years. In the past, camels and donkeys walked in circles to pull the heavy millstone over the henna leaves on a stone platform to grind them down to fine green powder; now it’s powered by electricity.
The Mazari millstone, which weighs between 6 and 7 tons, comes from the nearby mountain called Asiab, which means “grinding” in Farsi. The search for the proper stone, led by four to five people, can take several days, and the journey down the mountain is tough and overwhelming as the stone is rolled by hand down the mountain. This massive stone is used to grind the leaves into powder — a three-hour process. In one day, the factory produces almost 1,800 pounds of henna.
Cotton bags are stamped with the company logo and exported to more than 10 countries, with Russia and Germany the main destinations for Iranian henna. Or, if you’re local, you can buy direct from the factory, where a 1-pound bag costs roughly 110,000 Rial ($2.50).
This factory, which dates back more than 200 years, has been passed down from one generation of the Mazari family to another. Many of the workers are skilled Afghan immigrants. “I immigrated to Iran over 40 years ago from Afghanistan and have been working here ever since,” explains Hossein Ali, one of the workers. Still, he finds the job very difficult, he says, even with some of the processes now automated.
When you open the door to the Mazari factory, you’ll find men like Ali covered with green henna powder and working in clouds of green dust. They work to fill simple cotton bags that hold passion, good luck and a piece of history.