I visited Yazd (یزد /yazd/) for the first time in April 2012. I immediately liked the city, perhaps because I was staying in an old district which is not thoroughly ruined by modernisation. We must be honest: the old parts of the city is why tourists come to Yazd. Nobody comes to Yazd to see a modern four story tower (برج /borj/). The city of Yazd itself is listed as a World Heritage Site.
My knowledge about Yazd was very limited at that time. I had read a little, but only superficially. I knew it was an old city located in a desert. It had some interesting sites worth seeing (دیدنیها /dee’dan’ee’hā/). Beyond that I was unenlightened.
Yazd is a major city and has good transport links. I took a flight from Mehrabad airport in Tehran. The flight time was about one hour.
Arrival in Yazd
The flight was uneventful and I took a taxi to the hotel. Being in a desert I thought the sky would be clear and sunny, but my trip coincided with some cloudy skies and wet weather. Iran is a country which needs its rain. The route took us down a long wide road called Qiam Street (خیابان قیام), and in the distance I could see Amir Chakhmāq. We were getting closer and closer and Amir Chakhmāq was getting larger and larger, and then suddenly we turned left down into an inauspicious-looking narrow lane in between shops. Daylight briefly disappeared. I assumed the driver knew where he was going. And then we arrived.
Mehr Traditional Hotel
I stayed at the Mehr Traditional Hotel (هتل مهر سنتی /ho’tel mehr so’na’tee/). What is a traditional hotel, you may ask. And indeed I asked myself. In this case it means an old-style or traditional Persian house which has been converted into a hotel. The building itself, while renovated or even largely rebuilt, has architecture and styling which is evidently old.
I really cannot remember how I found out about this hotel. But I had done some research, seen some photographs, and definitely wanted to stay in a traditional hotel.
This building was once the property of a wealthy jeweller called Yazdi Zargar (یزدی زرگر). The name ‘Zargar’ in Persian is composed of two parts: ‘zar’ meaning gold, and ‘gar’ meaning worker. So perhaps a reasonable translation of this name to English would be ‘Goldsmith’. It was originally built about 250 years ago in the Qajar era.
After checking in I was shown through the main courtyard to my room which faced onto the this courtyard. The courtyard was huge, with a large rectangular pool in the middle which was surrounded by low Persian seating and more familiar tables and chairs. It was entirely covered with a tent-like canopy raised high up on two poles which were swaying gently. Some of the guest rooms surrounded this courtyard. Off the main courtyard there were other smaller courtyards some with pools and others without.
This was the first time I had seen a traditional Persian house in person rather than in a photograph. But one could tell this was the house of a wealthy person, and probably a very wealthy person. Although it was modernised it retained its ancestry in its styling. It was in one word beautiful.
The hotel is in an old part of the city, very close to Amir Chakhmāq, the Old Mosque, the bazaar, and several other sights. In short it is ideally placed for somebody like me. Some of the check-in staff spoke reasonably good English. I wanted to try my Persian in return, but wasn’t very successful. One would describe my Persian as stilted.
I ate or drank tea most days at the hotel. The tea was served with an almond-flavoured shirini (شیرینی /shi’ri’ni/) called qottab (قطاب /qot’tāb/) which I promptly developed a taste for. Shirini are all sorts of pastries and cakes and biscuits. Practically every district of every town in Iran will have several shiriniforushis (شیرینیفروشی /shi’ri’ni’for’oo’shi/) which bake and sell their own products. I bought some as a souvenir.
I can’t remember what I ate, but it was almost certainly chelow kabab (چلوکباب /che’lo’ka’bab/) given my meagre knowledge of Persian food, which is a huge culture by itself and about which others far more knowledgeable have written books. The food was good.
One time, one evening, I smoked a qaliyun (قلیان /qa’li’yān/), which is also called a shisha (شیشه /she’she/) for the glass bowl, or sometimes a hubble-bubble in the west. This is a way of smoking scented and flavoured tobacco (and sometimes other more exotic substances) which is burned on top. The smoke is cooled by being drawn down through water in the glass bowl below, and then eventually it reaches one’s mouth through a long tube. I am a non-smoker but at the same time one wanted to experience the customs of Iran. I don’t remember what flavour it was. It wasn’t bad. I have since smoked qaliyuns a few more times in Iran, but no more than a handful of times. Groups of friends in Iran will sometimes smoke a hubble-bubble communally, passing round the pipe.
My room at night was relatively noisy. Guests were still in the large courtyard talking and laughing, and their voices came straight through the windows. There was a cat (گربه /gor’be/) which seemed to live in the hotel, I saw him prowling around from time to time on the look out for nibbles.
In the morning I usually sat at a ‘normal’ table to eat breakfast, which was quite simple: soft cheese, bread, jam, honey, tea, some fruit. It wasn’t what I call a ‘hearty breakfast’, even so it was fine. Iranians seem to eat a lot of soft cheese. The harder cheeses that we eat a lot of in the United Kingdom, whether the ubiquitous Cheddar, or Red Leicester, or Double Gloucester, or Smoked Poacher, are relatively harder to find in Iran. I have found Iranian cheddar and gouda cheeses, but the preference in Iran seems to be much more towards soft cheeses.
One of the iconic architectural symbols of Yazd is Amir Chakhmāq (امیر چخماق). This building by itself differentiates Yazd from other cities. Yazd has many wonderful badgir (see below), but these are not unique to Yazd. It has very tall minarets on the Old Mosque, but these too can be found elsewhere. This was the first place on my list of Yazd tourist sights.
The square around the front of Amir Chakhmāq is filled with small shops, many of which sell shirini. On the left side of the square (when facing Amir Chakhmāq) there are some beautiful badgirs. I couldn’t help but think that this square with a glorious aspect and some beautiful buildings is mutilated by the roll-down shutters of the shops when they are closed. These make the square seem like a warehouse district.
On the right is an old nakhl (نخل /nakhl/). Nakhls are important during Āshura. I will write more about Āshura elsewhere.
I came back in the evening to take a few more photographs. The illumination makes Amir Chakhmāq more beautiful, I think. To get to the square one had to cross a main road with the usual issues of road safety.
The Kabir Jāmeh Mosque
The Kabir Jameh Mosque (مسجد جامع کبیر /mas’jed jā’me ka’bir/), or the Great Congregational Mosque, is one of the architectural highlights and landmarks of Yazd. The present mosque was built about 700 years ago, but there was an older mosque on the same site. Apparently it was built on the site of an old fire temple. The two minarets were originally from the Safavid era but were rebuilt in the 1930s.
The main entrance to the mosque is at the end of the appositely named Masjed Jameh Street (خیابان مسجد جامع /khay’a’bān’e mas’jed’e jā’me/), and even from the end of this road two things are conspicuous: the height of both the portal and the minarets on top. Up close, the height of both is startling.
In front of the portal there are two stone columns about 3 feet high carved with writing. I don’t know what they signify.
This building is still used as a mosque, so I walked round and took photographs as respectfully as I could.
At night the portal and its minarets and the dome are spectacularly illuminated. It is quite a sight, and this photo is inadequate.
Yazd has a relatively large Zoroastrian population in comparison to other Iranian cities. This Zoroastrian fire temple dates from 1934. Alas (ای دریغ /ay da’righ/) the pool in front of the building was empty.
The word ātashkadeh (آتشکده /ā’tash’kad’deh/) is a compound word of two parts: ātash (آتش /ā’tash/) meaning fire, and kadeh (کده /ka’deh/) meaning house. Later, as my Persian language skills developed, more than once a penny has dropped. There is an equivalent idiom in Persian: dozari oftād (دوزاری افتاد /do’zar’ee of’tād/). A ‘dozari’ is an old coin, and I have occasionally looked for one as a souvenir. Here the penny dropped with the understanding of the word kadeh.
The faravahar (فروهر /fa’ra’va’har/) seen close up in the second photograph is a symbol of Zoroastrianism, but more than that it is a symbol of Iran. It can be seen at Persepolis and Bisotun. It is popular with Iranians of all religions. One often sees it on tee shirts, or dangling from the mirrors of cars, on key rings, necklaces, earrings, and so on.
The ātashkadeh contains a fire which has apparently been burning continuously for perhaps 1500 years, meticulously tended to.
According to Zoroastrian rites the dakhma (دخمه /dakh’ma/) is a circular construction into which the bodies of dead people are laid out to allow the flesh to eaten and to disintegrate. Thereafter the bones are collected and deposited in the earth.
The dakhma is sometimes referred to as the ‘Tower of Silence’, but I am not sure that is a good translation at all as it doesn’t really convey any meaning. Would the antonym would be a ‘Tower of Noise’? I shall use the term dakhma here.
I made two visits to the Dakhma on the same day. The grey clouds portended rain like in the United Kingdom, and they weren’t wrong. My first visit ended inauspiciously around midday with sudden and very heavy rain. I did at least get to glimpse the dakhma and some other buildings of unknown function, and took some photographs. Then I beat a very hasty retreat to the waiting taxi, and we headed back to the hotel.
The rain soon passed and I returned to the dakhma. There were some puddles hither and thither, but the ground was mostly dry. I reckoned that the rain had passed and it was safe to go up.
I scrambled up the side of hill, and I remember thinking to myself: this is not easy. Once I reached the top I discovered there was a path which was straightforward.
There appeared to be more than one dakhma at the site. The characteristic circular shape was unmistakeable.
In the area around the dakhma at ground level and also in the far distance up a hill there were some old-looking buildings. I don’t know what these were.
Dowlat Abād (دولت آباد) is a large garden that was laid out and built around 1750 during the Afsharid Era. It has the tallest badgir in Yazd (and possibly the world – I must check) reaching 33.8 metres. While the badgir is significant and attractive, the garden itself is perhaps more important. This seems to me to be reflected in the layout: the pavilion is at one end of the garden rather than being in the middle.
I failed miserably to take some useful photographs of the garden – all I saw was trees. So I will have to show the pavilion instead. The light grey or slightly darker grey skies do not show it at its best.
The pavilion, or hashti (هشتی /hash’ti/) in Persian, itself is renovated and reconstructed. I don’t expect a 250 year old building to be completely original. It’s a little bit sterile, but at the same time it does show what a beautiful building it once was. The badgir has been sensitively cared for. The sun passing through the stained glass windows, even on an overcast day, illuminates the inside magically.
The dome is a conspicuous masterpiece of design, as shown in the photograph below. There are 24 points emanating from the dome. I don’t know if that is significant, but I would surmise that it is not a random number.
The badgir directs wind down a down to cool the pavilion. It wasn’t evident from the outside that the shaft was triangular. Nor was it clear if being triangular has some characteristic to help convey the wind.
The two points I have noted here expose lacunae in my knowledge, but they also show that information about these two points was not on display at Dowlat Abād itself. It is these sort of small details which nag at me and want to know more.
The view from the first floor of the pavilion, up some steep steps, is pleasing. On a sunny day without a washed-out sky it must be very beautiful. The long pool with free-running water must have made this garden seem like a small paradise when it was laid out. The restoration work, shown in the walls below, makes the building look like new.
Wandering in the old city
I have no doubt that most westerners (and probably most Iranian tourists) visit Yazd to see the old part of the city.
The tall khaki-coloured walls are made from mud and straw, and are so attractive. It’s easy to get lost here, and I accomplished this feat splendidly. The roads meander, and one could not easily maintain a sense of direction. Even occasional glimpses of minarets or bādgirs (see below) did not help very much. Some of the walls and roofs are newly rebuilt. I guess that nowhere is completely old.
Small motorcycles with horrible-sounding (really horrible) exhausts passed by quite regularly. Although many of the roads were narrow and bends were tight, cars and small trucks somehow managed to negotiate their way through them. Some walls had gouge marks from vehicles which had passed a little too closely.
Although I was lost, at no time did I feel unsafe. Actually, that is true throughout all of my travels in Iran. Iran in my experience is a safe country to visit.
Eventually I reached a main road and from there wandered back towards Amir Chakhmāq.
Bādgirs (بادگیر /bād’gir/) are a noticeable feature of the architecture in the older parts of Yazd. The word badgir is composed of two parts: ‘bād’ (باد /bād/) meaning wind, and ‘gir’ (گیر /gir/) derived from the verb gereftan (گرفتن /ge’ref’tan/) meaning to take, to take, to pluck, and so on. So the two parts taken together are commonly translated as ‘wind catcher’, and that is appropriate. Bādgirs are not unique to Yazd, but there are many in here and some of them are very beautiful examples.
The badgirs capture the air and direct it downwards into the building below, in some measure like a chimney in reverse. Some of the badgirs are very large.
As with the walls, some of the badgirs are newly rebuilt. But there are sufficient older instances to enjoy. At the same time, some of the older badgirs are in a sorry state. One hopes they can be salvaged without making them too ‘new’.
Qanāts and water storage
Water in the desert has an importance and value that I don’t think we can comprehend unless we have experienced living in a desert. And Yazd is a city in a desert with not much water nearby. So water had to be brought from far away to Yazd. The solution was to dig long underground tunnels, with water storage facilities at the required places.
A qanāt (قنات /qan’āt) is an underground channel or duct for transporting water using gravity. An alternative name which one saw occasionally is kāriz (کاریز /kā’riz/). Kāriz may be a more suitable name as it is Persian word whilst qanāt is Arabic, and the qanāt system predates the Islamic conquest, and hence the introduction of Arabic, by possibly 2,000 years.
The qanat in Yazd is referred to as the Zarch Qanat (زارچ /zā’rch/). Zarch, also pronounced Zarach, is a village just to the northwest of Yazd. I have read several reports about the length of the qanat, varying from about 70km, 80km, 100km, to 120km. I have a feeling that some of these reports have circular references which the writers have not checked for themselves. They obviously cannot all be correct. If I do quote figures in a report, whether height or distance or weight or age, I do so after reading several sources, often these days in Persian, or checking for myself. I haven’t walked the length of the Zarach Qanat so can’t accurately determine its length. But the average length mentioned is about 80km. It could be the longest qanat in the world.
Building these qanats must have seemed like a thirteenth labour of Heracles. They were dug by hand tools. Apparently the diggers wore lightly padded cotton caps as a type of safety helmet. The slope of the qanat was carefully graded. If it was too steep the depth at the destination would be prohibitive. If it was too gentle the water would not flow sufficiently. Maintaining this gradient over 80km could not have been easy.
Qanats, like the badgirs, are not unique to Yazd. There are tens of thousands of them in Iran. But eleven of them taken together, including the Zarch Qanat, are listed as a World Heritage Site. So Yazd is doubly worthy from the perspective of heritage.
I visited a qanat and it was just about wide enough in place to walk through or a little narrower, and about 5 feet high. I don’t know if this is indicative of a whole qanat, but it gives an impression.
Once the water had reached its destination considerable thought was given about accessing it and storing it. The water was not accessible at ground level, so steps were dug down to access pools of flowing water below ground. There are many of these in Yazd in various states of repair. Some of them have exquisite brick work, albeit rebuilt. But it does show these were not merely holes in the ground. Carrying water up the steps would have been hard but necessary work.
Water was also stored in reservoirs (آب انبار /āb an’bār/) – literally ‘water store’. These dome-shaped buildings on the surface are like tips of icebergs – they extend deep underground too. Many of these reservoirs have their own bādgirs to cool the water. Cooling the water also helps prevent evaporation.
My impression as a whole of the qanat and water system in Yazd, and in Iran in general, is that it signifies a great civilisation. Some people must have decided this was possible; some people must have organised the route; some people must have organised the workers; some people must have organised and built the access and storage system. Organising people to work together for a common cause is a foundation of civilisation.
While wandering around the old parts of the city I noticed a feature that some of the doors have: there were two knockers. One is shaped like a loop, the other is shaped by a bar. These produce different sounds when knocked. The person in the building will know from the sound whether the caller is a man or a woman. The exterior condition of the doors gives no indication about the building inside. Behind the least-promising looking door there could be a beautiful and authentic old building.
A tour guide
I have alluded to the fact that Yazd sees relatively more Western tourists. With this in mind, there are more tourist guides in Yazd who are familiar with Westerners. Some of them speak quite good English. And so, for the first time in Iran, in Yazd I became acquainted with a tour guide. It was then that I realised how much I had been missing.
Final thoughts on Yazd
Yazd, along with Esfahan and Shiraz, sees relatively more Western tourists. In accordance with that tourist services seem to be more developed. There are useful maps and signs, for example, though the information is still somewhat limited. The number of western tourists is still tiny, however. I feel there is scope for improving this number substantially. At the same time I would not want to see Yazd become solely a tourist town, and a pastiche of itself – a sort of Disney Yazd.
Prince Charles once famously said that the (then new) Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery was ‘a monstrous carbuncle on the face of an old friend’. The roll down metal shutters on shops by the side of Amir Chakhmāq are the carbuncles of Yazd.
There are several other traditional hotels in Yazd. In later years I visited a few of these for tea or lunch. They look much the same as the Mehr Traditional shown above. These old buildings offer an experience of living in a traditional Iranian house which is far more interesting than a modern building.
I enjoyed wandering and getting lost in the winding lanes (کوچه /ku’che/)and narrow roads in the old part of the city. This was marred only by the interminable din of little motorcycles. The longest respite from this eardrum-destroying, grinding sound was about one minute. Then it would return.
One learned years later that Yazd apparently used to be known as a city of bicycles (دوچرخه /do’char’khe/), although I didn’t see any when I was there. I did see an old abandoned bicycle shop. Cycling would be a delightful way for tourists to see the city, making more of the old parts accessible more quickly.
Yazd is a fantastic city to visit. It is really, on reflection, a great misfortune that so few westerners come here. When it was time to leave I knew that I would be coming back. That’s probably the best recommendation that I can give.
While typing this article my MacBook continually ‘incorrected’ bādgir to badger and ‘gir’ to ‘air’. Indeed, while typing ‘gir’ in this one sentence my MacBook miscorrected it six times before I gave up and let it do its thing, and I corrected it afterwards. Typing pinglish or finglish on a Mac is rife with unwanted alterations.