Yazd Stories and Tips

Desert life & Zoroastrianism - the Ancient City of Yazd

Man sewing bags of henna Photo, Yazd, Iran

It's my guess that you are probably NOT thinking 'Hmm, Yazd, that sounds familiar' because to date I don't think I've met anyone who hasn't been to Iran (or thought of going) who's even heard of this fabulous city. It might ring some bells if I mentioned that it was historically known by the rather more glamorous name of Ysatis - yes, as in the perfume by Givenchy. You can't help thinking that when the marketing people at Givenchy sat down to brainstorm new names, they probably weren't thinking of women in chadors when they came up with that name.

If I were to categorise the cities of Iran in terms of touristic appeal, I suspect that cities like Esfahan and Shiraz would be the giants of Iranian tourism, Massad and Om the famous centres of religious pilgrimage tourism and poor old Yazd would be the sort of place you might well miss if you were in a bit of a hurry. And that would be a shame, because this bizarre city squeezes a mind-boggling array of attractions into what's really quite a small place and offers us an insight into architectural adaptations for living in an extreme climate. It’s also the best place in Iran to get exposed to the bizarre and ancient religion of Zoroastrianism.

Where is Yazd?

If you look at a map of Iran, Yazd is pretty much slap-bang in the middle of the country. You can reach it by road if you really want to but air fares in Iran are so cheap that they make European and North American budget airlines look really expensive. A one way ticket for the flight from Tehran costs around $20 – Iran’s got a lot of oil, you see, though undoubtedly, you’ll be aware of that already. In terms of proximity to the other major cities, it’s about 430 miles from Tehran and 175 miles south of Esfahan.

What is Yazd?

Geographically speaking, it’s a high altitude (1200m) oasis surrounded by mountains and deserts. In the summer it’s exceptionally hot with temperatures consistently 40C or higher and in the winter it’s cold enough to freeze your bones with temperatures down to minus 20. But regardless of the time of year, it’s always very dry. The annual rainfall figures of 2.4 inches can easily be exceeded on a wet day in Manchester so water management is as big an issue as the challenge of staying cool.

Why is Yazd significant?

The city was recognised by UNESCO’s world heritage listings as the second oldest continually inhabited city in the world. I've heard other places claim that accolade but if UNESCO say it's true then that's good enough for me. For those of you who are now thinking "which was the oldest?" I’ll leave you to dwell on that and the answer will be at the bottom of the review*.

Records of the city date back to more than 3000 years to the time when it was part of the empire of a Zoroastrian tribe called the Medes. Over the millennia since it was founded, the harsh and inhospitable climate meant that few invaders could be bothered to fight over it. Consequently it was left undisturbed by the ravages of war and its ancient architecture and traditions survived the passage of time – even though much of the city is constructed from adobe (mud).

When Gengis Khan stomped through the Middle East in the 13th Century, many artists and intellectuals fled to the city as a safe haven and even Marco Polo dropped by in 1272 and described it as a "good and noble city". (As a further clue to the identity of the oldest city, unlike Yazd which survived by being ignored, the other city has been fought over almost constantly and still is today).

Adaptation to climate

Water, as you'd imagine, is exceptionally precious. If you only get two and a half inches per year, you'll want to make sure that not a drop gets wasted and so a vast system of underground cisterns was created to store water and is still in use today. Tall chimney-like towers called badgirs catch even the lightest of breezes and somehow convert them into cool air in a form of ancient but rather effective air-con. Houses are built to keep the elements out, often with thick walls, small windows and inner courtyards. Ice-houses are also common and were used to store ice from the nearby mountains.

Our visit

We flew in from Tehran on an internal flight which took less than an hour and then drove from the airport to a hotel complex called the Caravan which was to be our base for a couple of days. On the first day we had time for little more than nipping out for dinner in a converted hammam (the Iranian authorities closed down the country's bath-houses for being a bit too racy for their liking and many are now restaurants).

Over the two days that followed we had a fantastic time exploring the narrow streets of the old city, the Zoroastiran highlights of the Towers of Silence and the Fire Temple or Atashkadeh, the Muslim delights of the spectacular Jameh mosque with its 48m high minarets, the semi-mythological intrigues of Alexander's Prison, the bizarre local sweet makers with their quite disgusting concoctions and most oddly of all we spent one evening watching a group of very loud wrestlers shouting, grunting and sweating in a pit surrounded by tourists. Two days really was the perfect amount of time to be there - any shorter and we'd have had to really cut back on what we saw, any longer and I think we'd have had enough.

We didn't manage to see everything the city had to offer - I confess we skipped the Water Museum (though I'm told it's very good) and we didn't climb the 33 m high 'badgir' (or 'wind catcher') though in retrospect we probably should have made the effort. We did get giggly on the 100% alcohol free fruit beer and make up lots of bad puns based around 'badgirs' and 'good-girs' and far too many stories about evil badgers - jokes that were far too esoteric to ever put down in writing and required the gallows humour of alcohol withdrawl and too much sand in order to be funny. However, after the rather 'full on' nature of Tehran, Yazd was a very calm and gentle way to leave the big city behind and get to know desert life in Iran in a city where people live today with technology developed over the past 5000 years.

* The oldest continually inhabited city in the world is of course Jerusalem.

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