Yazd, Bride of Desert

Friday, December 23, 2011

Compiled By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi
Deputy Editor of Iran Review

Yazd is the capital of Yazd Province in Iran, and a centre of Zoroastrian culture. The city is located 270 km southeast of Isfahan. Because of generations of adaptations to its desert surroundings, Yazd is an architecturally unique city. It is also known in Iran for the high quality of its handicrafts, especially silk weaving, and its sweet shops.

Yazd with the area of 131,551 km is situated at an oasis where the Dasht-e Kavir desert and the Dasht-e Lut desert meet, the city is sometimes called "the bride of the Kavir" because of its location, in a valley between Shir Kuh, the tallest mountain in the region at 4075 m. above sea level, and Kharaneq. The city itself is located at 1203 m. above sea-level, and covers 16,000 km.

The city has a history of over 3,000 years, dating back to the time of the Median empire, when it was known as Ysatis (or Issatis). The present city name has however been derived from Yazdegerd I, a Sassanid ruler. The city was definitely a Zoroastrian centre during Sassanid times. After the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia, many Zoroastrians fled to Yazd from neighbouring provinces. The city remained Zoroastrian even after the conquest by paying a levy, and only gradually did Islam come to be the dominant religion in the city.

The city of Yazd itself was an oasis in an otherwise stark but hauntingly beautiful region, a feature that describes the entire province: barren mountains, deserts and patches of verdant greenery that dot the landscape.

The word Yazd is related to the Avestan word Izad meaning divine. We are told that the Greeks knew the city of Yazd as Issatis, a city constructed on top an older city called Katteh or Kaseh. We are further told that after the Arab invasion of Iran, the city was known for a while as Darol'ebadeh.

The city of Yazd has been nicknamed as the Crossroads of Iran, the Bride of the Desert, the Pearl of the Desert, the City of Badgirs meaning the City of Wind-Catchers.

Because of its remote desert location and the difficulty of approach, Yazd had remained largely immune to large battles and the destruction and ravages of war. For instance, it was a haven for those fleeing from destruction in other parts of Persia during the invasion of Genghis Khan. It was visited by Marco Polo in 1272 who remarked on the city's fine silk-weaving industry. It briefly served as the capital of the Muzaffarid Dynasty in the fourteenth century, and was sieged unsuccessfully in 1350–1351 by the Injuids under Shaikh Abu Ishaq. The Friday (or Congregation) Mosque, arguably the city's greatest architectural landmark, as well as other important buildings, date to this period. During the Qajar dynasty (18th Century AD) it was ruled by the Bakhtiari Khans.

Under the rule of the Safavis (16th century), some people emigrated from Yazd and settled in an area which is today on the Iran-Afghanistan border. The settlement was named Yazdi. This place is currently on the Iran-Afghanistan border in the province of Farah, in Farah city in Afghanistan. Even today, these people speak with an accent very similar to that of the people of Yazd.

Here is Marco Polo writing about Yazd:

“ Yasdi also is properly in Persia; it is a good and noble city, and has a great amount of trade. They weave there quantities of a certain silk tissue known as Yasdi, which merchants carry into many quarters to dispose of. The people are worshippers of Mahommet.

When you leave this city to travel further, you ride for seven days over great plains, finding harbour to receive you at three places only. There are many fine woods [producing dates] upon the way, such as one can easily ride through; and in them there is great sport to be had in hunting and hawking, there being partridges and quails and abundance of other game, so that the merchants who pass that way have plenty of diversion. There are also wild asses, handsome creatures. At the end of those seven marches over the plain you come to a fine kingdom which is called Kerman. ”

—The Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo, translated by Henry Yule

The city walls of Yazd are one of the finest expressions of a vital tradition of military architecture in Central Iran, witnessed in varying scale from fortified villages, road outposts, provincial castles, imperial citadels to ramparts enclosing entire cities. A junction of both inter city and regional trade routes, Yazd has predictably been a fortified settlement since its inception in the Sassanid period.

However, the larger military strategic importance of its geographical location within the Kavir region led to its successive building and expansion as one of Iran's most famed city fortifications. Built largely of mud brick and mud straw mixture reinforced with timber, the Yazd walls demonstrate a visual continuity in color, scale and form with the built fabric of the town.

The Yazd city walls form a large part of the earliest known descriptions of the city, dating from the tenth century which describe a well-built, fortified city with iron gates, then known as Kathah. The walls, thus can be seen to not only have influenced the layout, orientation and expansion of urban built form but be intrinsically linked to the city's perceived and projected identity.

 The city walls of Yazd have traditionally been the last shelter of threatened and eventually displaced Persian imperial dynasties. It was one of the last bastions to hold out against the Islamic, Seljuk, Mongol, Timurid, Safavid and Afghan invasions of Iran over the past millennium. Ala ud Daulah Kakoui of the Kakoui dynasty that replaced the Seljuks in 1033 is the first recorded constructor of the city's walls. The Fahadan and Seyed Golesorkh fortifications can be traced to the Kakoui period.

However, the earliest existing portions of the wall and moat can be traced to constructions between 1346-47, in the Muzaffarid period as part of a larger urban design exercise to create a new imperial capital for the provinces Kerman, Fars and Shiraz. The contemporary fortifications of Shahzadeh Fazel and Kohneh castle lie in the urban area within the Muzaffarid walls, still known as shahr-e-koneh or old city.

The siege and occupation of Yazd by Timur in 1393 brought about the single largest rebuilding of the city walls till date. In stark contrast to his reputation as a city pillager and destroyer, Timur exempted Yazd from taxes, undertook large urban building exercises and ordered portions of the city's southern wall to be entirely replaced, strengthened and extended with new barbicans. This strong machicolated wall, often over 15 meters high was only incrementally added to or repaired in the subsequent Safavid and Qajar periods.

Large portions of the city walls encompassing the Shahr-e Nau or new city were demolished in the Pahlavi and present day Republican periods, to accommodate urban growth and expanding traffic routes.

More imposing and richer in architectonic qualities than the similar mud brick city walls of Bam, Yazd's walls were built before the active use of gunpowder in warfare. The influx of war technologies introduced by invading armies gave birth to circular, larger and more closely spaced barbican towers that allowed defenders to target the invader's vulnerable flank. Protected crenellations with arrow slits provided defensive positions while series of sluices allowed invaders to be discouraged by boiling oil or burning pitch.

The walls were double layered with a high protective external curtain supported by a lower inner wall. The hollow space sandwiched between accommodated tiered firing galleries that allowed different firing angles and range for defending armies. Designed for defense against archers, catapults and other projectile attacks in long fought military sieges in medieval times, the walls proved ineffective and ironically harmful in nineteenth and twentieth century artillery battles. Lack of maintenance brought down what was not purposefully demolished to keep pace with changing methods of defense, transport and urban sanitation. Today, sections of the walls show eroded crenellations atop ramparts and deterioration of the lower base by water seepage and human activity caused corrosion.

Today only sections of the old city walls - built in 1033 CE by Ala ud Daulah Kakoui of the Kakoui dynasty, with additions in 1346 CE and later in the 1390s - can be seen standing. The siege and occupation of Yazd by Timur in 1393 CE brought about the single largest rebuilding of the city walls that have survived. He had entire portions of the city's southern wall to be replaced, strengthened and extended with new barbicans. Contrary to his reputation as a pillager and destroyer, Timur is said to have exempted Yazd from taxes. He also ordered the undertaking of a large urban building program.

Yazd is of foremost importance as a centre of Persian architecture. Because of its climate, it has one of the largest networks of qanats in the world, and Yazdi qanat makers are considered the most skilled in Iran. To deal with the extremely hot summers, many old buildings in Yazd have magnificent windcatchers, and large underground areas. The city is also home to prime examples of yakhchals, the latter of which were used to store ice retrieved from glaciers in the nearby mountains. Yazd is also one of the largest cities built almost entirely out of adobe.

Yazd's heritage as a centre of Zoroastrianism is also important. There is a Tower of Silence on the outskirts, and the city itself has a Fire Temple, which holds a fire that has been kept alight continuously since 470 AD. Presently, Zoroastrians make up a significant minority of the population, around 20,000 - 40,000 or 5 to 10 per cent.

Built in 12th century and still being in use, Jameh mosque of Yazd is an example of finest Persian mosaics and excellent architecture. Its minarets are the highest in the country.

Always known for the quality of its silk and carpets, Yazd today is one of Iran's industrial centers for textiles. There is also a considerable ceramics and construction materials industry and unique confectionery and jewelry industries.

A significant portion of the population is also employed in other industries including agriculture, dairy, metal works and machine manufacturing. There are a number of companies involved in the growing information technology industry, mainly manufacturing primary materials such as cables and connectors. Currently Yazd is the home of the largest manufacturer of fibre optics in Iran.

Yazd's confectioneries have a tremendous following throughout Iran, which has been a source of tourism for the city. Workshops (experts or khalifehs) keep their recipes a guarded secret and there are many that have remained a private family business for many generations. Baghlava, ghotab and pashmak are the most popular sweets made in the city.

In 2000 the Yazd Water Museum opened; it features exhibits of water storage vessels and historical technologies related to water.

Here are some important attractions of Yazd:

Kabir Jameh Mosque

The magnificent Jameh Mosque is a major landmark almost always crowded by tourists from in and outside the country. The huge structure overlooks the vast expanse of the desert evoking the history of older civilizations hidden in the haze of time.

According to historians, the mosque was constructed on the site of the Sassanid fire temple, and A’la Al-Dowleh Garshasb started building the charming mosque. An earlier mosque was constructed on the order of A’la Al – Dowleh Kalanjar in the 6th century A.H. However the main construction of the present structure was ordered by Seyyed Rokn Al- Din Mohammad Qazi.

The Jameh Mosque with its spectacular view boasts picturesque plasterworks, charming dome-chamber, courtyard, elegant tile works and towering minarets.

The cluster of spacious iwans, magnificent rotunda and its surrounding space are world famous artworks commanding a view like no other. The soaring iwans full of picturesque mosaic tiles, exquisite arabesque patterns and gorgeous brick work offer a spectacular vista.

Elegant patterns of brick work and the priceless inscription of mosaic tiles bearing angular Kufic script create a sense of timeless beauty. The main prayer niche, the one which is located below the dome, is decorated with elegant mosaic tiles and eye-catching inscriptions. And on the two star-shaped inlaid tiles, the name of the prayer niche builder (777A.H.) sparkle with added beauty.

The impressive dome is of continuous double shell on which the paintings of floral patterns demonstrate their own charm. On their stalks the phrase of Al-Mulk ul-Lellah in Kufic script is adorned.

Two towering minarets dating back to the Safavid era measure 52 meters in height with a diameter of 6 meters. The minarets fell into ruin in the 1930s but were rehabilitated soon after.

One of the minarets boasts two flights of stairs seen as a unique work of art and craftsmanship.

Amir Chaqmaq Complex

During Timurid rule Amir Jalal Al-Din Chaqmaq-e-Shami was appointed ruler in Yazd. He and his wife ordered the construction of a spacious square ringed by a water reservoir, a house for dervishes, a school, a caravanserai, a well, and a mosque.

The grandiose mosque boasts a huge dome, an elegant platform, and two spacious summer and winter dome chambers.

An alluring slab of marble is set in the prayer niche beautifully ringed by mosaic tiles bearing the verses of the Holy Qur’an.

Within the 9th century mosque a marble stone recounts the names of the founders and date of construction.

Dowlatabad Garden

Mohammad Taqi Khan known as the Great Khan was the progenitor of the dynasty of Khans in Yazd. He built a qanat named Dolatabad. Later he ordered the construction of the estate of Dolatabad Garden as his residence along the waters flowing from the qanat.

The amazing and astounding estate has a vestibule, a huge wind tower, a veranda covered with mirrors, and a splendid facade.

The lush garden is a paradise with trees like the pine and, cypress piercing the skies, an assortment of flowers, fruit trees, vineyards…offering a green carpet panorama.

The soaring 34 meter wind tower, the highest in the world, extends to the envious estate a great beauty and preoccupies the minds of visitors young and old.

Fire Temple (Fire of Varahram)

The impressive site was built with contributions from Yazd and India-based Zoroastrians (Parsis) amid a spacious courtyard – a demonstration of the architectural style of the Achaemenid Era (Persepolis). The elaborate pattern of ‘Farvahar’ sparkles atop the façade.

A centuries-long burning fire is the magnet that attracts millions of tourists throughout the year.

It is said that the fire has been burning for 1,520 years. The sacred fire was once housed in the Nahid Fire Temple in the southern Fars province. Later it was moved to the village of Haftador in the vicinity of Aqda, then to the village of Torkabad in Ardakan.

The fire was kept intact in the cave of Eshgeft-e-Yazdan and finally was brought to Yazd city in 1325 and kept in the neighborhood of Moubedan. Now it is housed in the newly-built and Fire Temple in one of the elegant districts of the city.

The fire of Varahram burns in a glamorous brass cup in a special chamber within the building above the ground floor and away from sunlight, wind and rain.

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