The geographical location of Yazd, surrounded by salt lakes and built in the middle of an apparent wilderness between two deserts - the Dasht-e Kavir to the north and the Dasht-e Lut to the east - may seem an unlikely one for the development of a large settlement. But Yazd has made the most of its position halfway between Esfahan and Kerman, on the main route that leads to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With its winding lanes, forest of badgirs, mud-brick old town and excellent range of accommodation options, Yazd is one of the highlights of any trip to Iran. This is a place to wander and get lost in the maze of historic streets and lanes, not to mention your imagination. It's also an ideal base for day trips to several evocative villages and towns.
Yazd has been known for its silks and other fabrics since before Marco Polo passed through. It is also home to Iran's second-largest population of Zoroastrians. Today, Yazd is the main provincial town and an important centre with some 260,000 inhabitants. The recent construction of a university just outside town should contribute further to its future development.
The city can be quite cold in winter and is boiling hot in summer, though not humid.
Yazd is an important 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, 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 center 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 percent.
Built in 12th century and still in use, Jame Mosque of Yazd is an example of the finest Persian mosaics and excellent architecture. Its minarets are the highest in the country.
The Badgirs of Yazd
As in all the towns of the region, buildings in Yazd are traditionally of brick and pise and have flat or domed roofs, on top of which are low rectangular towers, the walls of which are pierced at intervals to catch the wind. These are the wind towers (badgir), a very efficient ventilation system, which allows air to circulate within the houses. These ancient systems of natural air-conditioning are designed to catch even the lightest breeze and direct it to the rooms below. To appreciate the effect, just stand beneath one.
Traditionally, the most important room in the house was the coolest one, a covered patio with a fountain in the centre. The entrance to the house often gave directly onto this room, and from it one had access to the bedrooms, a communal room and the terrace. The wind tower, placed above the water basin, created a draught, which kept the room at a comfortable temperature.
Iranian badgirs are divided into three common types: Ardakani, which capture wind from only one direction; Kermani, which capture wind from two directions; and Yazdi, which capture wind from four directions. Other variations can capture wind from up to eight directions. All have a structure that contains the shafts, air shelves that are used to catch some of the hot air and stop it entering the house, flaps to redirect the circulation of the wind and a roof covering. The currents that enter the house often do so above a pool of cool water, thereby cooling the air, while the warm air continues its circular path, redirected upwards and out of the house through a different shaft.
The wind towers serve not only as ventilation shafts in the houses but also to cool water. Yazd is built at the foot of the Shir Mountains and for centuries the town's water has been brought down from these hills by a complex system of qanats. In the desert around the town, large brick domes flanked by two wind towers indicate the presence of an underground reservoir, some of which are very deep, in which the water is cooled by the draft created between the towers. Once a commonplace feature of Iranian architecture, the windtower is unfortunately gradually disappearing. Old, eroded towers are no longer systematically replaced or repaired as more highly-priced, electrically operated methods of cooling and ventilation are slowly reaching even the smallest villages.
The old city bazaars are full of local handicrafts including ejrami (hand-woven cotton cloth), termeh (a textile made from silk, cotton and wool), daraie (a soft silk fabric) and ilu (light caipet).
Yazd is famous for its sweets, which can be purchased at hundreds of shops throughout the city. The best and most famous of these is Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar (Amir Chakhmaq Sq & Imam Khomeini St), which specialises in the following:
- Almond louz (sweet made with almond, pussy willow and sugar)
- Baghlava (sweet made with ground almond, flour, sugar, pistachio and cardamom)
- Coconut louz (sweet made with coconut powder, sugar and rose water)
- Cooki koloocheh (biscuit made from rice flour, sugar, flour, egg and rose water)
- Ghottab (sweet made with almond kernels, sugar, flour and cardamom)
- Hajjl badam (sweet made with almond, egg, sugar, cardamom, walnut and pea flour)
- Pashmak (local version of fairy floss or cotton candy)
A medium-sized box of assorted sweets costs around US$6; have a look at the samples on display, write down what you want on the form provided, take it to the counter where your choice will be boxed and weighed, take the receipt and pay at the cashier and then return to the counter to collect your sweets. And be warned: these sweets are really sugary!