8 World-Class Reasons to Travel to UNESCO-Listed Yazd, Iran
For hundreds of years, Yazd, Iran has been a beautiful, harmonious city of low adobe buildings hovering over underground pools of water brought from the foothills. Stretching between two deserts, Yazd is set squarely in the middle of Iran, some 400 miles southeast of the capital, Tehran. Founded in the 5th century, it’s long been famous for being a city of tolerance, with Muslims and pre-Islamic Zoroastrians living side by side in peace.
“[Yazd] bears living testimony to the use of limited resources for survival in the desert. Water is supplied to the city through a qanat system developed to draw underground water. The earthen architecture of Yazd has escaped the modernization that destroyed many traditional earthen towns, retaining its traditional districts, the qanat system, traditional houses, bazars, hammams, mosques, synagogues, Zoroastrian temples and the historic garden of Dolat-abad.”
As a well-known tour operator working in Iran, with expertise in travel to Yazd, MIR Vice President Annie Lucas is quoted in a New York Times piece about Yazd and the other 2017 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
MIR has been traveling to Yazd for more than 15 years and we’ve found so many things to love about this friendly city that it’s difficult to count them.
Here are 8 reasons to travel to Yazd:
The old section of Yazd is a well-preserved maze of winding passages and covered walkways. Narrow alleyways run between thick adobe walls whose mass helps balance the temperature of the hot days and cool nights. The lanes branch off into a bewildering number of alternate routes.
Doors are set here and there in the blank walls. Most of them open into private homes rather than shops, and are made of heavy old wood held together with elaborate ironwork. The doors have two knockers, one for men and one for women. The different sounds they produce let the women inside know if they need to cover their heads before they open the door.
The streets are made of stone, and pedestrians have to press themselves against the walls when a motorcycle roars past. Occasionally a small car will attempt to negotiate the narrow curves, but these streets were built long ago for humans and their animals.
A native can make his or her way easily, and in relative comfort, from one place to the next, but for the uninitiated, it’s a three dimensional puzzle with some of the pieces missing.
Persians developed the low-tech but ingenious qanat technology in the first millennium BC, and its advent was crucial in bringing water – and agriculture – to the arid regions around Iran. A qanat is a system consisting of vertical shafts similar to wells, the first and highest of which is dug down to an underground water source. Sloping tunnels carry the water from the original or “mother” well down to the lowlands where it is used for irrigation and drinking. Other shafts are used for ventilation and maintenance of the tunnels.
The Zarch Qanat in Yazd is Iran’s longest underground water aqueduct, snaking some 50 miles below the ground from its mother well to the city. The Zarch qanat may be up to 3,000 years old. 2,115 vertical shafts allow ventilation and access to the qanat; the shafts are ringed with earth berms of excavated sand, like big anthills.
Qanats are hand-dug and maintained, requiring close cooperation among all parties across generations. In Yazd, many of the richer houses sat astride a qanat, and a badgir, or windtower, was built above the water to hydrate the desert air and cool the home. An example of this can be seen at the Water Museum in Yazd, a former merchant’s house built over the UNESCO-listed Zarch Qanat.
(See more info and photos of qanats in this BBC Travel profile on them.)
Used to ventilate buildings in Yazd, the badgir, or windtower, is an ingenious Persian architectural structure that stands high atop a roof like a large chimney. The badgir helps pull fresh air into the building and across a pool of water that cools it. At different times of the day it acts as an intake or exhaust vent as well as a heat sink. The device has existed for many centuries and functions well enough to be used to refrigerate goods. See these distinctive objects on top of many of the older buildings in Yazd.
The UNESCO-listed Dowlat Abad Garden in Yazd is a classical Persian walled desert garden, watered by a qanat and with the tallest badgir in the country cooling the residence of the khan who created it. Originally built in 1783, the traditional garden surrounds the khan’s pavilion, decorated with beautiful latticed doors and stained glass. Inside, you can experience first-hand how the badgir system works, as you stand under it and feel the cool breeze blowing on your face.
The original principles of the classical Persian Garden have held true for 2,000 years. The natural elements of sky, earth, water, and plants, sacred to Zoroastrians, are enhanced by their placement, and the geometrical manmade elements that contain and delineate them. With its pavilions, fountains, pools and plantings, the Persian Garden is meant to represent Paradise on earth.
“Yazd” means “to feast and worship,” and many people here maintain the Zoroastrian traditions that this word expresses. Fire is seen by Zoroastrians as pure and sacred, and is the central element in their temples, although they don’t worship it, as some believe.
After the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th and 8th centuries, Yazd was allowed to pay a levy to remain Zoroastrian. As time went on, though, more and more Persians converted to Islam, whose precepts were familiar to Zoroastrians. Persia remained Persian, however, keeping its own language and choosing its own form of Islam, Shi’ism.
A round pool reflects a small yellow brick building crowned with a Faravahar, the winged depiction of Zoroastrianism’s supreme being, Ahura Mazda. The symbol represents the Zoroastrian precepts of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.
This is the Fire Temple in Yazd, one of the faith’s most important. Zoroastrians from around the world visit this Fire Temple to see its eternal flame, said to have been burning since 470 AD. The flame is visible through a glass in the entrance hall; only Zoroastrians can enter the hall where it burns, attended by priests.
On the outskirts of Yazd, two low hills are topped with squat cylindrical towers. Paths lead up the hills, but there is little foot traffic. These are Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, meant for sky burial. Zoroastrians consider the dead body unclean, and subject to possession by corpse demons. In times past, they were prohibited from burying or cremating corpses, thereby polluting the earth or the air. The towers are situated above the earth, and paved with stone.
The dead were carried up the hill by specially consecrated pallbearers, and deposited in concentric circles – children closest to the central pit, women next, and men on the outside. Vultures feasted on their flesh and the sun bleached their bones until the little that was left was thrown in the center pit to finish disintegrating.
Although no longer used, the ancient Towers of Silence remain on the outskirts of Yazd, and travelers can come to pay their respects and slake their curiosity. An old man, said to be the last of the corpse bearers, also remains outside the gate, greeting visitors.
Originally founded in the 12th century and added to in the 14th and 15th, the Friday Mosque stands on the site of an ancient fire temple, and is known as one of the best-preserved mosques of its age in the country. Its beautiful tiled entrance portal, or iwan, is the highest in Iran. The dome and altar inside the mosque display sophisticated tile decoration and decorative brickwork, though much is restoration from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is where Friday prayers are held.
Interwoven Desert City
Like the hand-loomed termeh fabric the city is known for, everything here is interwoven.
- The thick walls of its low mudbrick homes are built from the earth excavated to create deep cool courtyard gardens.
- Badgirs, the tall wind towers that cool the homes, pull air over pools of water brought by qanats, underground aqueducts that use gravity to bring water from the foothills.
- Qanats also make possible the stately UNESCO-listed Persian gardens, constructed around the four Zoroastrian elements of sky, earth, water and plants. Zoroastrians were able to flourish here, safe from Arab invaders, because of the city’s isolation and harsh desert conditions.
- When Islam finally arrived, the Zoroastrians of Yazd slowly adapted and learned to live side by side with Muslims, as they do today.
This harmony of elements across the spectrum makes Yazd a no-longer-overlooked travel treasure in the desert of Iran.
Visit Yazd with MIR
MIR has more than 15 years of travel experience hand-crafting tours to Iran. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
Chat with Joanna, MIR’s Director of Sales and Iran Travel Expert, about travel to Yazd in Iran by phone (800-424-7289) or email today. She has an insider’s knowledge of what to do and see there, and would love to help you craft a tour that satisfies your curiosity about this ancient and modern country.
You can visit Yazd on these MIR tours to Iran:
Small Group Tours:
Rail Journeys by Private Train:
- NEW! Persia & the Silk Road by Private Train (Westbound)
- Jewels of Persia & The Silk Route by Private Train (Westbound)
- Iran & The ‘Stans by Private Train (Eastbound)
Top photo: Schoolgirls flock around a traveler and his camera. Photo credit: Ann Schneider
PUBLISHED: October 10, 2017