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Travel | The Heart of the Kavir, Iran's Great Desert Realm


15 Nov 2011 21:11Comments
iran-desertm1125.jpgA walk through an alien world, harsh and magnificent.

[ passport ] A crowd of many hundreds have gathered by the dried-up bed of the Zayanderud (life-giver river); the river has been dry for a long time due to an extended drought that has affected Iran in recent years. Now, despite the ongoing drought, the dam upriver has been opened for a few days so that the farmers in the Zayanderud basin can irrigate their crops. The crowd eagerly awaits the arrival of water, the very pulse of the city of Isfahan.


Iran enjoys a variety of climates, from the lush forests of the north to the mighty mountains of Zagros and Alborz to the saline deserts known as kavirs. Iran has two great kavirs: the Kavir-e Markazi, located in the heart of the country, and the Kavir-e Lut, located in the southeastern province of Kerman.

The kavir is an unforgiving place, dry and harsh. From a distance, it appears an endless landscape of sere land speckled with arid hills and mountains. The average rainfall is so low that many parts of the kavir have no vegetation at all. Even where there is a little water available, the soil and sand are so salty that nothing but the tamarix, or gaz, can grow; the tamarix, a remarkably resilient tree, has roots that run very deep to find the smallest trickle of water to sustain it -- it can endure saltiness, extreme heat, and the unrelenting sun. It's a disheveled-looking plant, but it can withstand the desert's brutal attacks and is so tough that it is used in anti-desertification programs: not only does it act as a windbreak, its roots also pacify the ever-shifting dunes.

In the kavir, you will experience the extremes of weather, from the subfreezing cold of a winter night to the scorching heat of a summer noon. Within just 12 hours, you can encounter the kavir's extremities: around midyear, the days are blisteringly hot, while at night the cool breeze of the desert makes you shiver.

The night sky of the kavir more than makes up for the featureless landscape of the day; just as the sun goes down, the stars start to twinkle to life, one after another. On a moonless night, as the last rays of the sun vanish beneath the horizon, the sky suddenly lights up with thousands upon thousands of stars -- the effect is literally breathtaking. Many become mesmerized by it, gazing up until they feel dizzy. It is a trick of desert that has entranced people for many thousands of years and never gets old.

The kavir has no compassion, it shows no mercy, and it will severely punish the unready. But like any beast, the kavir can also be tamed. You have to know it, know its ways and secrets, adapt to its aggression and its peculiarities. And people have. For many millennia, the kavir and its margins have been inhabited by humans. It seems that wherever in the kavir that water could be found, humans have found it and settled there. There are many small towns and villages scattered inside the kavir, and along its fringes are grand cities that have played crucial roles in the history of Iranian civilization.

The people of the kavir can be likened to the tamarix; they are as tough as it comes, they look weathered and harsh, but they have roots that are deep and long, as long as the thousands of years that they have lived in the desert. And just like the tamarix, they are a force against the desert's might. They are sunburnt and it seems that they are always frowning (it is because of the sunshine). But deep down, they are very warm and welcoming. Just like the desert that hides within it deep wells full of water, the people of the kavir are also full of life deep within. The desert's dry winds, the sand, and the sun have over the years abraded and hardened the kavir dwellers. They have learned the survival game amid one of the planet's extremes and while to the outsider the people and the land may seem angry and bitter, still the kavir is full of romance. Its beauty and harshness, one inextricable from the other, have inspired poets and scholars, from Heydar Yaghma to Ali Shariati, whose book Kavir is dedicated to life in the desert.

Religion is very important for the people of the kavir. Faith is a source of inspiration and a stronghold for them, and throughout the ages it has been faith that has allowed them to endure one of the harsher environments on earth. From the pre-Islamic era, when Zoroastrianism was dominant, through today, the kavir dwellers have attached themselves to religious ceremonies, from Ghalishuyan in Mashad-e Ardehal -- where the people every second Friday of the month of Mehr gather to wash the ghalis (rugs) of the local mosque, wielding clubs in hand -- to the lifting of the great alam (banner) in Yazd on the Day of Ashura. As a result, the cities of the desert and its fringes such as Yazd, Qom, and Isfahan are considered conservative and deeply religious.

For the people of the kavir, water is currency. Those villages scattered around the desert wherever water was discovered are like fortresses within which the people of the kavir have stood their ground, generation after generation. They appear like green heavens amid the dry landscape that surrounds them. Some date back to the arrival of Aryans in the Iranian plateau. Water management is a task that desert dwellers mastered early on, building oases by virtue of a system of qanats, artesian wells and underground aqueducts. The qanats of the Iranian plateau are a remarkable feat of ancient engineering, and if it wasn't for the extreme water demands of modern lifestyles and the profligate drilling of deep, machine-made wells, they would still be providing the necessary water for many villages.

Nowhere in world is the attachment of life to availability of water felt more than in the desert. There is barely enough water to sustain life in the kavir, so a slight dip in the amount of rainfall -- let alone the drought that has gripped the kavir for most of the past decade -- can cause many hardships. Rain and the very rare snow bring immense joy to the lives of kavir dwellers; they are considered nature's greatest blessings and prayed for year round.

Before water storage and water tanks were developed anywhere else in the world, the people of the kavir built ab anbars, underground reservoirs in which they stored water for later use during the dry season. The water was kept deep in the earth, where it remained as cold and fresh as possible. Although these aesthetically pleasing structures have given way to ugly water tanks, they can still be found in almost every desert city and village.

Wind-Chimneys-Iran.jpgThe harsh life of the kavir has always inspired innovation and its people came up with other ingenious ways to make their lives a little more pleasurable. They built the first air-conditioning structures, known as badgirs (windcatchers), towers that capture and redirect the flow of the wind to cool domestic interiors. They are a prominent feature of Iranian desert architecture and the city of Yazd is famous for its many badgirs. The kavir dwellers also built part of their residences underground, with a water cistern in the middle, where it is pleasantly cool even during the hottest days of summer.

The livelihoods of the kavir dwellers for many years depended on herding -- mostly camels, occasionally goats -- and agriculture, where it was possible. They were role models for sustainability, living as frugally as possible, wasting nothing and doing as much as possible with as little as possible.

Trees are revered, especially fruit-bearing trees such as the palm and the pomegranate. Palm orchards have been a source of livelihood for the people of the kavir for many centuries, and nothing is dearer to a kavir dweller than a palm tree. Wherever water is found in the desert, a palm orchard exists. No disaster is greater than the loss of a palm orchard and many villages have been abandoned when their palms were lost. An unexpectedly cold winter a few years back destroyed many orchards around the central kavir and efforts aimed at recultivating them continue. In Iran, there is an ancient tradition of killing a farm animal for a dear guest, both as sustenance and sacrifice in return for good health. In the kavir, for the dearest of guests, a palm is killed -- locals refer to the felling of a tree as "killing," indicative of its significance and gravity -- and its heart, the heart of palm, is offered to the honoree.

Where more water is available, pomegranate trees are planted. In Iran, the pomegranate is considered the tree of love. When the legendary lover Farhad died, a pomegranate tree grew from his axe. Legend has it that the rulers of ancient Iran traded the seeds of pomegranates for the seeds of peaches that belonged to the rulers of ancient China. The pomegranate is served on Yalda, the longest night of the year, and its paste is used with ground walnuts in the delicious stew known as fesenjan.

It seems that what the kavir could not produce, modernity has. For many thousands of years, the people of the kavir knew nothing of despair. Now, with paved roads and ready transport, they have become aware of the easier life outside the desert's boundaries. Many have left, some to the cities at the desert's fringes and some even further, to Tehran and beyond. Those who remained for the first time felt impoverished; rich before they could compare their lives to those outside the harsh reality of the kavir, now they were poor. Today, the kavir suffers both a steady outflow of inhabitants and a high rate of drug addiction.

In recent years, however, with the efforts of the government and local people, the kavir is finding new reasons for hope. The kavir is rich with minerals such as salt alkalis and many mines and processing plants have been built, like the potash plant in Khur, in the northeast of Isfahan province. Modern irrigation techniques have allowed for pomegranate and palm orchards to be cultivated at an industrial scale, and there is also the prospect of tourism. The kavir, so alien and amazing, has huge tourism potential, on which the locals are recently starting to capitalize. Many of the old houses and caravansaries are being converted into hotels and there are regular tours from the big cities. The young are especially eager for the kavir tours, because in the desert, away from the ever-present eye of the authorities, they can experience a bit of freedom -- though that very freedom and the tourism it supports are in turn being threatened as officials step up their efforts to limit access by groups of young people to the kavir.

If I may, I should like to provide a little guide for the traveler who wants to see the kavir and understand its mesmerizing beauty. I will presume that you start your journey in Tehran, and first go to Qom to visit the most religious city in Iran, a focal point for Shia Islam. See the scholars and mosques in every corner, and try to take in the strong presence of faith in the everyday lives of the people of the kavir. Then go to Kashan and visit the many magnificent ancient houses and the Bagh-e Fin, a prototypical Persian garden with its ancient cedars and exquisite architecture. Then a night at the hotel in Abyaneh, a very ancient village full of red houses that offers you a chance to experience traditional Iran. You can visit the old castle and its unusual graveyard, see the orchards, follow the waterway through beautiful scenery, and mingle with the warm and hospitable people.

The next day, midway to Isfahan, stop at Natanz, now notorious for its nuclear facility, but skip that and visit the old Masjed-e Jame; in its vicinity you will find a platanus tree, hundreds of years old, as well as an ancient fire temple. Next is Isfahan; you need at least two days here to begin to grasp what this magnificent city has to offer. Go see the famous bridges and the Naqsh-e Jahan Square (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), have a drink in an old teahouse, try the delicious cuisine, visit the fire temple, scale Sofeh Mountain (or take the lift). Then stop at Naeen and enjoy the old city's ab anbars and mosques. Next, in Yazd, the largest adobe city in the world, you can visit the badgirs and the Zoroastrian temple.

If you have more time and want to see the true kavir, you must head out from Naeen toward Khur, a small city in the middle of desert, stay a night at one of the converted caravansaries, go see the dunes in the village of Mesr, watch the night sky, wander down to the magnificent salt lake, take a stroll in the palm orchards, and also visit the green heavens, small villages so incredibly verdant and beautiful that you cannot believe that they are surrounded by the desert.


At the very end, we journey back to Isfahan, at the margin of the kavir, where the eager crowd waits expectantly. The sound of a trickle is heard and slowly the water proceeds from the west. The cracked and thirsty surface swallows as much as it can and the crowd cheers, encouraging the water on. The water flows under the bridges and washes over the riverbed, with people cheering it every inch of the way. The river fills, "Zayanderud zende shod" -- the life giver is alive once again.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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