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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Out of Town, Across the Sand, Into the City: Nothin' but Desert! Iran Gets Creative with Wind and Water
April 12, 2000

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Imagine living in an oasis surrounded by desert in every direction!
The emptiness seemed to stretch on forever, with nothing to see but sand, scrub and a few rocky mountains. It took almost two days to drive from Mashhad to Yazd, across the center of Iran, which is covered by two huge deserts. The Dasht-é Kavir, in the North, covers more than 200,000 square kilometers (78,000 square miles) - about the size of the state of Idaho. The Dasht-é Lut is more than 166,000 square kilometers (64,700 square miles) - almost as big as Wisconsin. Put together, these deserts make up 23 percent of Iran!

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Watch out for camels crossing the road!
But just when I thought we were hundreds of miles from another living thing, we'd pass an oasis in the middle of nowhere! Rising out of nothing, a small cluster of adobe homes surrounded by a few palm trees would suddenly appear, then disappear behind us. Imagine growing up somewhere like that: where outside your little block is nothing but desert in every direction!

Even more amazing were the camels. Sometimes they were just spots in the distance, but once in a while we'd pass them near the road and get a good look. I wonder how they find their way out there…and, come to think of it, what do they eat?!?

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Looking out over Yazd, all you see are beige houses, beige mosques and beige wind catchers!
Like many deserts on earth, Iran's deserts have grown over time due to changes in climate and overgrazing of the land around their edges. Still, people here have lived in dry, inhospitable lands for thousands of years. Many nomadic tribes would herd animals and trade goods, constantly on the move in search of water. Today, there are still more than 300,000 nomads wandering the plains and deserts of Iran. Wow! Now imagine you don't even have your own little block - just your camel, and nothing but desert in every direction!


oasis - something that provides refuge, relief, or pleasant contrast
adobe - a brick or building material of sun-dried earth and straw
nomadic - roaming about from place to place frequently or without a fixed pattern of movement
boring - piercing with a turning or twisting movement of a tool irrigation - watering system

By the time we got to Yazd, I was so excited to see trees and other living plants! This city is a large oasis, even though it's still in the desert. When nomads began to settle here, they had to figure out ways of dealing with the dryness and intense heat. Because of that, Yazd doesn't look like any other city I've ever seen! Check out the pictures!

Our first evening, we wandered through the winding streets and alleys. Women breezed by us, their black chadors fluttering beautifully. The only evidence that this wasn't the Middle Ages were the power lines! All the walls around us were built with a mixture of mud and straw, that's baked hard in the sun, so everything is the same color. "It's just like cob houses!" Kavitha told us excitedly when we passed some of the mixture, still wet, in the street. "People all over America are just discovering how great this stuff is to build with. It's cheap, natural and really good insulation. It keeps the houses really warm in the winter and really cool in the summer. All the cob houses I've seen were cool shapes and had crazy angles and arches, and shelves and benches built right into the walls!"

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Jazzy searches the old pottery in the cellar for forgotten goodies
It wasn't until I climbed on the rooftops, though, that I noticed the weird towers on all the houses. "Those are the Badgirs wind tunnels," our guide told us. "They catch even the smallest breeze, and bring it into the underground rooms." The guidebook tells us that the Badgirs are healthier than modern air conditioners because they keep fresh air circulating.

We saw how functional the architecture was when we visited a local home. All of the above-ground rooms had good ventilation, but, according to our host Parvis, that's not enough in summer. His house has three floors, but two of them are underground. "In the summer, everyone moves down here to stay cool!" he said. Also underground are food storage rooms, a cool place to hang meat and a wine cellar (which is now empty since alcohol is illegal in Iran).

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larger view
Kavitha braves the long dark stairs to where the water is collected
OK, so now we know how the people - and their food - stay cool during the long, hot summer. But I still wondered how they manage to feed themselves. You can't eat sand, after all! Well, some of the first people to settle here, at least 2,000 years ago, found a solution to the water shortage problem. It's called a Ghanat, which is simple in concept, but not very simple in practice. A Ghanat is a type of irrigation that involves boring a well deep into the ground (up to 100 meters, or 328 feet, deep), then digging a long tunnel - only wide enough to crawl through - to where you want to get the water. There's a long stairway in the middle of Yazd which leads down into darkness. Turns out it's the way down to the water. We didn't check to see how deep it was, but we couldn't see the bottom!

Don't try this at home, kids. There are supposedly 50,000 Ghanats in Iran, the longest being 40 kilometers (25 miles)! Digging a Ghanat is a highly skilled and highly dangerous job. Think about it: the well has to be at a slightly higher altitude than the place where you want to get the water, because water only flows downhill. I don't understand how they did all this without drowning themselves! Maybe a Ghanat-digger masterminded the escape from Alcatraz Island!

Your Turn!!!

Would you like to live in the desert?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

With the population of the world growing, and the deserts growing too, more and more people will be living in the desert in the future. Good thing the Iranians figured all this stuff out ahead of time! Hmm…I wonder if I can get a Badgir put on my house in America…


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Find out more about cob houses:


Brian - My Visit to the Vank (pronounced Bonk)
Jasmine - The Golden Age: Safavid Rule
Kavitha - Balancing East and West: Pars Grows Up
Monica - Home is where the Heart is.... Zartosht's House
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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