The Ancient Jewel in the Desert: Yazd, Iran

Amir Chakhmaq Square in central Yazd, Iran.

Located halfway between Isfahan and Kerman and known for its handicrafts, silk weaving, inexplicable hot summer weather, famous wind towers (known as badgirs) and as one of the major strongholds of Persian Zoroastrian culture, Yazd is one of Iran’s lesser-known and fascinating cities.

Yazd is smack between the Dasht-e Kavir and Dash-e Lut deserts, making it seemingly isolated, though this actually isn’t the case. The city is well known throughout history as a key trading post. In fact in 1272, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo visited Yazd and mentioned the city’s weavers as well as the fine quality of silk that they were producing.

Brief History of Yazd

As far as we know, Yazd was inhabited at least 5000 years ago. In Median times the settlement was called Ysatis. The current name, Yazd, is believed to be derived from Yazdegerd, one of three rulers of the Sasanian dynasty. After the defeat by the Arabs of the last Sasanian monarch (named coincidently Yazdegerd III), many Zoroastrians and other Persians fled to the city for refuge. The area remained a center of Zoroastrian culture for centuries until the Mongol invasions.

Fortunately for Yazd, the city and the surrounding areas were more or less overlooked by the Mongols and mostly spared from their slaughter. This is probably why Yazd was still not only intact, but also quite prosperous when Marco Polo visited. He described the city as “another beautiful great trading city of Persia. The silk woven there is also called Yazd and is much in demand by merchants who make a lot of money by taking it all over the world.” 1

History in a way repeated itself about a century later when Tamerlane conquered the same area but spared the city after Yazd’s then governor surrendered to him peacefully. The collection of taxes from a prosperous and industrious people was probably more important to Tamerlane than increasing the number of people he had killed (which was a lot since Tamerlane, like Genghis Khan, was also a brutal conqueror). During the 14th century, Yazd served as the capital of the Muzaffarid Dynasty.

Like all things, Yazd’s prosperity also began to fade and then came to a halt after the Afghan invasions of the 1800s decimated large parts of the city and its population. The city became a backwater town during Qajar times and was considered too remote to be of much importance and hence, many Zoroastrians once again migrated here. It was not until the 20th century when the city was connected by railroad with Tehran that it began to come back to life. Today, Yazd is a traditional and thriving city with inhabitants that are known for being both hospitable and clever.

Sites of Interest/Historical Importance in Yazd

At first glance, Yazd may not look like the liveliest of cities. The tall stone walls encircling the ubiquitous mud brick houses and narrow lanes (known as kuches) that seem to make up the vast majority of structures here easily allow the city to blend in with the surrounding desert. Appearances though are deceiving as behind these walls are ornate courtyards, gardens, colorful dwellings and teahouses where the Yazdis, as people of Yazd are called, carry on with their daily lives and businesses.

Zoroastrian Sites of Yazd

What really makes Yazd unique is its history as a center of Zoroastrianism in Iran. Before Tehran became the capital, many Zoroastrians in Iran lived in and around Yazd for centuries. In fact, it was one of the few places with a majority Zoroastrian population in Iran until a few hundred years ago. Thus, let’s start with the few Zoroastrian sites in and around the city that are still left to explore.

Yazd Atashkadeh

Photo courtesy Wikicommons
Fire is an important symbol in the Zoroastrian religion because it represents Ahura Mazda, a.k.a. God, the Creator of the universe and the source of all that is good. Thus, every Zoroastrian temple has a fire that burns within it constantly. The Yazd Atashkadeh, or fire temple, is probably the most famous in Iran because the flame inside it is believed to have been burning for over 1500 – since the 470 AD! This makes it possibly the oldest continuously burning fire in existence! The fire is said to have come from the nearby city of Ardakan and then transported to Yazd in the 1470s. In 1934 it was transported to its current home on Kashani Street.

Zoroastrian Towers of Silence (Dakhmeh)

Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran

Traditional and orthodox Zoroastrians had a unique practice of deposing their dead. In Zoroastrian religion when the one passes away, their soul passes on to the afterlife. Thus without a soul, the body is considered useless and in a sense, little more than garbage. In an effort not to pollute the Earth, many traditional Zoroastrians would put their dead on top of a Dakhmeh, also known as a “tower of silence.” Vultures would then come and eat the remains of the dead bodies and the remaining bones of the deceased would be put down a shaft through the center of the tower.

Photo by Koroosh Nozad on Instagram @images_of_iran

This funerary practice was last done in the 1960s. Today, most Zoroastrians bury their dead in concrete-like coffins that are considered impregnable to the elements, thus not polluting the earth. Though the Dakhmehs are no longer in use, visitors can climb up them and get some pretty stunning views of the surrounding desert. Given the nature of their past use, the Dakhmehs are actually outside the city, but all the taxi drivers and tour guides know where they are, making them easy to visit (and you should!).

Other Popular Sites in Yazd

Friday Mosque (Masjid-i Jameh)

Friday mosque in central Yazd

You can’t really miss this, as it is the one building that dominates the skyline of the old town part of Yazd. The mosque is famous for its two 48-meter high minarets and the colorful mosaics that cover its interior and exterior walls. The foundations of the building are quite old and believed to have originally been part of a Zoroastrian fire temple (atashkadeh). The Amir Chakhmaq Square is located right in front of the mosque and is a popular place for locals to meet.

Bogheh-ye Sayyed Roknaddin

Bogheh-ye Sayyed-Roknaddin in Yazd, Iran
The tomb of Sayyed Roknaddin Muhammad Qazi, a local Muslim saint, is probably the second most recognizable building in all of Yazd. Built over 700 years ago, the mausoleum’s blue dome contains some of the best examples of Iranian tile work of any place.

Alexander’s Prison

“Alexander’s Prison” in Yazd, Iran
The place in Yazd known as “Alexander’s prison” is not actually a prison but instead a 15th century school. Known locally as Zendan-e Eskandar, this place got its name due to a reference in the poetry of the Persian poet Hafiz. The story goes that after Alexander of Macedonia conquered the city of Rey in northern Iran, he took several of the Persians who were resisting him and brought them to this place where they were put into a dungeon. The complex itself is made of clay with an 18-meter tall domed tower with Kufic Arabic inscriptions on top. No longer a prison, the building is open to the public and houses an Ethnographic Museum and a religious school.

Bagh-e Dolat Abad

The Bagh-e Dolat Abad was once the home of Karim Khan Zand, one of Iran’s more enlightened but short-lived rulers. Built in 1750, the inside of the pavilion contains some amazing tilework and stained glass windows. It also is said to have the tallest badgir in Iran (33 meters tall).

Yazd Water Museum

The Water Museum is unique in that it focuses on the one commodity that seems to be scarce in this part of Iran. The museum highlights the various methods and techniques used to bring and conserve water in this otherwise harsh and dry land. It’s also fascinating to see how the system of qanats operates in Iran, especially in Yazd. It may seem like a boring museum but it’s actually quite fascinating and unique.

Videos depicting life in Yazd…

More Information about Yazd, Iran

A Guide to Travelling Iran: Abyaneh, Yazd and Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrians mass graveyard in Yazd registered as national monument

The Zoroastrian Atashkadeh in Yazd, Iran

Towers of Silence: The Zoroastrian Sky Burial Tradition

Zoroastrian Towers of Silence in Yazd – Altas Obscura

Iran Visitor: Guide to Yazd


Go to the main page