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Troglodytic Village in the Shadow of Kuh-e Sahand
|The peaks of Kuh-e (Mount) Sahand. Image credit: Ali Parsa|
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Iran is the quaint and mysterious thirteenth century village of Kandovan. Located in Iran's East Azerbaijan Province, Kandovan is 60 km south of the provincial capital Tabriz in Osku county. The 60 km drive to Kandovan south from Tabriz passes through Khosrowshahr and ascends the slopes of the hills at the base of Kuh-e (Mount) Sahand through the Osku Chai valley. Chai or Chay is a Turkic word for river.
The village of Kandovan is also part of the Lake Urmia region (also spelt Urmiyeh or Urmiya), the region where the predecessors of the Persians and the Medes first entered recorded history in a 844 BCE Assyrian inscription, and the region that is central to the start of the second phase of Zoroastrian history.
What makes Kandovan village so unique is that many of its homes have been made in caves located in cone-shaped, naturally formed compressed volcanic ash formations that make the landscape look like a gigantic termite colony. This method of dwelling makes the residents modern-age cave dwellers or troglodytes. (Troglodyte means cave dweller: somebody living in a cave, especially somebody who belonged to a prehistoric cave-dwelling community. Troglodyte also means somebody living in seclusion.)
It is our understanding that the unusual cone formations were formed from volcanic ash and debris spewed during an eruption of Mount Sahand being hardened and shaped by the elements over thousands of years. The formation of volcanic ash cones is local to Kandovan. Elsewhere, the ash blanketed the land. The existence of a high volume of ash and pumice far from Sahand's crater indicates that Mount Sahand erupted with a gigantic explosion in the distant past. Sahand's rock is about a million years old and the last eruption of Mount Sahand is thought to have occurred within the Holocene epoch, that is within the last 11,000 years. Today, Mount Sahand is an dormant volcano consisting of a crater lake encircled by twelve peaks, the tallest of which rises to a height of 3707 m. or 12,162 feet.
Geology of Kandovan Village
The rock that makes up the cones in Kandovan Village is made up of a volcanic deposit called 'tuff' (pronounced 'toof' by the British and 'tough' by Americans). The deposit consists of igneous rock that is soft and which can be worked without the use of hard metal tools. (Igneous mean formerly molten - made with fire.) The rock was spewed out an explosive eruption of the Sahand volcano as airborne debris called tephra. The explosive eruption was probably caused by high pressure steam which would likely cause steam and other gas pockets (that would later become air pockets) when the molten material rapidly solidified. Rock with air or gas cells is called pumice. Pumice can be light enough that it floats on water. It can also be a good heat insulator. The deposited tephra that formed Kandovan's rock cones consisted of stone-sized debris and ash. You can see the composition if you look closely at the surface of the caves or the cones.
|Close-up of the rock structure of Kandovan's cones|
As the tephra piled up on the ground in thick layers it self-compressed itself to form tuff. The strength of the resulting tuff would depend on how hot the tephra was when it was deposited. Very hot tephra can 'weld' together and not crumble easily. We would assume that the tephra that deposited at Kandovan was extremely hot. For the rock to be a good heat insulator, a lower density would give a better insulation value as would the presence of pumice. Nature's cooperation in Kandovan produced a rock dense enough to support a roof and a multilevel home and cellular enough to provide good insulation. If some of the ash was hot enough to form glass, the appearance of the rock could be very interesting. There might also be some glass beads formed at the time of the volcanic explosion embedded in the tuff.
The reason why Kandovan's tuff is cone-shaped is a matter of debate. One theory is rain erosion and another is the way the ash was laid down. If this writer may be permitted his own theory, it is that a combination of both processes resulted in the lower levels of the ash deposit being been hotter as they would have retained the original heat of explosion longer forming a more dense (solid) base. The higher levels would have cooled down faster thereby being less compacted and more easily eroded.
But why the cones are clustered in a relatively small area is a mystery. The direction of a separate blast from a side pocket is one thought that comes to this author's mind. We presume that some caves were naturally formed by gas pockets or erosion while others have been carved out by humans.
Natural Beauty in the Sahand Region
While Mount Sahand itself is somewhat stark, the surrounding country abounds in a natural beauty that is today but a shadow of a legendary past. Some believe that legendary past beauty is preserved in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Ancient Persian gardens, also called baghs, where renowned for their spectacular beauty. Their name pairi-daeza became the English word paradise. The baghs were a paradise on earth.
Nature's gifts in Kandovan extend to the healing properties of its natural spring water. In particular, the waters have traditionally been used to help dissolve kidney and bladder stones. Some of the area's wild plants as also reputed to have healing and vitality-giving properties. The combination of Kandovan's unique natural landscape, beauty, and the manner in which its inhabitants have adapted to the environment, has made Kandovan a popular destination for visitors. About 300,000 people visit the village each year (the resident population is only 670). It is only a matter of time before the local population begins to rely on tourism as a major source of income, thereby supplanting their traditional pastoral and agricultural way of life.
Use of Caves as Human Dwellings
As we have noted previously, in the area of Kandovan, Sahand's volcanic ash and debris was fused and shaped by natural forces into cone-shaped pillars containing pockets that became caves. The hardened material of the cones is strong enough to function as walls and floors of a house and yet soft enough to allow a further shaping of the caves. The material is also an efficient insulator and the troglodyte's homes have the reputation of being very energy efficient, remaining cool in summer and warm in winter. The cave homes require minimal supplemental heat during the long cold season, making for comfortable year round habitation.
Most of the cave houses are two to four storeys in height. In a typical four storey house, the ground or first floor is used as an animal shelter, the next two floors are used as living areas, and the top floor is used for storage. There are reports of tunnels connecting towers owned by a person or family.
Meaning of Kandovan
The houses are known as karan in the local dialect. One interpretation has the word Kandovan being a plural form of kando, a bee's hive. Another interpretation says that Kandovan means Land of Unknown Carvers. The use of 'van' to indicate the plural is found in the Avesta: cf. ashavan. Nowadays, residents speak a Turkic dialect but have traditional Iranian family names, names such as Kayani. The mountains and rivers in the region have both Persian and Turkic - and perhaps even Assyrian - names.
The present residents say that their village is around 700 years old, and was formed by people fleeing from an advancing Mongol army and who used the caves as a refugee and a place of hiding. Even after the Mongol occupation of the country came to an end, many of the refugees decided to continue living in the caves and gradually expanded their cave homes to form permanent multi-storey houses. Another legend states that eight hundred years ago a body of soldiers hid in the caves during a military campaign.
However, there are indications that the present cave dwellers are successors of earlier 1600-3000 years ago cave dwellers which would have made them contemporaneous to the first known presence of Zoroastrians in the region.
Jamshedi / Aryan Varas?
While we must await systematic archaeological and anthropological studies of Kandovan to confirm any direct connection to early Zoroastrians, the style of the Kandovan settlement has some parallels to a form of settlement mentioned in Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta. The first mention and description of a planned Aryan township in the Avesta is the Jamshidi Vara (also see Pamiri houses). If, as some have done, the word vara is translated as 'cave', then Kandovan becomes a candidate for a Jamshidi style vara even though the body of references to the location of the early Aryan homeland is more towards Central Asia and the Pamirs than towards the Middle East. The climate of Kandovan also coincides with the Avesta's description of a weather change that instigated the creation of varas, namely, a greater number of cool months than warm months in a year accompanied by the onset of severe winters. While the weather in the region has likely changed over the past ten thousand years, Kandovan still receives a fair amount of winter snow. In addition, the number of cool months in Kandovan exceeds the number of warm months.
Zagros Mountain Cave Dwellings
South from Kandovan are reports of other cave dwellers and their choice of living style.
In 317 BCE, the Macedonian commander Antigonus Monophthalmus is quoted as saying that he encountered Kossaeans (Kassites), calling them cavemen.
In Nomads and the Outside World, p.103, Anatoly Michailovich Khazanov states "Curtius Rufus (1st century CE) describes how the Mardeans (one of the nomadic Persian people according to Herodotus) dug caves in the mountains and hid in them with their wives and children (V.6.17)...". Khazanov adds as a footnote, "It is curious that the habit of using caves as winter shelters for livestock continues has been preserved up to the present day by semi-nomadic Kurds and Lurs..."
Cappadocia Cave Dwellings
Some translations of the word vara as a cave add an underground feature to the caves. To find the closest examples of a settlement based in a network of underground caves, we need to look to the ancient land of Cappadocia presently in Central Turkey. Cappadocia was mentioned by the historian Strabo as having a fire temple.
The cave settlements in Turkey are similar to the cave settlement of Kandovan. They have also been the subject of archaeological examination. As a result, we may be able to glean some concept of the antiquity of Kandovan's cave dwellings from the study of the Turkish cave dwellings, where, even though the recent phase of habitation dates from the 5th to 6th century CE, murals and monuments indicate pre-Turkic habitation in the (Indo-Iranian) Hittite period (18th to 12th century BCE). Certain cave-based settlements in Turkey have evidence of habitation since 4000 BCE.
Map of Kandovan/Sahand/Urmia (E. Azarbaijan) Region
|Map of Azarbaizan-e Shargi (East Azarbaijan) Province, Iran. Base map credit: Google maps|
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