In a country blighted by mass urbanisation and mediocre planning, Iran’s mountain villages retain a strong sense of vernacular identity
On the northern slope of the Alborz mountains and in sight of the Caspian Sea, villages are scattered along the sides of a stream in the hollow of a valley, the way they were thousands of years ago. These intact human habitats come as a total surprise in today’s Iranian landscape. A mythological throwback to the original descent of Adam and Eve to the Alborz mountains whence they moved to Mesopotamia and Sumer in the Zagros mountains. The Old Testament refers to Khazar – the Persian name for Caspian – as one of the first Jewish tribes to settle in the Middle East.
Today’s Iranian scenery bears few traces of its glorious past, even that of just 30 years ago. Ravages of ad hoc mediocre urbanisation – the result of cheap energy and poor planning – spread ad infinitum along highways, obliterating the promise of the garden of paradise.
But the presence of two important long stretches of mountain ranges – Alborz and Zagros – that wrap around the desertic high plateaux of the heartland pose a real obstacle to the disastrous environmental laissez-faire policies rampant elsewhere and are what truly saves the country. These jagged almost inaccessible summits are covered in snow over the winter months and some remain iced white even during the summer, providing water for the people in the valleys.
The climate contrasts dramatically with the torrid heat of the mainland. Most of the valleys are fertile. Walnut and almond trees, fruits and herbs are naturally grown. Villages unfold as a mirage on a well shaded side of the mountain, willow trees extend in a thin line along a watercourse and suddenly you capture the full meaning of sustainability.
The mountainside facing the Caspian Sea has a surprising microclimate of its own: leafy, fertile and wet. Forests of pine and oak trees in the heights, orange and lemon trees on lower slopes and tea fields on foothills provide work and wealth for communities living in the mountain villages. Plantations of rice –which was imported from India – have shrouded the Caspian littoral since the 17th century. Most of that has disappeared in recent years due to unsustainable development, land speculation and tourism, leaving the Caspian Sea’s shore polluted and in a sorry shape.
The developments expanded along the coast in the total absence of regulations and infrastructure. Buildings are swollen by the rising sea level and your promenade on the beach might conclude in a magma of broken reinforced concrete piers. Sewage flows directly into the sea or the affluent rivers.
As one moves away from the only – severely congested – coast road and drives on, a fine mist of cool rain alternates with dazzling sunshine. Very soon the chaotic constructions disappear and the sea appears in the distance, a deep blue cut by the green fringe of the forest. The road twists around, often along a river, the woods impenetrable as in the heart of a tropical forest. We are only 20 kilometres away from the confusion.
Alongside a source which becomes a waterfall appears a group of houses, a mass of mud and brick gracefully leaning on the rocks, timeless. Women and children in colourful dresses and healthy pink chins appear and disappear from roof terraces and let you dream of a different world free of waste and black veils. These houses are built of wood, mudbrick dried naturally in open air and clad with a mixture of mud, straw and natural glue which has to be redone every autumn before the rain season. Interiors are painted with lime. Built on rocks, they have no foundations. Small windows in different walls provide natural ventilation.
The heating and cooking partly use the wood collected from the forests and partly the oil brought down from stores. Men work on their tea fields or orchards and you see them climbing the narrow road at sunset when the mud village turns into lustrous orange.
Iranian mountains shelter an unknown number of these magical yet simple human habitats stretching back centuries, modestly self-renovating, self-sufficient, and never listed on any heritage inventory.
Nasrine Faghih is an Iranian architect who has worked for UNESCO. Having written and lectured extensively on Persian art and architecture, here she looks at the strong sense of vernacular identity maintained by Iran’s mountain villages.