In northeast Iran, at the foot of Mount Sahand volcano, lies the village of Kandovan where villagers live in cave homes carved out from volcanic rock. These homes may be some of the best examples of passive design in the world – where the structures were formed by nature, reportedly creating some of the most energy efficient homes on Earth. The rock provides excellent thermal mass and insulation to keep the interiors comfortable throughout the long cold season and during the hot summer. Most houses face south so residents enjoy sunlight during the day, through windows of decorative glass. Even though the 700-year-old homes have been modernized with electricity, water and waste plumbing, they usually need no supplemental heating or cooling. The houses are two to four stories; typically, the ground floor is used for animals, the first and second floors as living areas, and the top floor for storage.
The rock itself is from a volcanic eruption about 11,000 years ago that left ash and debris from Mount Sahand to compress and harden into cone-shaped rocks – sometimes compared to a giant termite colony. Over hundreds of years, the people of the village expanded and upgraded their residences to include porches, windows, doors, balconies and stairwells carved into the rock. There is also a spring-fed water source that runs through the village and is reputed to offer curative effects, while providing irrigation for the terraced gardens and animals. People in Kandovan subsist by selling dairy products, meat, wool, honey, handcrafts and dried vegetables, and tourism. About 300,000 people visit Kandovan each year, sometimes staying in the village’s 5-star Cliff Hotel dug out from the rock. Known as modern- day cave dwellers, or troglodytes, the present inhabitants of Kandovan can trace their history back to the Mongol invasion of Persia in the 13th century when a group of settlers escaped to the village. It is unknown why the peculiar volcanic ash cones formed in Kandovan and nowhere else; but today, Mount Sahand lies dormant with a crater lake encircled by twelve peaks, the tallest of which rises to a height of 12,162 feet.
Legend has it that Kandovan’s first inhabitants moved there in the 13th century to escape from the invading Mongol army. They dug hideouts in the volcanic rocks but eventually decided to settle in these caves which they gradually developed and transformed into multi-storey, permanent houses. Since then, many generations of their descendants have continued living in the same houses.
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
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.
The attractions of Kandovan, however, are not restricted to its unusual cave dwellings. It is located in a green and scenic valley where wild plants and particularly natural spring waters are reputed to have healing properties. The spring waters which are traditionally used to cure kidney problems draw many people from surrounding towns and beyond to this area. The combination of Kandovan’s natural landscape and resources, and above all the unique way in which its inhabitants have adapted to the environment, has made it a popular destination for visitors.
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