‘I travel to Kandovan a lot. I usually drive, taking the mountainous Kargar Boulevard past the garden city of Osku towards a path that’s full of twists and turns. It takes me through villages full of pink roses before leading me to Kandovan, an incredible village that highlights the history of this land.’
Like many residents of Tabriz, the capital of northwestern Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, photographer Saber Alinejad has been making regular excursions 60 kilometres south to the neighbouring village of Kandovan since he was a child. Believed to be more than 700 years old, the sparsely populated, ancient town of around 600 residents welcomes around 300,000 visitors from Tabriz, greater Iran and far beyond each year, all eager to admire its unusual landscape and meet the troglodytes, or cave dwellers, who call it home.
The one-hour journey from Tabriz takes travellers up the hills at the base of Mount Sahand and through Osku Chai, a valley with lush greenery that contrasts starkly with the dull and uniform sandiness of the mountain that borders it. As vehicles edge closer to Kandovan, cone-shaped cave dwellings begin to protrude from the landscape that envelops them, their distinct figure setting them apart from the surrounding rocks.
Windows, electricity cables, clotheslines, doors and chimneys become increasingly discernible with every passing kilometre, marking these aged caves not as archaic dwellings, but contemporary homes. ‘Visiting this landscape for the first time as a child was very strange,’ recalls Alinejad. ‘I didn’t know what to make of these people carving “hives” into volcanic rock.’
As an ensemble, these caves are often compared to an enormous termite colony, explaining why their residents call them ‘karan’, meaning ‘beehives’ in the local Turkic dialect. The meaning of the name Kandovan itself is thought to originate from ‘land of unknown carvers’, indicating its long association with cave dwellers.
Sometime during the last 11 millennia, Iran’s now dormant Mount Sahand erupted, releasing ash and debris that, over thousands of years, settled, hardened and was moulded by the forces of nature into sand-coloured, cone-shaped, hollowed out rocks, which eventually came to house the village’s inhabitants.
While some claim that Kandovan sits atop the ruins of what once was the Garden of Eden, most, including its current residents, define the village’s contemporary cave dwellers as descendants of locals who, centuries ago, used the caves as hiding places from the encroaching Mongol army. Discovering that they actually made for comfortable and practical homes, they decided to continue occupying the caves after the Mongol occupation came to an end, transforming the structures into permanent, multi-storey houses.
Luckily for these villagers, the igneous rock in which the caves were composed was soft enough to be manipulated using hard metal tools with relative ease, while at the same time being dense enough to accommodate multi-level residences. Today, the caves are considered among the world’s most environmentally friendly homes thanks to the warming and cooling properties of the rock, which has significantly limited the need for heaters and air conditioners.
Today’s Kandovan cave dwellings are much more than merely preserved and maintained shelters from centuries ago. The village’s nearly 170 families have consistently enhanced their homes, developing them into the two to four storey houses – equipped with living areas, storage rooms and animal shelters – which visitors to the region are likely to come across today. Porches, windows, doors and stairwells have been carved into the rock, as have tunnels to connect clusters of caves owned by the same family. Some villagers have furnished natural cave formations, while others have hollowed out the malleable rock into larger rooms.
In keeping with the typical image of an Iranian home, the insides of the dwellings are often carpet heavy, adding a splash of Persian colour to the otherwise drab cave walls. Embroidered cushions and flowery curtains, as well as portraits, clocks and other knick-knacks, impart a sense of cosiness to the low-ceilinged and somewhat dim caverns.
For the residents of Kandovan, whose livelihood continues to depend mostly on farming and sheep herding, the village’s abundance of agricultural land provides them with the incentive they need to stay put and carry on with life in their modest caves. A nearby spring produces half a litre of water per second, and is believed to possess healing properties – its ability to dissolve phosphate rocks making it a particularly effective remedy for kidney and bladder stones. ‘For me,’ comments Alinejad, ‘Kandovan represents the hard-working people of this land. These are happy people, they are accustomed to and satisfied with their way of living.’
That doesn’t mean, however, that Kandovan’s resourceful villagers have not taken advantage of the commercial opportunities that a steady and growing flow of tourists has made available. Many have turned parts of their dwellings into stores, selling herbs, spices, honey, handwoven goods and other items native to their region. Some have even transformed their homes into museums, offering visitors a guided tour of life in a Kandovan cave, and the history that made it possible. ‘Kandovan is one of a handful of villages in the world that was carved into rocks,’ says Alinejad, ‘and it’s only here that people continue to inhabit their caves. They have the option of leaving for bigger cities to study and find better work, but many like living here. For them, it’s like being in a sturdy castle.’