Calling on Kashan

Exploring the labyrinthine underground — and enchanting overground — of an ancient Iranian city

A narrow walkway of underground village, Oui is hand dug from clay. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Quietly situated between two famous destinations of Iran, Tehran and Esfahan, Kashan is a peaceful town most tourists may skip. But its hidden gems are stunning to explore.

Nestled in the embrace of a snow-capped mountain range, Kashan is a sleepy town off the beaten track. At first sight, there is nothing outstanding here. Under the strong sunlight, low-rise houses in earth tones scatter side by side with the desert.

The town reminds me of Tatooine, the desert realm from Star Wars. If a spaceship flew over my head or Storm Troopers show up at the corner, I would not be surprised.

My Iranian guide, Reza Rahimian Pour, walks me through a quiet lane and through a big door. Behind the door, a narrow staircase leads to a lower floor. I find myself in an underground garden hidden in a traditional Persian house.

Inside the old underground cistern in Nooshabad. Peerawat Jariyasombat

It is Boroujerdi House, one of many historic houses of Kashan. Its rectangular garden is dug some three to four metres beneath ground level, surrounded by luxurious rooms and terraces on all sides. While I'm taking pictures of stucco and decoration in traditional Persian residential style, Pour calls me into a spacious chamber a floor below.

"The wind towers you see from above connect to the underground chamber for air ventilation. Moisture from the underground will be released through the tower also. It is the Iranian-style basement. As the temperature in this underground chamber is quite stable, it's comfortable compared with the extreme weather outside, particularly during the winter and summer," my guide explains.

There are quite a number of underground houses in Kashan. Most of them were built two centuries ago and remain in good shape.

Indeed, the people of Kashan have utilised underground space for a long time. In Nooshabad, a town north of Kashan, there is an underground village called Oui.

From ground level, I walk down steep stairs leading to the bottom of an old cistern, which is not used anymore. Dating back to the Safavid Era some 300-500 years ago, this oldest cistern fed the adjacent underground village whose entrance is just steps away.

Through a narrow walkway dug into clay, I slowly explore the underground village. The walkway system, which is a labyrinth, leads to small rooms, rest rooms, subterranean waterways and enemy traps. With four levels, it spreads out as wide as the town on the ground. Besides the main entrance, the underground village connects to the town above through shafts from kitchens or courtyards.

The wonderful Bagh-e Fin. Peerawat Jariyasombat

With such a system, people can live in this shelter for days or weeks.

"We think it is a war shelter. People in the old days temporarily lived here to hide from invaders. Actually, we find this huge underground shelter covers more than 4,000m² with four levels. What we open to the tourists is just tiny parts; otherwise, they will get lost for sure."

The hand-dug structure date back to the Sasanian period (224-651 AD) and the beginning of Islam, and was used until some 200 years ago, before its main entrance was buried under mud by a big flood and neglected thereafter. It was found a decade ago by a farmer.

"They named it 'Oui'. Probably, it is the easiest code when they shout for emergency, in case they want to inform their families to seek refuge in this underground complex."

But Kashan does have very nice places on the ground, one of them being Bagh-e Fin.

Built in the early 16th century, the historical Persian garden is well-hidden behind high earthen walls on all sides among a largely desert landscape. The crystal-clear stream from the nearby Karkas Mountain feeds springs and pools that enliven the shady garden and provide relief from the summer heat for the pavilions inside. The garden layout is comprised of a quadrangle of trees such as cyprus, almond, apple and cherry, as well as shrubs of flowering plants. Some trees are up to 500 years old.

Such a peaceful atmosphere undoubtedly makes it a favourite place for both locals and tourists.

One highlight of the garden is a two-storey pool house called "shotor gelou", with water running through the middle of the ground floor. But most Iranians prefer to visit a bathhouse or hammam, where chancellor Amir Kabir was murdered by Shah's order in 1852.

These are just some of surprises hidden in Kashan. This sleepy town has many more places to explore.

The courtyard of Boroujerdi House and its underground chambers. Peerawat Jariyasombat

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