“Azizam, my friend, is this a town of closed small scale industries?” I ask Shahram.
Yazd, central Iran. Located by the fierce Bafgh desert, it is one of the oldest living cities in the world, with its history firmly rooted in the Median empire in the 6th century BCE, if not before. As I pull my trolley suitcase along Shahram’s cycle, walking to his home from the point where my Varzaneh friend Javed has just dropped me, I notice that perhaps one out of every three houses has a chimney jutting out of its roof, but none emanating smoke. Hence my attempted humour, which falls flat on Shahram.
“Oh no no, doostam,” he replies in all seriousness, “Ours is an agricultural economy. And of course as even Marco Polo noted, we have a very old and vibrant silk weaving industry as well.” Of course I knew that these chimney-like structures couldn’t be factory chimneys. Noticing that my joke has gone up in smoke, I ask him straight about the mystery of these structures.
“Oh! These? These are Badgirs. Don’t you know Yazd is also known as the Shahar-i-Badgirha? The city of Badgirs.”
What I learn is yet another marvelous example of ancient technology that does not tamper with the environment by launching an assault on it. A badgir is a windcatcher, an air-conditioner based on architectural designing, which doesn’t poison the air, unlike modern ACs. This is how an article in one of the leading peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world, Scientific American (February, 1978), introduces a Badgir to its readers: “They have no energy sources other than the sun and wind, and yet they circulate cool air through buildings and traditionally provided cold water and ice for the hot summer of the country’s arid regions.” In scientific parlance it is called ‘passive cooling system’ (1). It doesn’t use electricity, and has virtually no recurring cost.
Modern scientific experiments have proven that Badgir can bring down 40 degree Celsius air-temperature to 29.3 degrees. The architectural marvel takes into account the complicated hydrodynamic relation between wind velocity, wind pressure, air temperature and humidity. In very simple terms it constitutes a hexagonal tower that is placed in the middle of a building. The base of the tower is a little above the floor and it rises some 10 feet above the roof.
Inside the tower is a complex arrangement of vents that enables it to suck in fresh air and blow out CO2 heavy hot air like a chimney. Faced with the unbearable blast of singeing wind from the desert, civilizations across West Asia had devised their own varieties of Badgirs over centuries of experimentation. In the plushest of green buildings in the developed world, such as the Saint Etienne Metrpol’s Zenith in France, architects are using the best advantages of the Badgir technology. In Yazd Bagh-i-Dolat Abad demonstrates to me the effect of a Badgir.
True, it is an early October evening. The weather outside is comfortable enough for an Indian in a full-sleeve cotton shirt. The building at the centre of the large garden is unmistakable because of it decoratively lit wind-tower piercing into the dark sky. It’s really cold.
The cooling technology of the Dolat Abad Garden house, with its 108.26 Ft high wind-tower, the tallest in Iran, however, for me is at the best a keen curiosity. What really holds me in that place for more than an hour is its garden.
Many years ago reclining on a bench on the Greenwich Park hill, with the deep green plantation of medieval chestnut trees receding into the vast light green field leading up to the National Maritime Museum, the Thames and the Canary Wharf district of London, in a lazy afternoon the meaning of the expression emerald bower had dawned upon me. It’s not just about lush green trees and a shady retreat underneath. It’s a spiritual-cultural escape from the ruthlessness of life. In Bagh-i-Dolat Abad I experience a deeper and more complete shade of that retreat. Later I was to reflect and research into what really made the difference. In a simplistic single word: water!
Flowing water, and water spraying out of fountains. The vision of water and the sound of water.
Bagh-i-Dolatabad is one of the finest examples of the Persian Garden, 13 of which around the world have been enlisted as World Heritage Site. I have had the great fortune to visit several of them: the Chehel Sotoun garden in Isfahan, the Eram garden in Shiraz, the Shalimar Garden in Lahore, and our own Taj Mahal and Humayun Tomb’s gardens in Agra and Delhi. And with these, their closest relatives, the Shalimar and Nishat gardens of Srinagar, Kashmir. Indeed it is a deep spiritual experience to be in a Persian Garden, a whole separate chapter in the history of urban designing.
Shahram takes me around many of the ‘tourists attractions’ of Yazd: the Amir Chakmak Square, the beautiful Masjid Jameh, the Zorastrian temple Atish Gah so on and so forth. We exchange our views on civilization. Although he is a Muslim, he has a keen interest in Zoroastrian religion. But that’s normal. Before the invasion of the Arabs, Yazd was the centre of Zoroastrian religion in Iran. I realize he is no less confused with religion than I am. In this connection, I ask him about the Islamic regime’s law that forces women to cover their heads. Shahram’s reply in this matter, however, was simple and crystal clear: “I think it’s ridiculous.” That’s all he said on the subject.
In an afternoon of dazzling colourful storm clouds looming over us, we enter into a 15th century Madrasa, an Islamic school, curiously called “Alexander’s Prison” in the ancient district of the town. This rumour about the place being Alexander’s Prison, emanates from a dungeon in the courtyard of the Madrasa. No one knows, though, why was this underground pit ever built. But there is no credible remaining evidence of Alexander’s marauding army in that place. The place which is replete with evidences of the devastation caused by Alexander, I visited a few days later.