Monday, July 21, 2014

The Modern-Day Cave Dwellers of Kandovan


One of the places to see on my Iran bucket list has always been Kandovān, just outside of Tabriz in the northwestern province of East Azerbaijan. The first time I saw pictures of the cone-shaped houses of this village, I wanted to go there. It seemed reminiscent of the pictures I had seen of Cappadocia, Turkey. In Persian, people often refer to the houses as kaleh ghandi, sugar cube heads, which simply refers to their cone shape. I remember my grandmother always used to buy kaleh ghand and then come home and break it up into pieces with a pick and hammer. They are also used at weddings when a family member slowly grinds 2 kaleh ghand together over a cloth over the bride and groom’s head so that their life may be full of sweetness. 

I snapped this shot of kaleh ghand from a store in Yazd. I knew it would come in handy one day.

Meanwhile, back in Kandovān, my Tabrizi cousin made my dream come true and helped me scratch one more place off my list. We arrived early in the morning because otherwise it gets rather crowded. The first thing I noticed was a whole lot of stores selling herbs and spices, honey, and handmade woven goods. You almost wouldn’t know that these kaleh ghand homes are inhabited until you start to trek up a bit. Suddenly I was met with lots of electrical wiring, and windows and homes carved inside the volcanic rocks from the eruption of the now dormant Mount Sahand. I've heard varying numbers as to how old Kandovan is. Some sources say it was the 13th century when the first inhabitants dug hideouts in the rock to escape the Mongol army; Others say it dates as far back as 3000 years when Zoroastrian Medes inhabited the region.  

You can get a glimpse of what the insides of these homes look like as you make your way around the stores. The material and thick walls provide insulation such that it’s nice and cool in the summer and keeps in the heat in the winter. There is even a hotel with these kinds of traditional rooms should you wish to stay there the night.

Inside a traditional home

One of the handmade products that I hadn’t seen before in Iran was the pottery that had weaving around it. I was tempted to buy an entire samovar set complete with the tray and teacups, but I settled for a pen holder instead- much more practical, much easier to transport. 

Something you may want to try is saghez, gum in the local Turkish language. It comes from trees, kind of like a sap. My cousin was explaining this to me when I said, Oh, so it’s like ādāms, gum. A young local passed me and in true matalak, wisecrack, form said, “Khānum, don’t change the name! It’s called saghez”. I didn’t care much for the taste, and maybe I chewed wrong or something, but only part of mine stuck together like gum. The rest stuck to my teeth, and I spent the rest of our time there picking off pieces in between camera shots. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to try. 

Saghez on the left; Shirin bayan (like liquorice) on the right

At the end of our visit, as we made our way back to the car, we encountered a sweet Japanese lady traveling solo. She’d been traveling the world for 5 years, and it was her second visit to Iran. Who said Iran was dangerous?

If you go to Tabriz, make sure you visit Kandovan- even for just a few hours. That’s all you need, really.


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