Monday, January 30, 2012

Making Gold Out Of Dust – Kashan’s Historic Houses

Photo by Shahram Sharif
In 1993, when the head of UNESCO visited the ancient Iranian city of Kashan, he remarked, “Kashani architects were the greatest alchemists of history. They could make gold out of dust.”

He was referring to the grand merchant houses that Kashan is famous for. Built or expanded in the 19th century, these buildings could easily compete with Iran’s finest royal palaces. Most are divided into three main parts: the andaruni (private rooms for the family in residence), biruni (public areas for entertaining guests), and khadameh (servants’ quarters). The houses feature multiple courtyards with sunken gardens and reflecting pools flanked by flowers and fruit trees, porches facing the courtyards where the families could sit on a balmy summer nights and admire the stars, walls richly decorated with carvings of fruit, flowers, birds, and abstract designs, many of them reflecting the merchant’s specialty trade. In some of these houses, stained glass windows send patterns of colored light dancing across marble floors.

The architects of Kashan’s merchant houses knew how to make the best of a harsh desert climate. They built rooms deep into the earth, where the families would move in summer and enjoy natural air conditioning from the wind towers (badgirs – literally, “wind catchers”), which draw in hot air and cool it on the descent below ground. The south-facing rooms on the surface offered comfortable warmth for winter quarters.

Several years ago, on a trip to Kashan, my husband and I toured several of these magnificent houses, many of which now belong to the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization and have been restored.

We started the tour at the Ameri House, the largest of Kashan’s merchant homes. The original structure dates back to the Zand Dynasty (1750–1794), but Agha Ameri, a merchant who dealt in food and household items, rebuilt the house in the 19th century, turning it into a sprawling complex with seven courtyards and 85 rooms. The walls are decorated with carvings of his merchandise: pots, samovars, pears, and grapes.

Ameri House

You enter the house through double wooden doors with the region’s traditional metal knockers on the front. One knocker is rectangular and solid, with intricate, embossed designs. The other is round and hollow without any ornamentation. The solid knocker is intended for male visitors and the round one for women, and each makes a distinctive sound so the residents of the house always knows which gender is knocking at the front door.

In the very heart of Kashan stand two houses that are linked by an underground passage and a common history. The story goes like this: Seyed Hassan Natanzi, a carpet merchant who earned the nickname Boroujerdi through the lively trade he conducted with the town of Boroujerd, approached another carpet dealer, Jafar Tabatabei, with a marriage proposal on behalf of Boroujerdi’s son. Tabatabei had no objection to the match. But he did have one condition – that Boroujerdi build the bride a house as lovely as the one she grew up in.

When a father sets such a condition, what he really means is, “build a bigger and better one.” Apparently Boroujerdi understood this subtext very well because, starting in 1857, it took him eighteen years, 150 workmen, and likely plenty of frayed nerves to build a house for the happy “newlyweds.” I can’t help wondering where the poor little rich girl lived in the meantime. Certainly not in a half-built house with the chaos and noise of construction all around her. Very likely she moved in with the groom’s family and dreamed of the day when she’d be the mistress of her own place.

Boroujerdi House

The distinctive feature of the Boroujerdi House is the design of its wind towers, which are hexagonal instead of the usual square shape. A reception hall at one end of the main courtyard features stalactite-shaped moldings and frescoes by Kamal-e Molk, the most famous Iranian artist of the time.
The Tabatabei House has four major courtyards with fountains and pools at the center, domed ceilings with skylights that reflect sunlight onto richly decorated walls, and entire banks of stained glass windows in patterns of red, blue, and green. Carvings on the walls depict floral sprays, cypress trees, and diamond-shaped designs typical of a Persian carpet. Agha Boroujerdi had his work cut out to top this palatial home.

Tabatabei House
Photo by Matthias Blume

We visited Kashan during Ramadan, and arrived at the Tabatabei House just before dusk. A crew of men and women were preparing iftar, the meal that breaks the day’s fast, and were busy setting out plates of flat bread, cheese, herbs, walnuts, and dates.

The crew told us that they were getting ready to welcome a group of children who were to attend a ceremony celebrating the revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed (which is what Ramadan is all about). With true Iranian hospitality, they offered us zoolbia, a date-syrup-drenched pastry that is a typical Ramadan treat.

Preparing for iftar

That evening, we drove away from Kashan with stories of brides and carpet merchants in our heads, the visions of secret gardens and towering badgirs before our eyes, and the sweet taste of dates on our tongues.


  1. This is a beautiful post that entices the senses. I love the look into Iranian culture with the two door knockers, and I especially like the descriptions of the house you visited. Thank you. I learn so much from you.

  2. Thanks, Patricia! I've been fascinated by the door knockers ever since I first saw it in Iran. I'd love to have a pair of them on my door: one for friends and one for people trying to sell me stuff I don't want. :)

  3. Oh, what a great idea. You could have an electrical jolt that only your friends would know how to disarm. Even if those pesky sales people took the wrong knocker just to fool you, they'd get the juice!

  4. very very good Article about historic city Kashan. Old Iranian hoses are very big because many people from one family live there.
    Today you can`t find easy this houses that have family live there.

    Thanks a lot. RT on our twitter :)

  5. Thanks so much for your comments and retweet, Iranian Interior Architecture! It's true that family life is changing everywhere. These houses gives us a glimpse of the past.

  6. Such gorgeous pictures too, Heidi, kudos. It's wonderful to see the government preserving the history of these buildings so beautifully.

    And yes, I need a pair of those door knockers too (the old-fashioned version of ring tones?) ... add a pair of those to my shopping list for your next trip. Better yet, take me with you. I'll help carry your purchases.

  7. Sure, no problem, Supriya. You can carry my purchases anytime. You must might want to work out vigorously before we leave. I spend a lot of time at the bazaar. :)

    Yes, ring tones, exactly...

  8. We drove away from Kashan with stories of brides and carpet merchants in our heads, the visions of secret gardens and towering badgirs before our eyes, and the sweet taste of dates on our post thanku for sharing

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