ISFAHAN`S DOVECOTES METU JFA 2009/1 (26:1) 177-186

METU JFA 2009/1


Aryan AMIRKHANI, Parham BAGHAIE, Ali Akbar TAGHVAEE, Mohammad Reza POURJAFAR, Mojtaba ANSARI

First Received: 15.11.2008, Final Text: 16.01.2009 Keywords: dovecotes; architecture; Iran; Isfahan; Safavid; fertilizer.

Architectural heritage is considered a fundamental issue in the life of modern societies. In addition to their historical interest, cultural heritage buildings are valuable because they contribute significantly to the economy by providing key attractions at a time when tourism and leisure are major industries. The need for preserving historical constructions is thus not only a cultural requirement, but also an economical and developmental demand. Herein, among different Iranian heritage buildings, pigeon towers, or dovecotes, are of a great importance. Hundreds of dovecotes, dating largely to the Safavid period, dot the fields in the vicinity of Isfahan. Distinct examples of secular architecture in Iran, these structures played an important role, similar to subterranean canal systems (qanats) in sustaining the hinterland that made possible an eventual urban center at Isfahan. The turrets built with the purpose of collecting pigeon dung were a significant source of local revenue and were frequently decorated with white plaster and crenelations. Each pigeon tower could accommodate thousands of Persian wild pigeons, accommodating annual harvests of dung for field manure and for the softening of leather in Isfahan’s famed tanneries. Agriculture in the fertile but nitrogen-lacking Isfahan plains was largely supported in this manner, and the legendary melons grown in the region were particularly dependent on this fertilizer. Due to the production of chemical and other types of fertilizers, the use of pigeon droppings as fertilizer is no longer considered economical or practical. However, the notion of towers acting as natural collection points for waste that is subsequently used as fertilizer epitomizes humans working with nature in a common alliance. INTRODUCTION Pigeons were found in human settlements in Egypt and the Middle East since the dawn of agriculture, probably attracted to seeds people planted for their crops. In the Middle East, wild rock pigeons found safe havens in

Overall.040. humans found utility in their food and eggs.178 METU JFA 2009/1 AryAN AMIrKHANI et al. Under its influence. Major physical obstacles do not exist as far as 90 km north of Isfahan. 23-41). IRAN Isfahan or Eşfahān (historically also rendered as Ispahan. in the lush Zayandeh-roud plain. Initially. which left much of the city in ruins. a method for generating large quantities of fertilizers was imminent. the city was promoted to the provincial capital (Singer and Baldridge. Isfahan is located on the main north-south and east-west routes crossing Iran. Geography Isfahan is geographically located at 51° 29’ eastern longitude and 32° 38’ northern latitude. History In 642. Isfahan has been designated by UNESCO as a world heritage city. averaging between 100 and 150 mm (Kasmaie. 123-4). Isfahan’s climate is varied with occasional precipitation. but soon realized that their rich. Although the Afghans were a primary cause of Isfahan’s decline. Pigeon towers represent one of the most remarkable examples of eccentricity in Iranian architecture. Colorado in terms of altitude and precipitation (Qobadian and Feyz. but bordered in the north and east by fertile plains. the towers acted as a natural collection point for waste which could then be used as fertilizer. 82). About a century later. this can also be attributed to the development of maritime commerce by European merchants from . who maintained it as capital. dry droppings made for valuable fertilizer. 1936. it was conquered by the Afghans after a long siege. 28). located about 340 km south of Tehran. and in 1387. who made it the capital of the Safavid Dynasty. Isfahan was conquered by the Seljuk Turks under Toghril Beg. In 1051. Hence. The city enjoys a temperate climate and regular seasons (Qobadian. The famous Islamic philosopher. 2006. 1984. lived and taught there in the 11th century. at the foothills of the Zagros Mountain range. 2006. special pigeon towers were built so that thousands of pigeons could breed in them. Taking advantage of their natural environment. 1999. the city was conquered in a bloody war with Tamerlane. in 1722. It receives an average of 119. Avicenna. The southern and western approaches of Isfahan are mountainous. nest holes in the earliest human houses. 2004. The city flourished under Seljuk’s rule until about 1200(Stevens. with cool northern winds blowing from this direction. is the capital of Isfahan Province and is Iran’s third largest city (after Tehran and Mashhad) (Afshar Sistani. their droppings accumulating at their base. Middle Persian Spahān). with many of the magnificent buildings in the city dating to this time. and is situated at 1590m above sea level. The Golden Age of Isfahan came in the 17th century under Shah Abbas I. By attracting wild pigeons with seed and a safe place to roost. At a time when chemical fertilizers did not exist. ISFAHAN.5 mm of rain per year. 68-70). With a population of 2. the architects of Isfahan created pigeon towers. The pigeon towers of Isfahan are a perfect example of humans and nature working together in the name of mutual interest. 1962. 322-3). making it similar to Denver. Islam was introduced to Isfahan. Old Persian Aspadana.000 in 2000. 112). boasting a wide variety of Islamic Architectural sites ranging from the 11th to 19th centuries (Bakhtiyar and Dehbashi.

Figure 1. Unfortunately.000 birds. 140-5). (rafiei Mihrabadi. These seem to have more highly developed plans than any others now extant. Timber was seldom used. 128-30. 1974. 1999. Generations of travelers have recorded the marvels of Isfahan and most have been sufficiently amazed and intrigued to comment on the extraordinary dovecotes which dot the hazy green sea of orchards and gardens surrounding the city. 2004. unbaked mud brick plastered with mud. Their fascinating ground plans show rhythm. Figure 3. Darmirchi. The larger towers are free-standing. Interior of the central drum of the east tower on the Hazar Jarib. the resulting vaults and domes can be individually considered to b e works of art.35). Others brood protectively. deceptively akin to bastions or corner towers in a defense system. Dovecotes were constructed to produce large quantities of high-quality organic fertilizer for Isfahan’s rich market gardens. 51-4). Mirza and Mazahiri. Amazing inventiveness has gone into solving the basic problem of the provision of the maximum number of pigeon holes with a minimum amount of building material. It would be interesting to know if any architectural parallels still exist in Azerbaijan.ISFAHAN`S DOVECOTES METU JFA 2009/1 179 countries such as the Netherlands. 2006). with the sequence of solid and void comparing with the best architecture of that building tradition. 2006. the utter sculptural form and intricate interior patterns alone would make for a worthwhile expedition to Isfahan. Plan of Hazar Jarib towers believed to date from the reign of Shah Abbas. however. required great ingenuity. Their practical purpose was to collect pigeon manure that had been found to be beneficial in melon fields. dating proves to be difficult. The material. a European traveler counted up to 3000 dovecotes in the Isfahan area of Persia (Hadizadeh. 68-70). As in all traditional vernacular buildings. (see Figure 2). but trade dwindled as the cheaper sea routes increased in popularity for transporting commodities between Asia and Europe. (Hadizadeh Khaki. 2. over 300 historic dovecotes have been identified in Isfahan Province and a total of 65 have been registered on the National Heritage List (rafiei. (Hadizadeh Khaki. but unstrategically. The largest dovecotes could house 14. 118-24). 1974). 2006). 2007. 1818. It is possible that they were introduced by the Armenian architects and craftsmen from Julfa in Azerbaijan who settled by way of decree of the Shah to work in Isfahan. Isfahan’s wealth originated in its role as a chief way station along the Trans-Asia Trade route. Today. there is a scarcity of traveler reports during the period preceding that of Shah ‘Abbas when they architecturally appear the most elaborate. The only two (Figure 1-4) to which a period is even ascribed are thought to have been built during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas (1587-1629) in the great royal gardens of the Hazar Jarib (“thousand acres”). but many smaller ones are built into the walls of gardens. as the whole structure must have been designed to withstand compression. which compels one to infer that a considerable tradition lies behind them (Mirdanesh. . It was only in the 20th century under reza Shah Pahlavi that the city was finally revived (Jabiri. Figure 4. Furthermore. over the flat mud roofs of village houses. The west tower in the Hazar Jarib. Isfahan`s Ancient Dovecotes Dovecotes are a great example of striking eccentricity in Iranian architecture. and were decorated in distinctive red bands so as to be easily recognizable to the pigeons. In the 17th century. but no evidence has been found either to support or refute this theory (Morier.

However. a three-tier tower is exemplified (Figure 5. 2000). 148). Whether this is done at the time when the brick was made or whether it was put into position beforehand is not clear. which provides its architectural fascination. (Ishraqi F. The main drum is divided vertically by the galleries that interrupt the buttresses. 32). Each tower essentially consists of an outer drum battered for stability and buttressed internally to prevent collapse. Figure 6. and are connected by a circular staircase (Mattewes. 6) (Ishraqi. From Kaempfer`s Amoenitatum Exoticarum. the domes are pierced to allow the birds to fly up and down.. similarly. in the Hazar Jarib 1684-85. 1951. 8b. (Ferrier. “Columbarium”. 1712. Pigeon holes in inner buttresses. 1954. The galleries are further supported on barrel vaults and saucer domes. Most builders seem to have been content to build the outer wall as a simple drum. Much of the sculptural quality of the structure is due pigeon holes measuring 20 cm x 20 cm x 27 cm above mud perches (Figure 8a. Figure 5. 194-6. The eastern tower (Figure 7) could be thought of as a cluster of eight small drums around a larger central drum. 2000. In Kaempfer’s Amoenitatum Exoticarum. Sarfarazi. etc. 8b). 1974). Between the buttresses. the smaller top side of the pyramid forms a horizontal perch and the other sides slope away. Each perch is made of an asymmetrical mud pyramid of four unequal sides whose square base is clapped. alternately hollowed out and internally buttressed. plus four in the central drum. with lateral support provided by an inner drum that raises half as high. 43). (rafiei Mihrabadi. When in position. Lerngo. Figure 7. the inner and outer drums are connected by open arches at every level. of honeycomb brickwork at roof level (Pratt. regardless of whether or not it is curved on plan of the standard. This allows for an increase in the surface area of the walls and therefore a concomitant increase in the number of pigeon holes (Honarfar. 78). Looking up the central drum of the tower. Figure 8a. the two aforementioned towers attributed to the late 16th or early 17th century in the Hazar Jarib enjoy the further refinement of a corrugated outer wall that increases the stability of these larger towers without an increase in wall thickness. while damp. 2006). making access to the neighboring holes easier for the pigeons next door. 1990. The eastern tower in the Hazar Jarib (Hadizadeh Khaki. 2007. 1712. not superiorly. The compelling quality of the interior of the towers comes from pattern repetition on every vertical surface. One of these crowns the inner drum while others ring the flat roof of the main drum below and vary in number according to the ground plan. on to the vertical brick face below the hole.180 METU JFA 2009/1 AryAN AMIrKHANI et al. 1989). . The pigeons enter only through the domed cupolas or “pepper-pots” with holes in lateral walls. A tower still in use at Chahar Burj has twenty. which look like the spokes of a wheel on plan.

91-5). It was not until the KhunsarGulpayagan area to the north-west of Isfahan was explored that we came upon big rectangular towers reminiscent of small forts. 43-5) This smooth surface may have been to prevent the entry of reptiles. . In Isfahan itself. Surprisingly. 1983. towards Gavart. which were battered at the base. The towers are entered once a year for the collection of manure. Even the two well-known towers in the Hazar Jarib. even the most exotic ones Table 1. with nine built into garden walls. Towers were usually relatively separate from their neighbors. There are various designs of pigeon towers based on their capacity. One tower presumed to be in use. different tastes of their constructors. there were also a large number of small pigeon towers of the usual circular plan. 1998. 2007).25 m x 4. Such attractive pigeon tower designs typify the traditional Persian enjoyment and mastery of pattern and color. however. External decoration varies according to the grandness of the tower. (Mirdanesh. is sealed. a mud-brick building without timbers to take tensile stress might be expected to crack badly in such conditions (Mc Cann. to the east of Isfahan. A small door (occasionally.ISFAHAN`S DOVECOTES METU JFA 2009/1 181 Figure 9. The top of the walls were crenellated. This consisted of a two-storey outer structure 10 m high. It is thought that the cause of structural cracks (Figure 9) was the tremendous vibration set up by the wings of the thousands of terrified birds if a snake got into the tower (Ferrier. The walls. there are two). Some were sited singly while others were grouped. Tables 1 and Table 2 divide the pigeon towers of Isfahan into eight groups. Some cracks may also have been caused by earthquakes. Tower near Ateshgah. although much more complex. Different kinds of Isfahan`s pigeon towers (Authors). set close together in the small village. are based on a circle. A typical tower measured 12.45 m at the base and rose 7 to 8 m. Their plans have been similar to that of the square tower in the ruined village of Jozdan. all of the towers seen at that time were circular in plan. (Sarfarazi. 1990. as it was in very good repair. 1989: 54-8). had no entrance below roof level. usually at ground level. were decorated by a board plastered band 2 to 3 m above the ground. surrounding a threestorey inner tower. This was almost certainly to reduce the danger of snakes. although a large number might occasionally occur in a small area (Bourgeois. 168).

their chief function in Europe. a snake might otherwise creep up the drum of the tower. 108-14). In Persia similar eating habits might have been expected. although they are flavorful. Thomas Herbert. 2006). aided by the rough kahgil (mud/straw) plaster of its surface. 2002. Despite the high value of their manure. This free. Although hundreds of towers have disappeared. Perhaps these intricate decorations were in use before the smooth plaster bands were introduced. 10b). a 17th century Figure 10a. The honeycomb brickwork. Moreover. (Hadizadeh Khaki. The fact that we refer to these birds as pigeons and not as doves is in itself a reflection of the fact that there is a very long-standing tradition of sacredness surrounding this particular bird. of which the cultivation of melons and water melons was the most important. . 10b. 2003. is by itself very decorative and is usually carried around both drums as a balustrade. 117). besides providing an effective decorative capping to the wall. giving the birds somewhere to perch (Akay. usually colored in lime wash or red ocher are certainly for this purpose (Figure 10a. which gives the pigeons access through the cupolaed turrets. Both towers and birds belonged to the landlord who paid a tax to the Shah on the manure sold (Olgyay. It is also remarkable that the Persians do not eat pigeons. It was the most valuable in Persia and was mixed with ash and soil in varying proportions for different purposes. Table 2. tucked in to pigeon-pie. along with others scattered around Isfahan. when the peasant had little redress if the landlord’s pigeons ate his corn. it is surprising to an outsider that the towers did not emphasize the provision of pigeon meat. demonstrate a dual function of allowing entry of pigeons while preventing entry of snakes. but semi-domesticated bird living close to human dwellings is often felt to be an appropriate symbol for the soul. 2004. The bands of smooth gach plaster. but their function seems to be undermined by the addition of buttresses.182 METU JFA 2009/1 AryAN AMIrKHANI et al. string courses of brick and molded mud or brick cornices and friezes. Different kinds of Isfahan`s pigeon towers (Authors). During Shah`s time. also provide projections that snakes would find difficult to navigate. Mirzaie. In medieval England. they were common and Church as well as lay landlords. Smooth plaster bands were to prevent snakes climbing the towers. there may be as many as fifty still in use in the Gavart area. the function of the towers was the collection of manure.

Although the birds were not taken for food. pleasantly seated in gardens. CONCLUSION Pigeon houses were an important part of the agricultural sector of the Safavid Era.ISFAHAN`S DOVECOTES METU JFA 2009/1 183 traveler. Fryer (1672-81). on a journey up to Isfahan from Shiraz “encountered almost in every village old castles made of mud and almost turned to earth again: in whose stead. writing in 1660. Farmers constructed the buildings in bygone days in order to obtain pigeon droppings that they used to fertilize their fields. the plans reproduced here seem to be the only ones in existence. . Memarian. There has been a significant drop in pigeon tower numbers from the thousands reported in 17th century accounts of Safavid Isfahan by French traveler Chardin. 1928. It is much hoped that funds will be found to prevent further decay. since no other source suggests it.” (Pirnia. refers to the structures in only one sentence that may give a clue into how ancient they are. Olearius. Unfortunately.” Perhaps such practices have not quite ended. 117). 2003. within which there were about a thousand nests. 272-6). after describing how much grander the dovecotes of Mehiar (Mahyar) were than the ordinary house. while some others communicated to him intelligence from some angel”(Herbert. We were carried to the top of a great tower. which were most of them killed by the King and those of his company. No one knows exactly when construction of the pigeon houses began. explains: “This reason they give: some of the pigeons (as tradition persuades at least) are descended from Noah’s dove. It reads: “Ghazan Khan. They have been mistaken for city towers over the years. Incidentally. In any case. for today it is a popular sport to drive the pigeons out of the qanats by throwing stones into the well and catching the birds by hand or hitting them with sticks. It will be seen that much remains to be found out about the towers. while Europeans lived well on pigeon squabs. for the sake of their dung. to the present day count of approximately one hundred remaining in the entire province. The two great Towers of the Shah Abbas period in Hazar Jarib have already lost their turrets and most of the roofs have vanished. a more representative survey could be very interesting. The King commanded our trumpets to sound the charge. 136). The structures have been deteriorating with little maintenance ever since they were rendered functionally obsolete with the modern use of chemical fertilizers and tanning chemicals. but the “Majma’ al-Tawarikh” written by the historian Hafez Abru (1430 AD) at the order of the Timurid ruler Shahrokh. and immediately there were driven out of the tower pigeonhouse great numbers of pigeons. the Iranian peasant from the 17th to 20th century seemed to have abstained. 1672-81. This was the end of that kind of hunting. gives a curious description: “The King sent to us betimes in the morning to invite us to go to pigeonhunting. they have been hunted for sport. We were surprised by this statement on the use of the dung. at the Emperor’s charge. are maintained many Dovecots. the seventh ruler of the Ilkhanid dynasty (1271-1303) has banned hunting near the towers to protect the pigeons. to supply the magazines with saltpeter for making gunpowder” (Fryer.

Tehran. Journal of Art and Mankind (115) 34-37. Hirmand. . Tehran. (2000) Isfahan. DAMIrCHI. Tehran. there had been about 3000 pigeon houses around Isfahan when he traveled to Iran in the 17th century. 1963) A New Account of East-India and Persia in Eight Letters Being Nine Years. L. as historian Hafez Abru described the banning of hunting around such towers at this time. F. DEHBASHI. C. Originally published in London. in Foreign Travelers’ Viewpoint. harnessing a great cooperative relationship with nature.. T. (2004) Pigeons and the Pigeon Towers of Isfahan. London.. (2004) Isfahan. (2006) The Pigeon Towers of Iran. Tehran. began in 1672 and finished in 1681. ISHrAQI. New york.184 METU JFA 2009/1 AryAN AMIrKHANI et al. Tehran. A. According to the travelogue of Chevalier Jean Chardin. Pigeon houses were often covered with a mix of straw and mud to protect pigeons from the cold in the winter and from the heat in the summer. I. A. MIrZA M. Skylife. AKAy. When one considers the negative side effects of chemical fertilizers.. yale University Press. S. (2007) Isfahan. 1627-29. A. Broadway Travelers’ Edition. BAKHTIyAr. 1963.. the purpose of these towers acting as a natural collection point for waste is a prodigious one. (2004) Bird House. F. Mashal. REFERENCES AFSHAr SISTANI. 108-114. (1983) Spectacular Vernacular: A New Appreciation of Traditional Desert Architecture. Farmers used to open the door once a year to gather pigeon droppings for their fields. r.N. However. the use of pigeon droppings as fertilizer is no longer considered economical. The beginning of the pigeon houses construction may be potentially dated to the late 13th or early 14th century. PELOS. (1999) Isfahan History. the French tourist and painter. Cultural research Association. The upper parts of buildings were covered with a glossy surface plaster. FErrIEr. reprinted by Cultural research Association in Tehran. (1928) Travels in Persia. which prevented snakes from entering the tower. Due to the production of chemical and other types of fertilizers. BOUrGEOIS. the House of Culture and Art. most of the pigeon houses have fallen into disrepair over the years due to neglect. MAZAHIrI. r.. (1989) The Arts of Persia. J. JABIrI. J. These structures also had a door for farmers and smaller openings for pigeons. yale. In the name of Iranian architectural heritage. it is hoped that any further decay of dovecotes can be prevented by funding. Isfahan. Peregrino Smith Books. Culture and Science. HADIZADEH KHAKI.W. (1999) Recognition of Isfahan Province. FryEr (1698. HONArFAr. Atriat. HErBErT.

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Azot yoksulu İsfahan toprakları bu yolla verimli kılınırken. kent dışı yakın çevresinin sürdürülebilirliğini sağlayarak İsfahan’da bir kentsel merkezin ortaya çıkışını temin etmiştir. efsanevi İsfahan karpuz-kavunları da bu gübreye dayanıyordu. yapılarına iyi bir örnek oluşturan güvercinlikler.186 METU JFA 2009/1 AryAN AMIrKHANI et al. insantekinin doğa ile birlikteliğini vurgulamayı sürdürecek. yıllık gübre hasadı ise. Kimyasal ve yapay türdeki gübrelerin gelişmesi karşısında. tıpkı yeraltı kanal sistemi olan kanatlar (qanat) gibi. Güvercin dışkısını toplamak amacıyla inşa edilen kuleler. Ancak İsfahan güvercinliklerinin birer doğal gübre toplama mekanı olarak dönüşümü ima eden fiziksel yapıları. yerel kazanç için önemli bir kaynak oluşturmuştu: Çoğunlukla beyaz sıva ile süslenmiş olan bu kulelerin her biri binden fazla güvercine yuva oluşturuyor. İsfahan’da güvercin gübresi kullanmak artık ne ekonomik ne de pratik kabul edilmekte. arazi gübrelemekte ve İsfahan’ın ünlü tabakhaneleri tarafından tabaklamakta kullanılıyordu. .

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