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Heritage Tourism: Masouleh, Iran

Posted by
on December 15, 2015 at 05:41 PM

Steeped in a thousand years of antiquity and marked by a unique type of terrain-inspired architecture, the historical town of Masouleh, in Iran is an important stop in the heritage tourism map of Iran. A quick perusal of its history reveals some fascinating facets of the evolution of the settlement and its journey into the annals of the architectural heritage of the world!

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Founded in the 10th century AD, Masouleh is a city in and the capital of Sardar-e Jangal District, in Fuman County, Gilan Province, Iran. Located 60 km southwest of Rasht and 32 km west of Fuman, the village is 1,050 meters above sea level in theAlborz mountain range, near the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. The village itself has a difference in elevation of 100 meters – a factor that had led to the terraced planning of the city, responding to the terrain. Overlooking forests, meadows, springs and mountains, the village gives fascinating glimpses into history – replete with nature, culture, and architecture.

The landscape and weather of Masouleh are unique. In addition to being close to the sea, Masouleh is located in a mountainous and high-altitude region. Hence, its climate is a blend of moderate mountainous weather and humid coastal climate, much unlike the rest of Iran. The Masouleh-Rudkhan river passes through the village with a waterfall 200 meters away. Many other springs are also found, amid the dense forests. Warm, moist air blowing southwest from the Caspian is blocked by the Alborz Mountains, creating heavy precipitation and fog on the seaward side of the mountains (this eco-region is known as the Caspian and Hyrcanian Mixed Forests). Further inland, the landward side of the Alborz receives very little rainfall and rapidly becomes arid.

The native people of Masouleh speak Taleshi, a Northwestern Iranian language spoken in the northern regions of Gilan, Ardebil and the southern regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Taleshi, spoken by fewer than a million people around the western and southern shores of the Caspian Sea – contains of a mix of Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Gilaki words.

Small, traditional coffee shops have sprung up all over Masouleh; that host tourists with tea and a tasty local bread. The village boasts of a blend of Taleshi, Torki and Gilaki cultures. Masouleh’s market has four floors, occupied by blacksmiths, knife-making shops, bakeries, grocery store and shops selling knitted dolls, colorful handmade socks and other handicrafts. Products such as kilim (rug made of goat’s hair), Jajim (a carpet made of wool or cotton), Chamush (traditional shoes), clothes, knives and silk scarves are some of the popular take-aways of Masouleh.

The architecture of Masouleh is unique and spectacular – with ‘streets’ cut into the mountainous land, much like a layered cake. Rows of houses/buildings are built into the mountain; one on top of the other, in a manner that the roofs of one row of buildings double up as the courtyards of the row of buildings atop! Thus interconnected, the courtyards and roofs both serve as pedestrian areas similar to streets. Due to this organic layout, and the difficult terrain with narrow streets, and multiple stony steps to manoeuver, Masouleh is an entirely pedestrian town.

The wondrous fact is that the settlement was constructed with a proper sewage system from the very beginning. The houses are earthquake-proof and are all connected through underground tunnels. The windows have double glazing, and most of the buildings have a coat of yellow clay on the exterior. 

Most of the buildings are two-storied, made of mud-bricks, stones, timber and clay. A layer of dried leaves of fern is applied between the mud and wood timbers in the ceiling to insulate against the leakage of water into the house. The ground floor has a cold closet, barn and stable; and narrow steps connect from the ground floor to the upper living quarters – with a small living room, a large guest room, a winter room, toilet and balcony. Fog being the predominant weather feature of Masouleh, the yellow clay coats on the facades allow for better visibility. But they also lend a quaint charm; adding to the uniqueness of the architecture.

The rooms in the houses are specially designed for winters and summers, and usually have a small veranda extending from the front of the house. The room used in the winter, known as sumeh, is at the far end of the house, and does not allow in much light. In the middle of the room is a fireplace, which the household uses to cook and keep warm. The summer room has lattice windows made out of wood and colorful glasses, which should be pushed upward to open. The rooms usually contain built-in shelves decorated with copperware, small pantries, tiny windowpanes and mirror frames mounted on the wall.

The main mosque of the city, named "O-ne-ben-ne Ali" (Awn Ibn Mohammad Ibn Ali Ibn. Abi Taleb) was built in 969 AD. The biggest is the Jameh Mosque, where people gather to perform their daily prayers. The second most popular is the Saheb-az-Zaman Mosque, which dates back to the 12th century AD.

One of the main shrines in Masouleh is Imamzadeh Aun ibn Ali. Locals call it Qalandar Khaneh, a term that dates back to the Safavid era (16th century) and means ‘home of a wandering dervish’. This beautiful shrine has an octagonal structure and the door, made of ebony, is carved with impressive designs. Inside the shrine is a 1,200-year-old inscription with verses from the Holy Qur’an.

An engraving in Maouleh by Sohrab Sepehri, one of the greatest modern poets of Iran, states: "I came here to write, but Masouleh can’t be written about, Masouleh should be seen." Indeed, a slice of history tucked in a lush wonderland and an architectural heirloom - all rolled into one - Masouleh certainly deserves to be bestowed with the status of a world heritage site - an honour that has apparently evaded it till now!

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