Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

In Iran, 4: Underground


For earlier notes on our Iran tour, see Iran 1: Ten days in Iran2: The empire at the center of the world and 3: Imam Khomeini blinks?

Monday, September 10, was our group’s 4th day in Iran, the day to board the bus for a three-hour trip south from Tehran to the much smaller city of Kashan. On the way our guide Ali Sadrnia, who is also a history professor and linguist, filled us in on the countryside we were passing through and the history of its various peoples. Part of that history, a mysterious part, is the underground city of Nushabad (or Noushabad or Noshābād — I’ll say more later on problems of transliteration).

The name means ‘city of cold tasty water’, suggesting that its location was chosen because water was available — rare enough in this central desert region of Iran, with its extremes of temperature (very hot in the day, very cold at night). To escape the harsh weather must have been one motivation for going underground. The other, perhaps stronger, was refuge in case of attack by less settled marauders, very frequent in those early centuries. If any such marauders did succeed in getting into one of the entrances, they were sure to get lost in the multilevels with their trick entrances, escape hatches, and clever traps.

Calling it a “city” seemed to me an exaggeration, but it is big, 4 square kilometers; its layered tunnels, in places four storeys deep, the first excavations dating to some 1500 years ago, are more like an elaborate, cleverly constructed fortress. Urban life? Not as we understand it, having to creep from one household unit to the next, and never meeting any strangers. I haven’t found any population estimates, but it didn’t seem to me that it could have sheltered more than a few thousand, who to survive at all had to spend most of their days in the fields in the open air.

The whole concept is the polar opposite of the urbanism for which Iran is most famous, with its expansive gardens and huge, open, central plazas — which we shall see in their most splendid form when we get to Isfahan (which I’m saving for note 6). But first, we traveled the very short distance (5 km.) from Nushabad to the above-ground city of Kashan, famous for its weaving — coming soon.

For more information, see The underground city (Iran: Doostan Tours)

Images from