One of Nushabad’s passageways.

The Ancient Subterranean City of Nushabad: Why Were People Living Underground?

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When you wander the tunnels of the underground city of Nushabad you are tracing your way back from modern day Iran to ancient history. The walls echo with the memories of the Sassanian period and perhaps even its predecessors. Refuge, tourist site, and fascinating archaeological site – Nushabad enthralls its visitors.

Nushabad (known also as Ouyi) is a city located in Isfahan, a province in the center of Iran. This city is famed for its remarkable complex of underground tunnels and chambers. Due to this, the city is known also as the ‘Underground City’.

Inside the underground city of Nushabad, Iran.

Inside the underground city of Nushabad, Iran. (Friendly Iran Travel Agency )

A Legendary Sasanian Story

The name ‘Nushabad’ may be translated to mean ‘city of cold tasty water’, and is related to the way the city came into being. According to one version of the tale, a Sassanian king was passing through the area one day when he had a drink of water from a local well / spring. Struck by the refreshing and clean quality of the water he had just drunk, he ordered a city to be built around it. The king then named the city ‘Anoushabad’, which meant ‘city of cold tasty water’, which would later become ‘Nushabad’.

During the summers, the area, which is in a desert, may become unbearably hot. In times like this, the inhabitants of the area could enter Nushabad to seek refuge from the scorching heat above the ground.    

Underground Protection from Invaders

As time went by, the underground city became more than just a place where the inhabitants of the area could obtain fresh water or escape from the heat. Nushabad also served as a refuge during times of war. Over the centuries, numerous invaders arrived in that region to pillage and kill. The Mongol invasion of Iran during the 13th century is a well-known example of this. When these invaders arrived in the city above ground, they would find it empty, as its inhabitants would have had fled to the underground city. Nushabad is found to have been used in this way throughout the history of Iran up until the Qajar period.

The underground city has several features that facilitate its role as a place of refuge in times of war. For example, whilst the underground city may be entered via multiple entrance points, they are so tight that only one person can enter at a time. This meant that an invading army could not rely on superior numbers to overwhelm those hiding in Nushabad.

the underground city of Nushabad, Iran.

the underground city of Nushabad, Iran. (Enzo Nicolodi /CC BY SA 4.0 )

Additionally, there are ventilation shafts that allow air flow in and out of Nushabad, whilst fresh water is provided by the spring. This meant that refugees were able to stay in the underground city for long periods of time. It has also been suggested that there would have been some storage areas for food as well. Various rooms have also been found along the carved-out pathways of the city, and ledges have been dug out to serve as benches / beds for people.

the underground city of Nushabad, Iran.

the underground city of Nushabad, Iran. (Franco Pecchio/ CC BY 2.0 )

Rediscovering the Underground Site

Nushabad was eventually abandoned and forgotten by the local population. In 1920, a well was being dug under the house of a local inhabitant when he / she stumbled upon the labyrinth of underground chambers.

Archaeological work that has been done in Nushabad since the city’s re-discovery has helped us gain a better understanding of the site. For example, earthen vessels and stone instruments from the Sassanian, Ilkhanid, and Safavid periods have been found at Nushabad, indicating that the city had been used during those periods. 

Artifacts found in the underground city of Nushabad, Iran.

Artifacts found in the underground city of Nushabad, Iran. (Friendly Iran Travel Agency )

In August 2014, the fifth excavation phase of Nushabad began. The last excavation, incidentally, had been carried out eight years prior to that. Unfortunately, the fourth phase could not be continued as the soil was too firm. The new research has the potential to change our understanding of Nushabad, as it suggests that the underground city was already in use even before the Sassanian period. Today, Nushabad is also open to tourists.

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