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The Incredible Subterranean City of Kish

The Incredible Subterranean City of Kish

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The island of Kish is a resort island located off the coast of Iran. Although it is well known as a tourist destination, it is also steeped in history. One of the most magnificent features of this island is its massive subterranean city covering an area of 10,000 square metres, constructed from its ancient underground aqueduct (or ‘kariz’). The kariz of Kish is said to have been built about 2500 years ago by the inhabitants of Harireh city. This structure was built to collect, purify, and store water for the inhabitants of the island. As the island is situated in a region with an arid climate, this was essential for their survival.

Water would have been first collected from interconnected wells in an area of 14 km². Using the principle of differential pressure, water from the wells was raised from the water table to the kariz. The water was then conducted to a central filter shaft. This shaft was filled with three layers of filter material. The top layer was coral gravel, which filtered the bigger solids brought along by the water, and neutralised the water’s acids. The next layer was coral grit with clay, and this filtered the finer solids. The last layer consisted of marn, a special sort of clay which filtered the finest solids. As different ‘grades’ of water would be suitable for different usage, the inhabitants of Kish would collect water from different heights of the filter shaft. Since the best quality of water was found at the bottom, this was used for drinking. On the other hand, water that went through the first layer of filtration would have been good enough for the irrigation of agricultural fields. Interestingly, there were also underground tunnels that allowed small boats to enter at the lowest level and collect drinking water from the lowest well. 

The underground city of Kish

The underground city of Kish. Photo source.

The kariz of Kish was abandoned a long time ago, and was forgotten by the inhabitants of the island. In addition, modern technology has made the water filtration process much more efficient, which means that the ancient system would have been obsolete anyway. In 1999, the island embarked on a project to build an underground shopping complex. This resulted in the rediscovery of the ancient kariz. Instead of demolishing the kariz to make room for the shopping complex, the developers decided to incorporate the latter into the former. While the historic coral walls that surround the kariz were left on their own, the tunnels were reinforced with modern mortar and stone. This combination of ancient and modern served to create a unique subterranean world. This ancient structure is further modernised by the presence of shops and restaurants, traditional teahouses, amphitheatres, conference centres, and even art galleries. Nevertheless, the developers have not forgotten the kariz’s ancient function, and it is once more fulfilling its role as a water filter, although the filtered water is used mainly for irrigation purposes.

Kish Ancient artifacts

Ancient artifacts have been preserved and put on display in the now modernised city. Photo source.

For me, the most striking aspect of this story is the fact that the ancient and the modern can co-exist together harmoniously. Furthermore, the old and the new serve to enhance, rather than diminish, one another. It is this blend of the past and the present that, I feel, makes the kariz such a unique site. In today’s society, there seems to be a certain belief that in order to progress, the shackles of the past have to be cast down. Yet, to forget about the past is a dangerous road to take. Besides, sometimes, the past and the present can be kept together without the need to choose one over the other. This is especially so when both elements complement, rather than compete with each other.        

Featured image: Inside the tunnels of the kariz of Kish. Photo source: Historical Iranian Sites and People.

By Ḏḥwty


Atlas Obscura, 2014. Kariz-e-Kish. [Online]
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Cool Things In Random Places, 2008. Underground town of Kariz, Iran. [Online]
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Duckeck, J., 2013. Kish Underground City. [Online]
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Eduljee, K. E., 2013. Kariz, Karez, Qanat. Ancient Water Distribution Channel. [Online]
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Kish Free Zone Organization, 2009. Kariz Underground City. [Online]
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Ramin, 2009. Underground Kish Kariz. [Online]
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Tehran Times, 2012. Kariz underground city, a step back in time experience. [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2014. Kish Island. [Online]
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The way it ended up being a shopping mall really kind of made me go "Ugh." Not the way I thought an ancient site would be treated. But okay. Thank you for this information! It was a pleasant read. Bright Blessings All.

Thanks for the story. Amazing find and restoration. I look forward to learning about more wondrous finds!

Thanks for another great article, and for the observations you made about the benefits of harmonizing past and present.

In recent decades many US communities have fallen victim to "strip-mallification". As whole swaths ot the country have abandoned history and character in favor of standardized building techniques, we increasingly find ourselves living in a world of cheap architectural clones.

I applaud this developer's effort to not only preserve the past but to give it new life. Perhaps our very best hope for the present lies in honoring the past while holding and striving for a noble vision of the future.

I would love to hear how architectural design trends are playing out in other communities around the world. Does your neighborhood look just like every other?

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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