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Yakhchals: Ancient ice pits in the deserts of Persia

Middle East 19 Jan 2021
Two extant yakhchals ice coolers, located in Ghaleh Jalali fortress of Kashan with a green field on the foreground, Iran. © Evgeniy Fesenko |

The day is hot, you need an iced drink. You simply open your refrigerator and yank some ice cubes in your drink. Nowadays, ice is this much abundant in all over the world. Be it Alaska or Dubai, if you have a refrigerator, you have ice! But think about a time which dates back to a thousand years, maybe more. How did the people cool their drinks then? Or they drank it hot as there was no refrigerator? You will think probably they drank hot drinks as the concept of ice was limited to the part of the world where it actually existed naturally. You are wrong! Ice existed in the deserts of Persia too. Here comes the concept of Yakhchals.

What are Yakhchals?

Yakhchal is an ancient evaporative cooler and ice maker. The Persian word Yakh means ice and Chal means pit, together it makes the word ice-pit.

These structures were dated back to 400 BC when Persian engineers became expert in the technique to create Ice in winter and store it for the summer in a Yakhchal. Also, it was used to preserve food and to prepare the Persian frozen dessert Faloodeh.

Just imagine! How difficult it was to make ice as there was no electricity.

Structure of Yakhchals

These giant structures were built up of spiral structures which comprised wind towers and vents. Some had holes towards the bottom. Through these holes, cold air kept flowing in the underground part of a Yakhchal. In this underground, the ice was prepared and stored. The hot air used to funnel out from the holes situated in the top.

Large walls were often built to keep the water and ice shaded. The water is channeled into the Yakhchals so that it can freeze faster in the reaction with the cold air. These structures were also served as places to store ice that was brought from nearby mountains. The walls were heat along with water-resistant. These were made using sand, clay, lime, egg whites and mountain goat and camel hair. This water and heat resistant mortar were called Sarooj. The Sarooj walls act as effective insulation all year round and these walls are two meters thick at the lower base.

Existence of Badgirs

The Yakchals are associated with a system of Badgir which are the ancient wind towers. These badgirs can easily bring the temperature down to a freezing level even in hot and dry summers.These ancient scientific structures are still seen in Persia today. One of the easiest to find is the one which is near Narin Castle in Iran. A fun trivia, in present-day Iran, the term Yakhchal is used to referring modern refrigerators. The Islamic world is full of unique history and rich in culture and knowledge. Now and then we get a glimpse of that rich heritage.