Located in Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province, Kandovan is 60 km south of the provincial capital Tabriz in Osku county. The 60 km drive to Kandovan south from Tabriz passes through Khosrowshahr and ascends the slopes of the hills at the base Sahand mountain through the Osku Chai valley. Chai or Chay is a Turkish word for river.
What makes Kandovan village so unique is that many of its homes have been made in caves located in cone-shaped, naturally formed compressed volcanic ash formations that make the landscape look like a gigantic termite colony. This method of dwelling makes the residents modern-age cave dwellers or troglodytes. (Troglodyte means cave dweller: somebody living in a cave, especially somebody who belonged to a prehistoric cave-dwelling community. Troglodyte also means somebody living in seclusion).
The rock that makes up the cones in Kandovan Village is made up of a volcanic deposit called ‘tuff’ (pronounced ‘toof’ by the British and ‘tough’ by Americans). The deposit consists of igneous rock that is soft and which can be worked without the use of hard metal tools. (Igneous mean formerly molten – made with fire.) The rock was spewed out an explosive eruption of the Sahand volcano as airborne debris called tephra. The explosive eruption was probably caused by high pressure steam which would likely cause steam and other gas pockets (that would later become air pockets) when the molten material rapidly solidified. Rock with air or gas cells is called pumice. Pumice can be light enough that it floats on water. It can also be a good heat insulator. The deposited tephra that formed Kandovan’s rock cones consisted of stone-sized debris and ash. You can see the composition if you look closely at the surface of the caves or the cones.
The houses are known as karan in the local dialect. One interpretation has the word Kandovan being a plural form of kando, a bee’s hive. Another interpretation says that Kandovan means Land of Unknown Carvers. The use of ‘van’ to indicate the plural is found in the Avesta. Nowadays, residents speak a Turkish dialect but have traditional Iranian family names, names such as Kayani. The mountains and rivers in the region have both Persian and Turkish – and perhaps even Assyrian names.
The present residents say that their village is around 700 years old, and was formed by people fleeing from an advancing Mongol army and who used the caves as a refugee and a place of hiding. Even after the Mongol occupation of the country came to an end, many of the refugees decided to continue living in the caves and gradually expanded their cave homes to form permanent multi-story houses. Another legend states that eight hundred years ago a body of soldiers hid in the caves during a military campaign.
However, there are indications that the caves of Kandovan were inhabited as far back as 3000 years ago around the time when the Zoroastrian Medes and Persians inhabited the region.