Kish Island, Iran

Kish Island, Iran

Tim Makower


My first impression of Kish, as we come in to land, is of a dry plate of stone, sitting in the sea, undercut by the waves. Its baked surface is spotted with low-lying shrubs. Having landed, and as we head into the city, I can see that its urban design owes more to traffic engineers than to anyone else. Although trees are healthy, the grass is green and roads are in good condition, nonetheless its never-ending central reservations serve to prevent intuitive movement. Pedestrian crossings are few and far between, and buildings tend to step back from the street rather than stepping forward to greet visitors. The street edges are amorphous; there is no clear pattern or plan. What is clear is that this will not be an easy place in which to get my bearings. I cannot really see the sea – there is no corniche here like in Doha or Muscat or Cannes. But I can tell that this is a tourist resort, both from the zany holiday graphics and the host of hotels wherever I look. It is also clear that this is no ‘Earthly Paradise’. Instead, our car moves from roundabout to roundabout, from manicured boulevard to desert scrubland, past lumpy new buildings and half-finished steel and concrete frames. Eventually we arrive at our hotel. It is hot, painfully hot, mainly due to the extreme humidity, but gratifyingly it seems that Kish Island is a place where some people do walk and bicycle, even at midday, even in August, unlike so many cities of the Gulf region. In fact, the weather here is rather pleasant for nine months of the year.

We are now in the main part of the island. ‘It doesn’t really have a name, so people just call it the city centre’, Behzad Shahandeh, the Tourism Promotion Director, tells me the next day. The term ‘city centre’ certainly appears to be a misnomer. For a start, with a resident population of just 25,000, Kish is at best a town and not a city. And as Mr Shahandeh is the first to point out: ‘Kish doesn’t have a centre – it has no sense of orientation. It’s amorphous; it lacks the classical harmony we are used to in Iran.’ However, as I gradually discovered the development potential on the island and realised just how many large projects are currently underway or in the pipeline, I came to decide that ‘city centre’ is perhaps an appropriate working title for this area of the island.


14.1 Author’s annotated sketch map of Kish Island


14.2 A typical Kish road scene


14.3 The abandoned casino on Kish Island

Ferdousi Street is the actual main avenue of Kish, but in spite of its line of hotels, amusements and shopping malls, this cannot really be classified as an urban centre, as it fails to give any form to public space. Strangely, as far as I could discover, there is no mosque in the ‘city centre’. ‘That’s because no-one really lives there’, claims Majid Karimi, my companion and guide. Instead there is only an abandoned casino, shaped like a spiky crown, at the end of this major axis, backing onto the beach – but more of that later.


14.4 The romance of the Persian Gulf is omnipresent on Kish Island


Kish is a low-lying island of coral rock, 90 km2 in area, a few kilometres off the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf. On a clear day you can easily see the mountains of Iran to the north. The island is fairly flat but there is some distinctive topography, with the highpoint at the centre of the island being just 30m above sea level. It is an ancient trading post, part of the famed ‘Silk Route’ across the Gulf from Bombay to Basra, and it is now one of Iran’s primary resorts. The main tourist district is situated on the east coast. Kish has a large port in the north-east of the island, which currently handles over 1 m tonnes of cargo each year, with a four-fold increase projected by 2025. All statistics indeed show that Kish is booming. The airport in the centre of the island receives 1.2 million tourists every year, again a figure which has doubled since 2004, and which is predicted to double again by 2025. Likewise, the present population of 25,000 has doubled since 2004, and it too is likely to double again by 2025. Of the population, several thousand are students on courses here, while only about 3,000 citizens (12.5 per cent) are actually native to Kish. The vast majority of people are Iranian nationals but the percentage of foreigners is increasing at a rate some fifteen times faster than that of nationals. Projections are estimating the ultimate population at a maximum of 85,000.


14.5 Female visitors to the Pardis Mall on Kish

Back in 2004 a third of the surface area of Kish was occupied; today a half of the island is occupied or else committed for development, the majority of it dedicated to new holiday dwellings. By 2025, it is predicted that 60 per cent of the land on the island will be built up. There is a strategic master-plan in place for Kish Island, published in 2005, and an earlier and slightly more detailed master-plan from 1998. Kish is now managed by the Kish Free Zone Organization which has commercial status, although it performs the functions of a municipality. The island is a tax-free zone and, unlike the rest of Iran, visas are not required. Interestingly, Iran’s attitudes to women’s dress, entertainment and art are also far more relaxed here than on the mainland.

The position that Kish has held within the Persian Gulf for millennia as an international trading post, and as a ‘bridge’ between Persia and Arabia, accords with its new ‘free-zone’ status and is reflected in its eclectic architectural identity. In 1973 the Shah of Iran decided to create a royal resort at Kish, and the long curving beach on the east coast was chosen as the best location. A family of fashionable modern buildings were built between Ferdousi Street and the sea, including villas, palaces, hotels and the now disused casino (see Plate 23). There are also two pre-existing settlements on Kish Island: the first, the aforementioned ‘city centre’ is along the northern half of the east coast, and the other is the town of Safein up in the north-west corner. A local map reveals that the west side of Safein is older than the rest. ‘Yes, that’s where the locals live’, says Ibrahim our driver. He tells us that the oldest houses there are 45, or maybe 50, years old.


Before cycling around the island, or before looking in detail at the ‘city centre’ area or the beach or the new residential neighbourhoods, we decided to use the car to look around to find the roots of Kish. Is there something which makes Kish uniquely the way it is, something which defines its identity? The ruins of Harireh, on the northern coast, between Safein and the ‘city centre’, are mostly still unexcavated. However, there are still some significant things to see here. A fortified house, a bath-house and the ancient port have each been dug out and reconstructed, while work on the old Seljuq Mosque is also now underway. A thousand years ago, Harireh was one of the Gulf’s most important centres of pearl diving, fishing and trading. The fortified house is a gem; a small courtyard with simple pointed arcades is surrounded by a set of vaulted rooms. Its simplicity and solidity and the charm of its curved lines makes a lasting impression. The port is a memorable piece of engineering. Built hard against the 3 m-high cliff edge, a natural quayside is created. Vertical loading bays have been cut into the rock, allowing for goods to be lifted from smaller boats at the lower level, which is tucked in under the overhanging cliff.

We then moved on, past the historic walled garden of the Sezham, to the nearby Kariz, one of the most extraordinary ancient water systems in the world. A network of tunnels, 3 km in length, was carved deep underground over 1,000 years ago. Sweet water was collected from aquifers beneath the island, thereby providing all the water the island needed for centuries (water is today piped from a desalination plant on a nearby island). The Kariz is a beautiful place, especially the tree-filled open cut where the tunnels meet and a sweeping ramp gives access up to ground level. The enterprising owner of the Kariz has renovated the tunnels and made this into a tourist attraction with a café and small shop at the bottom. However, it is easy to imagine even more use being made of this amazing place. It would make a unique venue for art exhibitions or marketplaces – food for thought perhaps for those who want to raise the profile of Kish as an international tourist destination.


14.6 The old fortified house at Harireh


14.7 Ruins of Harireh port with new Damoon rising on the horizon


14.8 The ancient Kariz water system


14.9 Wind-towers on the reconstructed Ab Ambar well on Kish Island, Iran

From the Kariz, I could see five wind-towers (badgirs) rising above the trees. They serve to cool the Ab Ambar, which is a reconstruction of a traditional domed well with two huge water drums served by galleries and accessed by a long staircase cut into the ground (see Plate 24). The badgir is of course one of the great inventions of Persian architecture and is now to be found all around the Gulf region. The cruciform flue catches the wind whatever its direction and the opposite flue creates negative pressure, sucking air naturally through the building. The projecting beams were used to hang wet sheets on so as to cool the incoming air by evaporation.

A little further along the coast we arrived at Safein (pronounced safeen, from the Arabic word for ‘ship’). Despite its Persian associations, this is clearly a traditional Arab village. Its character is evidence that Gulf regional identity and the Arab Culture are as strong as local identity in other countries which surround the Persian Gulf. Although this village is poor, it is rich in terms of the original thick-walled, mud-built, single-storey houses which are also to be found in varying forms all over the Gulf. I quickly get the feeling that Ibrahim was wrong about these houses being only 45 years old. It is all too easy to imagine this place as a charming fishing village, well looked after and welcoming to tourists, but currently it seems to be sadly unloved. As we explore the narrow lanes and courtyards, certain architectural motifs can be seen again and again. The slightly ‘battered’ or sloping walls with upturned parapets, the massive conical corner buttresses (posht), the recessed panels at high level that were formerly slots to let in air and light but are now blocked up, the projecting marzam rain spouts, the elaborated doorways: all of these are designed elements, the product of both technology and aesthetics, developed over generations to make the harsh environment of this region habitable. Does this perhaps offer clues to the local identity and the architectural heart and soul of Kish Island?


14.10 Traditional house in Safein

The old mosque at the edge of Safein is run-down but as noted it is now being refurbished. It is a beautiful building, with an open arcade and huge buttresses on the seaward side. The crude refurbishment work involves cutting metal air-conditioning boxes into the walls, immediately adjacent to the original natural vents. Between the sea and the mosque a large new park is being built. It is clear that money is being spent on Safein. We are lucky enough to meet Mr Daryobar, who I am told is the ‘chief’ of Safein. He was coming out of the mosque beside the parade of shops which he owns, along with other properties here and a farm at Baghou (the only rural settlement on Kish). He invited us to his house that evening where we are regaled with stories. In the house’s special room for entertaining guests (majlis, or mihman khaneh), we sit around on floor cushions at the edge of the room while Mr Daryobar’s son brings sliced watermelon and fresh dates. The ‘chief’ continues:


14.11 Safein Mosque in 1980 before the new park was built


14.12 Mr Daryobar in conversation with the author

When they built New Safein, the eastern part of the village, they didn’t explain why. In 1978, when it was ready, the people from Mashe moved there and nine months later the Revolution happened.

I hadn’t heard about Mashe at all until then, but I was soon to learn that it had once been the main village of Kish Island, further along the coast.

They were not happy to begin with; some of the families had been there for 500 years. Many of them went elsewhere; to the mainland, to Kuwait or Dubai, but some came here … There are houses in Old Safein which are 300 years old. Just round the corner is Ali Ebrahimi’s house. He died at eighty and his father, who was 100 years old, said that his own grandfather had grown up in the same house.

At last we were beginning to find out the true value for Kish of these older buildings in Safein. So I asked Mr Daryobar if he was happy about the new park that is being built, even though it has moved the shoreline further away from Safein. He answered with a quote from the Koran: ‘You can predict that events will turn out badly but you cannot know what the outcome would have been if they hadn’t happened.’ He tells me he is happy about the park: ‘The President [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] came last year and we asked him to help us renew Safein. He listened and arranged that work should be done.’ The Iranian government are now building a new fishing port on Kish too: ‘Families have been fishing here for centuries, as well as pearl diving, trading and farming.’ Many of these ancient sources of income have since ceased to be part of community life – trading is now carried out only on an industrial scale, and pearling stopped here in 1982 – but fishing is alive and well.

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Oct 25, 2020 | Posted by in General Engineering | Comments Off on Kish Island, Iran
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