Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ancient Ice Houses of Iran

Before the invention of the refrigerator, which is a relatively modern invention, ice was a precious commodity that couldn’t be easily obtained or made, especially during the summer. To preserve meat and other food items huge blocks of ice had to imported all the way from Scandinavian countries in the Arctic circle or from mountain tops carefully insulated with straw. In the US, the UK and other countries in Europe, ice was brought in from Norway. The Russians collected ice along the Neva River while the Indians got their share from the Himalayas. The ice were stored in specially made buildings called ice houses and they lasted throughout the year.

The most common designs involved underground chambers, usually man-made, which were built close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes. During the winter, ice and snow would be taken into the ice house and packed with insulation, such as straw or sawdust. It would remain frozen for many months, often until the following winter, and could be used as a source of ice during summer months. This could be used simply to cool drinks, or allow ice-cream and sorbet desserts to be prepared.

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Ice House in Kashan, Iran. Photo credit

Ice-houses were known in Iran as early as the seventeenth century B.C., and these were used as recently as 50 years ago. Many disused egg shaped ice houses made from mud bricks still exist in Iran. Iranian ice houses are gigantic in size compared to those found in the west, and they were unique because of the way ice was obtained.

Iran is largely a desert where fresh water is rare and even in winter, when the temperature falls to freezing at night, the mid-day sun is hot. Huge quantities of ice would be needed to fill these vast, domed wells and this cannot be arranged to be transported from far off places. The ingenious Iranians, instead, made their own ice.

Behind each ice houses are long shallow channels where water is poured during the winter nights. The channels were protected from heat during the day by shade walls. At night, a thick layer of ice is formed over the surface. This was broken and collected before the sun could rise and moved to the ice houses. This was repeated each night until there was enough ice to last the next summer. Several shaded walls, deep wells and cleverly constructed domes kept the heat out.

More than a hundred ice house can be found all over Iran, but very few exist in its original form and full extent. Unless a concerted effort is made in terms of restoration and preservation, the prognosis is not good for the majority of Iran’s ice houses. Some of the disused ice-houses has already been used as rubbish dumps.

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Ice House in Abarkuh, Iran. Photo credit

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Ice house in Yazd, Iran. Photo credit

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Ice House in Meybod Iran. Photo credit

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Inside the ice house in Meybod. Photo credit

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Ice House in Kashan. Photo credit

Sources: Wikipedia, Kaveh Farrokh, Amir Ghayour Kazemi & Amir Hossein Shirvani

3 comments:

  1. That's amazing! I had heard of the Iranian version of aqueducts (underground as opposed to above), and I'm not surprised to hear Persians had other water innovations as well. Very cool.

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  2. I'd like to know more about the construction of these amazing ice houses. We live in a desert in New Mexico, USA. We get very cold winters. Although we have been experiencing drought conditions for over 3 years now we still get snow runoff. Summers are HOT and cooling is expensive. Knowing the ancient constructions methods and the details of why certain shapes were used to contain the block ice would be extremely helpful to continuing this Earth healthy refrigeration. I assume the ancient desert dwellers used wind-catchers to capture heated air that run underground through the ice houses and emerged into living spaces for a more comfortable conditions in hot summer. At least that's what I'd do. Is there any more specific information on the ice house construction that you could point me to? Many thanks.

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  3. It looks like two parabola; a shallow bowl shape parabola on the floor kinder ground level) and a taller legged parabola up top (above ground). The shallow bowl would transmit any heat coming in from below ground straight upwards where it would hit the legs of the taller parabola, which would reflect the heat to the parabola's focus at or near the hole in the roof. As long as there is no cloud overhead, the heat would radiate off into space. A cloud (or polution) could reflect the heat back to the ice house, but it would be a diffused reflection. Only the heat that passes through the narrow hole would return to the ice house where it would be reflected off the flat floor and back out again.

    The stair stepped outside may have a cooling function as well. If they kept it wet, they could have gained something from evaporative cooling as well

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