By Afshin Majlesi 

Masuleh, a scenic village where roofs and yards become one

September 16, 2020 - 19:28

With at least a millennium of history, Masuleh is one of the most famous and spectacular villages in Iran.

On a lush green hillside, a few kilometers away from the southern coasts of the Caspian Sea, the remarkable village boasts earth-colored houses stacked photogenic alleys on top of one another like giant Lego blocks.

The unique ochre-brown structures of Masuleh follow the slope of the mountain that the village nestles on—or rather, grows from—giving the village its most bizarre quality: the roofs of many of the houses connect directly to, or even form a part of, pathways and yards serving the houses above.

Here, the relatively-intact landscape, architecture, and the local community flourish together. This is a village built not by trained architects, but by the inhabitants themselves. Like all vernacular architecture, it is clever in its sensitivity towards the environment, climate, materials, and local needs and traditions.

Houses built out of a combination of brick, timber, adobe, and stone stand resolutely on a 60-degree incline. With natural rock at the foundation and a sturdy “koh divar” or “mountain wall” supported by the mountain slope at the back of each structure, the stepped village is expected to be earthquake resistant.

Most extraordinary of all, however, is Masuleh’s ingenious use of public space: with no marked boundaries, all rooftops double as courtyards, gardens, and public thoroughfares for the inhabitants on the level above. Meandering stairways, narrow alleys, and paths link one terrace to the other, and the village rises as one massive interconnected, multi-leveled public space shared by the whole community. Each narrow staircase in the village is equipped with a ramp as well, but only to accommodate the wheelbarrows that the locals use for transporting goods; due to its unique spatial layout, Masuleh is the only settlement in Iran where automobiles are strictly prohibited and pedestrians roam freely.

While the village staggers with an ever-increasing influx of tourists every year, the application to make the thousand-year-old Masuleh a UNESCO World Heritage Site is underway.
Stepped villages are quite common to find around Iran, especially in Kurdestan and Khorasan regions of Iran. Basically, they have been built on a hill so steep that the roof of one house is the pathway for the next.
 

Where to stay 
You can find both expensive hotels and budget guesthouses. To find a homestay, you just need to walk around town and someone will approach you.
 

When to visit
Spring, summer and autumn would be the ideal months. In winter, the area is covered by snow.
 

A heaven for trekkers 
Surrounded by green valleys and misty forests, Masuleh is one of top trekking destinations in the country, offering several trails that include both day treks and multi-day treks.
Along the way, you are likely to find quite a few Iranian shepherds who actually live there, perhaps not in winter, but they have fully equipped shacks and you are likely to be invited to have some chai (back tea).
 

Under tourists’ eyes
Here is a select of comments that visitors to the village have posted to TripAdvisor, one of the most popular travel websites in the world:
 

"Unusual”
This is a most unusual village being built on such a steep hillside. The houses are a beautiful honey color and the late afternoon is a perfect time to go for photos. There are gorgeous wooden balconies and the roof of one house acts as the courtyard for the house above. (Sus1952 form New Zealand; Date of experience May 2019)
 

"Long drive to get there. A collection of souvenir vendors....”
It's northwest from Tehran, quite a long drive and if you go during the weekend or bank holiday, it can take some serious time to get there.
The original village is nice and you can take some super pictures. The "streets" are narrow and difficult to pass as on both sides there are shops and restaurants.
For us it felt more like a hype; you have to have your selfie taken here...!
We feel it lost his original charm....., it's called economic prosperity.... (Harry C. from the Netherlands; Date of experience April 2018)
 

“The setting is everything, now overhyped & one long traffic jam”
It is in an amazingly scenic setting, the drive from Ardabil was beautiful, unfortunately, the tourists have already ruined it, and (Well you have to actually have to pay to see it!)… The village closes up is pretty drab and scruffy anyway. (Sylvia D. from Australia; Date of experience May 2018)
 

“Gorgeous village”
This was the first place we stayed overnight after leaving the bustling city of Tehran. We arrived in the early afternoon and the place was already packed with mainly Iranian tourists.
A beautiful drive as you get closer, and then you see the terraces of the buildings down the mountain slope. So picturesque to wander around the village and enjoy the views and the friendly locals. Nearby was a small waterfall, and we sat there for nearly an hour just observing the Iranians as they splashed and played in the waterfall - such pure joy for them. Our accommodation was extremely basic, but we didn't care as we enjoyed local food from the verandah of our room looking over the village and down into the valley and surrounding mountains. (Randall K. from Australia; Date of experience September 2017)

AFM/MG
 

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