By Afshin Majlesi

One of pioneers in the use of clean energy, Iran eyes World Heritage tag for its windmills

April 24, 2022 - 18:31

TEHRAN – Five years after being added to UNESCO's tentative list of World Heritage properties, Iran’s collection of ancient windmills is still not prepared for a final assessment.

Experts say the lack of an agreed budget for proper maintenance as well as unfinished efforts to determine their (legal) properties are among the reasons for the suspension.

UNESCO says such a mill, locally known as an Asbad, uses a smart technique to grind grains, a technique that goes back to ancient times when the people living in the eastern parts of Iran invent it in an attempt to adapt themselves to nature and transform environmental obstacles into opportunities. Experts believe such primitive yet significant machines bear testimony to the human being’s adaption with nature by transforming environmental obstacles into opportunities.

According to the latest official data,  a total of 374 Asbads have been identified so far mostly in the eastern wing of the country, but not all of them in faultless conditions.

“About 374 Asbad devices have been identified so far, but not all of them are in good condition,” ILNA quoted an official in charge of protecting the windmills as saying on April 20.

“Because 80% of the works (properties and cultural elements) nominated for a UNESCO recognition must be protected in a permeant way, we, in our file, had to reduce the number of nominated windmills to 200 [to increase the chance] for their [possible] inclusion in the World Heritage List,” the official explained.

“Although the condition of all those windmills is not ideal, we are trying to reach a favorable situation before it is time for the UNESCO assessment.”

Talking about the geographical distribution of the windmills, the official said: “The Asbads are located in various clusters situated in the provinces of Khorasan Razavi, South Khorasan, and Sistan-Baluchestan.” 

“We hope that this year the obstacles will be resolved and finally the case of the Iranian horses will be submitted to UNESCO in the next year,” said Mojtaba Sa’adatian who presides over Asbad collections in Sistan-Baluchestan province.

The Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts has almost completed the necessary preparations for a chain of ancient vertical-axis windmills; however, the documentation and mapping works have not been completed yet.

The documentation and mapping projects entail various architectural plans, cross-section geometry, photogrammetric photographs, and their proprietorship. Official reports suggest all documenting and mapping stages are being carried out based on the UNESCO standards and criteria.

The development of Asbads took place due to the scarcity of water resources and continuous 120-day winds, which annually sweep through the east and southeast of the Iranian plateau from late May to late September. In fact, wood, mud, and brick were the main construction materials for the two-story windmills.

Britannica says the earliest known references to windmills are to a Persian millwright in 644 CE and windmills in Seistan [Sistan], Iran, in 915 CE.

According to the UN cultural body, Robert Forbes, a technology historian, stresses the point that the Islamic era windmill was the invention of Iranian. He writes: "this invention which was initially an exclusive device for Iran and Afghanistan, turned into an important source of energy all over the Islamic territories in the 12th century, and not only it was used for the grinding of grains and operation of water pumps, but also the chopping of sugarcanes and other purposes.

Moreover, the UNESCO website says that such vertical-axis windmills were taken to China during the Mongol reign.

Furthermore, the know-how of windmills was taken to other Islamic territories and was used in Egypt as the main source for the chopping and grinding of sugarcanes. In the 11th century, windmills reached Spain, the Islands of the Aegean Sea, and Portugal.

Technically speaking, unlike European windmills, the Iranian design is powered by blades arrayed on a vertical axis in which the wind power is directly translated down without the need for any gears found on the horizontal-axis mills.


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