The purpose of Iran’s towers as “lighthouses”
Iran’s towers were important to travel and commerce in the ancient world.
Travelers of yore used the stars to navigate Iran’s deserts to reach Europe and the Far East. But the stars provided only a general direction. Caravans traveling by night could easily miss the next location for food and shelter.
So Iranians, aware of their strategic value to East-West commerce, built towers with fires on the top to direct travelers.
Travel back then was by caravan because of the danger of roadside gangs. The caravans often traveled at night to avoid the daytime heat.
The nearest “lighthouse of the desert” to Mashhad in northeast Iran
On the second day of a road trip through the arid landscape of southern Khorasan region, we visited the tower known as Ayez at the historic precinct known as Sang-Bast (also spelled Sangbast), about 35 km south of Mashhad, and almost smack on top of the storied Silk Road that connected China to the West for some 1500 years.
The entrance to the tower is blocked, unfortunately, to protect the 1000-year-old relic.
It bears a Kufi script depicting Koranic verses, including one calling upon Muslims to surrender to Allah’s will.
It’s one of two towers that used to be connected via a covered bridge. The other tower, as well as multiple caravansaries and a mosque, have not survived the ravages of time.
The Karat Minaret near Taybad, another example of Iran’s towers
We also checked out Karat Minaret (also known as Kerat Tower, Kerat Minaret, Borj-e Karat or Mil-e Karat), which is about 25 km south of the town of Taybad (TIE-BAWD).. It was built in the time of the Seljuks, a Turkish dynasty that ruled over much of Iran in the 10th through 12th centuries.
Again, the entrance was locked, so we could not climb up.
The tower is visibly tilting to the side, like the Tower of Pisa.
About Iran’s towers and minarets
This is land that has seen countless earthquakes. Imagine the engineering that went into keeping this tower standing for 800 years! Modern Iranian apartment buildings are so poorly built, they are typically considered old and decrepit after only 20 years.
The word minaret is typically used to refer to multiple types of towers, most notably the minarets at mosques.
Towers were part of Persian architecture for centuries before the arrival of Arab invaders who brought Islam to Persia.
The minarets known as miel or meel (Persian: guidepost) were built outside the cities. The fire on the top functioned as the target for the “ships of the desert” – a reference to the caravans’ camels.
During the Zoroastrian times (before the Arab invasion in 633 ADE), they were also used as watchtowers to watch for and signal approaching enemies, as well as the keeping of the “everlasting and sacred fire” of the Zoroastrian faith. The word minaret is derived from the word “nar”, meaning fire.
The use Iran’s towers as watchtowers rendered them targets during invasions. Many were destroyed by enemy forces.
The spread of minarets through the Islamic world
The engineering techniques used in Iran’s towers was transferred to the rest of the ancient world by the Arab occupiers of Persia. Minarets are found all over the Islamic world. Some are lucky enough to get UNESCO-funded research: