Mills driven by the wind

The asiabad at Nishtafun: see the sails, and the entries to the lower grinding area

To add to the other work on this site about Iranian crafts and craftsmen; this posting is about some old windmills – vertical-axis windmills, just like the world’s very oldest.

On 1 Nov 644, the caliph Omar is reputed to have asked a Persian slave, Abū Lo’lo’a, about a boast he had made that he would build a mill driven by the wind. The slave answered “By God, I will build this mill, of which the world will talk” – and talk the world still does, especially since Abū Lo’lo’a stabbed the Caliph to death on the following day. Al-Masudi (c.956) quotes Tabari (834-922) with this story.

Al-Masudi, his contemporary Istahri (c.951), and then the later geographer Al-Qazvini (d.1283) all wrote about Sistan, in eastern Persia, as the land of wind: “There the wind is never still”. The ruins of one of the massive, isolated mills in Sistan remains from the “prosperous days” of Malek Ḥamza (1619-45), the so-called ‘Chigini’ windmill: click here for a photo (scroll down to Figure 498)

One of the banks of windmills at Nishtafun, showing the lower grinding areas

In fact the famous 120-day-wind (bād-e sad-o-bīst rūz) affects both eastern Khorasan and Sistan (in the late summer and early autumn); and there are still some vertical axis windmills (called asiabad locally) in Khorasan – perhaps most famously in Nishtafun. When I first saw these, 4 or 5 years ago, only one was (very) occasionally operational.  Although Iran’s Cultural Heritage News Agency (CHN) reported on the threat facing ‘the world’s oldest windmills’ in 2006; the video here – my 27 SECOND recommendation – shows windmills operational in Nishtafun (maybe in 2008?).

Google Earth view of the three banks of windmills at Nishtafun

You can see how these windmills work if you click here – the wind is screened off from the sails except to propel them round. The animation does not show how the wind entry often has to be moderated using reeds or a curtain over the wind-slit: the wind locally is often at galeforce. And if you want to see how the actual milling parts work, click here, and find the second Figure, Fig 52.

If you want to know exactly where the windmills are, simply search for ‘nishtafun’ on Google Earth: you can then clearly see the three banks of mills (90m, 55m and 15m), just to the west of where Google Earth will take you. Notice the blank area just behind the mills, allowing for the wind to blow unimpeded. If you don’t have Google Earth, you’re missing lots – and it wouldn’t take much time (or computer space) to install – but if you’re resolute, try the good photo and (not very good) map here.

5 Responses to “Mills driven by the wind”

  1. yolande Says:

    the wind was so awful when we (with Sylvia Matheson) drove into Tabas in July 1971 that it was impossible to drive at any speed and to take any photographs, worse than trying to see through a snow storm. From that day until my return to London it was hopeless to try and clear the landrover of all the sand which had blown into the car.

  2. P & J Says:

    Amazing windmills – I love them, especially the video !72V7

  3. Caroline Says:

    Yolande, thanks so much for this! I’ve never really seen the wind in action but its great to read your account.

  4. Caroline Says:

    Thanks, P&J. btw – I’ve just found the meaning of nishtafun: ‘nish’ is apparently a local word for ‘bite’ – and ‘tafun’, well, you can guess that, its typhoon!

  5. Margaret Elaine Justus Says:

    I work for MoDOT and we would like to use one of your photographs in our new Welcome Center dedicated to alterntive energy. We need at least a 240 dpi image, if possible. Please call me: 816-387-2353 or e-mail me if permission is possible (we will give you photo credit).

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