The World’s Last Cave Village

Author: Lala Aliyeva

It was  freezing - snowy, icy, and foggy. The road to Kandovan was covered by a thick layer of powdery snow, but as the car was hardly able to proceed, it was hard to find it charming. The taxi driver, a woman from Djulfa [Close to the Azerbaijani border with Nakhchivan], vowed to reach the world’s last cave village, but in the middle of nowhere she stopped the car and told that she cannot go further. Kandovan was less than five kilometres away, but it could as well have been on another planet stuck as we were in that frosty land. Then a man on a larger car drove by, picked us up, and saved us.

The village was enveloped in fog and hardly visible. Not that its dwellings are apparent in the clear sky - its 600 villagers live in cave houses carved out from volcanic rock. From afar the village looks like a gigantic termite colony. Tucked away in a remote corner of north-eastern Iran, Kandovan is believed to be the last cave settlement - it was reportedly founded 700 years ago by people fleeing the Mongols’ invasion.

Today about 100 families still live in houses shoveled in the mountain, but locals think it will not last. The number is dwindling and as tourism is steadily increasing, locals fear that in less than three decades people will move out and their houses will be turned into hotels.

Dragging gas cylinders through the high snow
Villagers purchasing gas cylinders. Despite Iran being an oil-and-gas rich country, not all citizens benefit and Kandivon is one of the many settlements with no connection to the gas grid.
Tourism is on the rise, offering more employment opportunities to villagers who opened small souvenir shops
Kandovan in winter. Over the years the village has spread outside the caves - some houses are partly in the rock and outside, others have been totally built outside the mountain.
Some of the old rock dwellings have been converted into stables
People are conservative and women shun the camera
Inside, the dwellings are poorly lit and covered with rugs and carpets.
Villagers note that the caves are “energy efficient” as they retain the warmth in winter and remain cool during the hot summer months.
As the women hide their faces from the camera, the man brings tea himself.
Saida is 14. As the school in Kandovan offers classes only up to the fourth grade, the children who want to continue their education have to travel to the nearest town which is 15 kilometres away. Saida and her peers live in the madrasa, the school, five days a week, but come home for the weekend.
Clearing the lanes from snow
The room into the cave - home turned into a shop selling souvenirs
Early marriages are common in the area. “It depends on how educated they are, those who marry their daughters early are not well educated,” says one of the villagers. The lack of education means girls can marry as early as 13, while families who allow their daughters to study give them away for marriage after they turn 18.
When tourism started taking off around ten years ago, villagers were skeptical and diffident. Slowly most realized the potential of their village and the opportunities that tourists can offer and adapted.
People are conservative and women shun the camera
We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.