The story of how ancient Iranians harnessed the power of wind

The wind has been powering our world for thousands of years. Mankind harnessed it as a form of energy to propel boats as early as 5,000 BC. Later, simple wind-powered water pumps were used in China, and windmills made of woven-reed blades started grinding grain in Iran.

Nashtifan still has some of those windmills alive under the auspices of an elderly custodian, Ali-Mohammad Etebari, who has dedicated his life to keeping the town’s few dozen historic windmills turning.

Honored as a Living Human Treasure, Etebari has long assumed the hard work of daily inspections and maintenance of the mills, which are locally called Asbads. Moreover, his regular attention has paid off to put the town on the tourist map.

“If I don’t look after them, the youngsters will come and spoil it and break everything,” Etebari said in an interview with the International Wood Culture Society.

Nashtifan is situated on a semi-arid windswept plain northeast Iran, some 40 kilometers from the Afghan border. Along its southern edge, a towering earthen wall houses series of vertical axis windmills used for milling grain into flour.

The area is known for its seasonal strong winds, and in fact, the name Nashtifan is derived from words that translate to “storm’s sting.”

Constructed of clay, wood, and straw, those ancient gears which are inherited from preceding generations, are perched on a cliff overlooking the village, milling grain for centuries.

Technically speaking, unlike European windmills, the Persian design is powered by blades arrayed on a vertical axis in which the energy of wind is translated down without the need for any of the intermediary gears found on the horizontal axis windmills.

Experts believe such primitive yet great machines bear testimony to the human being’s adaption with nature by transforming environmental obstacles into opportunities.

The development of Asbads took place due to strong and continuous 120-day winds, which annually sweeps through the east and southeast of the Iranian Plateau from late May to late September.

Iran seeks UNESCO recognition for arrays of its ancient windmills that can be found in the provinces of Sistan-Baluchestan, South Khorasan, and Khorasan Razavi. In 2002 the windmills were recognized as a national heritage site by Iran. The Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts has almost completed preparations for a chain of ancient vertical-axis windmills for possibly becoming a UNESCO World Heritage.

UNESCO says Asbad is a smart technique to grind grains, a technique which goes back to ancient times when the people living in the eastern parts of Iran, in an attempt to adapt themselves to nature and transform environmental obstacles into opportunities, managed to invent it.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the earliest known references to windmills are to a Persian millwright in 644 CE and windmills in Seistan [Sistan], Iran, in 915 CE. In the early second millennium, some Eastern and Western states acquired the technology of making mills from Persia, though the prototype design constantly underwent amendments over time.

The sad part of the story is the unclear future of the windmills. Without due attention, they may fall into disrepair, maybe due to the diverse beliefs and tastes of the younger generation.