Yakhchal: The Indigenous Fridge of Middle-East
Around 400 BC, Persians had invented a cooler that enabled them to store ice year-round. This cooler goes by the name of yakhchal, which is a Persian word comprising of two words, ‘yakh’ meaning ice, and ‘chāl’ meaning pit.
The structure of yakhchal is divided into two parts, one above the surface and one below. Above the surface, the yakhchāls could rise up to a height of 18 meters. From a distance, Yakhchal looks like a mud-brick, domed-shaped structure. The storage space is situated beneath the surface.
As far as the volume is concerned, the yakhchal provided an ample storage space of about 5000 cubic meters. People used this for storing ice, water, and even perishable items including vegetables and fruits. Once the water was added to the yakhchal, it froze due to the low temperature inside.
How does yakhchal work?
The main reason why yakhchal worked so effectively lies in its design, which is based on aerodynamics. The yakhchal is designed to be conical in structure with a hole at the top. This hole allows the cold air to enter the yakhchāl and pave its path all the way down to the bottom. The conical architecture of the yakhchāl allows the hot air to rise up to the top and exit, maintaining a cooler environment inside.
The materials used for the construction of yakhchal also plays a major role. The walls of the ‘desert cooler’ were made up of insulating materials. A traditional mortar called sarooj, prominently used in Iranian construction, was used in these coolers. Sarooj is made by mixing clay, sand, lime, egg whites, ash and goat hair in a fixed proportion. This special mortar provided ultimate insulation to the cooler.
In some cases, a wind catching towers were used to direct the wind inside the desert fridge. Moreover, the storage space was surrounded by walls as thick as 2 meters and was cleverly located below the surface.
During winter, people gathered snow from the nearby mountains and bought them to the yakhchal. In case this was not a feasible option, water was directed to it through nearby groundwater pools or springs via ‘qanāts’.
Qanāt refers to a system of transporting water from underground water sources through a gradually sloped channel.
The inventors of this marvel understood the importance of water. As a consequence, trenches were made at the bottom to capture the ice that might have melted into the water during the day. At night, this captured water froze again due to the drop in temperature. This created a cycle that maximised efficiency while minimising the environmental impact.
But, perhaps, the most distinctive feature of the yakhchal doesn’t lie in its capabilities, but, in its accessibility. It is said that the desert fridge didn’t only cater to the needs and luxuries of royals but was accessible to everyone.
It is kind of disappointing to see this incredible structure in such a deplorable state. While most of the yakhchals have not been able to withstand the ravages of time, some of them are still very well preserved and can be found across middle-eastern countries.
While the use of yakhchal has seized in modern times, the legacy still carries on, yakhchal is now used to refer to modern-day refrigerators.
Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Ice House: Here’s How Our Ancestors Stored Ice“.
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