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Pigeon towers represent one of the most remarkable examples of eccentricity in Iranian architecture. They are found in vast numbers round Isfahan and date from the time of the Safavids who seem to have had a particular liking for melons. Chardin was sufficiently intrigued by them to include drawings of several different types, and was astonished by the number of melons consumed. During the main season, he writes:
[The poorer sort of People] … live upon nothing else but Melons and Cucumbers … There are some that will eat five and thirty Pounds of Melon at a Meal, without making themselves Sick. During these four Months, they come in such vast Quantities to Ispahan, that I can’t help believing they eat more here in a Day, than they do in France in a Month.
Pigeon dung was thought to be the best manure for these crops, and the pigeon towers were built to attract pigeons to them so that they would nest in the top and their dung would fall to the bottom. Chardin continues.
I don’t think there are any finer Dove-Cots in any part of the world … they are built with Brick overlaid with Plaister and Lime, full within of Holes for the Pigeons to breed in … They reckon above three thousand Pidgeon-Houses about Ispahan, all built for the sake of the Dung … They call it “Tehalgus”. It is sold a “bisti” or Four-pence, the Twelve-Pound Weight on which the King lays a small Tax.
After the fall of the Safavids, the requirement for melons seems to have declined and with it the demand for pigeon dung, although in 1809 it was reported that the average revenue from a Pigeon Tower was 100 tomams (about £10), and this may account for the high level of expenditure devoted to their designs and upkeep.
It is doubtful whether the pigeons were ever bred for eating, as the pigeon is especially revered in Islam as a friend of the Prophet. The pigeons were in any case the Persian wild pigeon which is a cindery blue. The white pigeon being regarded as a sign of bad luck.
The Pigeon towers illustrated above are from a group below the atashgah or Zoroastrian Fire Temple. There are many more on the way to the airport and also several in the countryside to the East of the city. There is even a roundabout in Isfahan with one in the centre. Note the diversity in construction of the towers and also the unusual decoration with red rendering. Birds are normally put off by the colour red and it is strange that this colour was found to be suitable.