In the village of Nashtifan in northeastern Iran, Mohammad Etebari serves as the last keeper of an ancient tradition. Now elderly, Etebari has dedicated his life to keeping the town’s few dozen historic windmills turning.
But Etebari doesn’t know how much more time he has, and none of the younger generation seem interested in the hard work of daily maintenance. Without his regular attention, the windmills that have put the town on the tourist map may one day stop.
“It’s the pure, clean air that makes the windmills rotate—the life-giving air that everyone can breathe,” Etebari says in the above video. (See what you know about wind power.)
Made of natural clay, straw, and wood, the windmills have been milling grain for flour for an estimated 1,000 years. The vertical axis design is probably similar to the windmills that were invented by the Persians around 500 C.E.—a design that slowly spread through the world and which was later adapted by the Dutch and others.
Each of the windmills of Nashtifan is comprised of eight chambers, with each chamber housing six blades. As the area’s strong, steady wind enters the chambers it turns the blades, which then turn grindstones. The structures reach up to about 65 feet in height.
The region is so well known for its wind that the name Nashtifan is derived from words that mean “storm’s sting.” (Wind power hits record as countries address climate goals.)
With the ample winds, the devices can readily glean enough power from the wind to turn a stone. If they were hooked up to a generator they would produce only a small amount of electricity, possibly not even enough for a lightbulb. Today’s power-harvesting turbines have more efficient designs that take advantage of lift to attain higher speeds, and therefore produce much more power.
In 2002 the windmills were recognized as a national heritage site by Iran. Yet their future remains uncertain. There are easier ways to mill grain now, and Etebari doesn’t know if anyone will take up the mantle of keeping the windmills turning when he is gone. If that happens, a piece of living history could become lost.
Brian Clark Howard is the co-author, with Kevin Shea, of Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, which includes a short history of wind energy.