SABALĀN MOUNTAIN (Kuh-e-Sabalān; 4,740 m), the highest and spatially most extended volcano in northwestern Iran.  The mountain and its surroundings are part of the Armenian-Azerbaijan knot of mountains, where Pontus and Taurus mountain chains have their eastern roots and Alborz and Zagros their starting point.  Thus, the whole region is a highly active tectonic and volcanic area stretching over an east-west extension of more than 200 miles between the Tāleš Ranges along the shores of the Caspian Sea and Julfa on the Aras River and the Turkish border.  Its north-south extension reaches approximately 70 miles and is marked by the Kuh-e Sabalān in the north and the Kuh-e Sahand in the south.  This vast area, termed by Harrison (p. 156) as the volcanic belt, is characterized by different forms of volcanic rock formations and debris, such as lava fields, plateaus covered with volcanic ashes, and effusive or intrusive eruptive rocks.  Located about 120 km east of Tabriz and approx. 40 km west of Ardabil, the Kuh-e Sabalān proper has an east-west extension of almost 50 km.  Due to its great height, it is the only mountain massif with a recent glaciation between Mount Ararat (5,165 m) to the west and the ʿAlamkuh / Taḵt-e-Solaymān (4,840 m) to the east.  The summit of the volcano cone carries a total of seven small glaciers.  To the north, the Kuh-e Sabalān is bordered by the Qara Su basin between the towns of Ahar and Meškinšahr at an average height of 1000-1200 m; to the south, the mountainous terrain is part of the drainage basin of the Āji Čāy in an average height of approximately 1500 m and discharging into Lake Urmia.

Due to its size and configuration, the Kuh-e Sabalān has a major ecological function and impact on climate and vegetation of Northwestern Iran and the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan.  Long winterly snow cover and comparatively high annual precipitation (400-700 mm; Schweizer 1970a, p. 165) are characteristic climatic features.  The soils of the dissected slopes (lithosols, brown soils, sierozems) are basically suitable for agricultural use with only moderate limitations due to the dissected relief or shallow depth.  In its natural state, the mountain massif and its forelands are characterized by a typical steppe-vegetation, reaching up to approx. 2,300 to 2,500 m. This height marks at the same time the upper limit of agriculture and permanent human settlement.  Above this line, the vegetation cover changes towards sub-alpine and alpine meadows to be followed by increasingly contracted patches of thornbush vegetation up to approx. 4000 m.  The highest parts of the mountains are dominated by more or less barren stone and rock deserts, block glaciers, and other periglacial phenomena.

In spite of its geographical and ecological marginality, the Kuh-e Sabalān has always been, and still is, of major economic importance both on a local and a regional scale.  Regionally, the volcano and its forelands are surrounded by a great number of thermal and mineral springs, indicating the relatively young geological age of this region.  Thermal and mineral springs (āb-e garm) are attracting local people as much as visitors from far away, since the warm sulphur springs possess great healing power, especially against skin diseases.  Schweizer (1970b, p. 113) reports that local nomads and farmers not only take advantage of these springs themselves, but that they also cure their animals in these springs (e.g., in Qotur Su in 2,450 m height on the northern slope of the Kuh-e Sabalān).  On the southern slopes, veritable spas with modern medical facilities have developed and are attracting visitors from as far away places like Tehran or Tabriz (see Map 1).

More important than the locally restricted benefits of the medical services are the ecological functions of the Kuh-e Sabalān.  As indicated in the sketch map, the forelands of the Kuh-e Sabalān are characterized by a surplus of precipitation over evaporation, especially in the winter months and on its southern slopes.  Its lower parts are used agriculturally (Bazin and Nazarian).  In connection with long winterly snow cover and the afore-mentioned steppe character of the vegetation, the higher parts of Kuh-e Sabalān’s foreland are major grazing areas for the animal husbandry of the local villagers and the Šāhsevan nomads.  Both G. Schweizer (1970b) and R. Tapper (1979) have published extensively on these nomads who have been, and still are (Tapper, 2002), the main users of these grazing grounds.  The upper limit of summerly grazing is near 3,800 m above sea level, where tent settlements (oba) have been observed in temporary summer quarters (yaylāq) up to 3500 m high.  Dašt-e Moḡān is the corresponding winter quarter of the Šāhsevan nomads, who, however, are in the process of a rapid sedentarization phase (Schweizer, 1974; Tapper, 2002).  This process has been decisively accelerated and strengthened by large irrigation developments, transforming the winterly grazing grounds into highly productive agricultural areas. 



M. Bazin and A. Nazarian, “La limite des galleries drainantes souterraines dans le Nord-Ouest de l’Iran,” Publ. Dépt. Géogr. de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne 19, Paris, 1992, p. 79-86. 

J. V. Harrison, “Geology,” in The Cambridge History of Iran I: The Land of Iran, ed. W. B. Fisher, 1968, pp. 111-85. 

ʿAbbās Jaʿfari, Ketāb-šenāsi-e Irān I: Kuhhā wa kuh-nāma-ye Irān, Tehrn, 1989. p. 299.

Masʿud Kayhān, Joḡrāfiā-ye mofaṣṣal-e Irān, 3 vols., I, Tehran, 1931-32, pp. 58-59. 

G. Schweizer, “Der Kuh-e-Sabalan (Nordwestiran): Beiträge zur Gletscherkunde und Glazialmorphologie vorderasiatischer Hochgebirge,” in Helmut Blume and Karl Heinz Schröder, eds., Beiträge Geographie der Tropen und Subtropen: Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Herbert Wilhelmy, Tübinger Geographische Studien 34, Tübingen 1970a, p. 163-78. 

Idem, Nordost-Azerbaidschan und die Shah Sevan-Nomaden: Strukturwandel einer nordwestiranischen Landschaft und ihrer Bevölkerung,” Geographische Zeitschrift, 1970b, pp. 81-148. 

Idem, “The Aras-Moghan Development Project in Northwest Iran and Problems of Nomad Settlement,” Applied Sciences and Development 4, 1974, p. 134-48. 

Richard Tapper, Pasture and Politics: Economics, Conflicts and Ritual Among Shahsevan Nomads of Northwestern Iran, London and New York, 1979. 

Idem, Frontier Nomads of Iran: A Political and Social History of the Shahsevan, Cambridge and New York, 1997. 

Idem, “Shahsevan Nomads of Moghan,” in Jon Thompson, ed., The Nomadic Peoples of Iran, London 2002, pp. 260-83.

(Eckart Ehlers)

Originally Published: January 14, 2011

Last Updated: January 14, 2011