Lut Desert

Islamic Republic of Iran

The Lut Desert is a large hyper-arid area in the south-east of Iran which in Persian means devoid of water and vegetation. The property is characterised by its dramatic environmental conditions which include very low levels of precipitation, long periods of high wind and some of the hottest recorded temperatures on earth. The erosive abilities of these environmental processes work in conjunction to create some of the world’s best examples of striking desert landscapes. Within these landscapes are some of the world’s highest sand dunes, largest nebkhas – sand dunes around vegetation – and longest yardangs – ridges running parallel to the wind. Additionally, the property also contains distinctive salt pans, stone pavements and the lava covered Gandom Beryan plateau. Overall, the property contains a globally significant selection of geological features in an area which is at low risk of human pressure through its relative isolation and inhospitable conditions.


Islamic Republic of Iran


Lut Desert


2016: Inscribed on the World Heritage List under natural criteria vii and viii.


The UNESCO World Heritage Committee issued the following Statement of Outstanding Universal Value at the time of inscription:

Brief Synthesis

The property Lut Desert is in the southeast of the Islamic Republic of Iran (hereinafter referred to as Iran) and straddles the three Iranian Provinces of Kermān, Sistāno Balūchestān and Khorāsān-e Jonūbi. It is an arid continental subtropical area notable for a rich variety of spectacular desert landforms. At 2,278,015 ha the area is large and is surrounded by a buffer zone of 1,794,134 ha which varies in width between 10 and 30 kms.

In Persian language “Lut” refers to bare land without water and devoid of vegetation. The Lut Desert is situated in an interior basin surrounded by mountains, so it is in a rain shadow and, coupled with high temperatures, the climate is hyper-arid. The region often experiences Earth’s highest land surface temperatures: a temperature of 70.7C has been recorded within the property.

The largest incoming river, the Rud-e Shur, drains a catchment to the north of the area. It is perennial but highly saline by the time it enters the core zone; so its banks are devoid of riparian vegetation and its channel is lined with salt crystals.

A steep north-south pressure gradient develops across the region in spring and summer with the result that strong NNW-SSE winds blow across the area from between June and October each year. The long duration strong winds propel 1 mm quartz sand grains at great velocity creating transportation of sediment and aeolian erosion (by sand blasting) on a colossal scale. Consequently, the area possesses what many experts consider the world’s best examples of aeolian yardang landforms, as well as extensive stony deserts and dune fields. Yardangs are bedrock features carved and streamlined by sandblasting, although they are also eroded by gullying from rainfall runoff and by mass movement. Some are also undercut by floodwaters. Yardangs appear as massive and dramatic corrugations across the landscape with ridges and corridors oriented parallel to the dominant prevailing wind. The ridges are known as kaluts. In the Lut Desert some are up to 155 m high and their ridges can be followed for more than 40 km. Yardangs cover about one third of the area and are developed in consolidated lacustrine sediments (sands, silts, marls, evaporites) of mainly Plio-Pleistocene age that accumulated on the floor of the inland basin.

The wind also strips hard rocky outcrops bare of soil, which leaves extensive stony desert pavements (hamada) with sand-blasted faceted stones (ventifacts) across about 12% of the area. An extensive, black stony desert covers the basaltic Gandom Beryan plateau in the northwest of the core zone. The stony deserts in eastern Lut cover (as a rubbly veneer) extensive pediplains, which are rock platforms that truncate bedrock and gently slope away from the foot of neighbouring hills.

Sands transported by wind and washed in by intermittent streams have accumulated in the south and east, where huge sand-seas (termed rig or erg) have formed across 40% of the core zone. These areas consist of active dunes some reaching heights of 475 m. These are amongst the largest dunes in the world and are displayed in the Lut Desert in a wide variety of forms, including linear, compound crescentic, star, and funnel shaped. Where sands are trapped around the lee of plants at the slightly wetter margins of the basin, nebkhas form to 12 m or more in height, arguably being the highest in the world. Nebkhas cover about 3% of the area, particularly along its western margin.

Dissolved minerals evaporated from incoming streams result in white efflorescences of crystals and evaporite crusts down river beds, in yardang corridors and in salt pans (playa). A variety of small scale evaporite landforms develop, especially along the edges of the Shur River where white crystalline pools are a widespread feature. Small landforms result from the pressure effects of crystal growth, including salt polygons, tepee fractured salt crusts, small salt pingos (or blisters), salt karren and gypsum domes. Various salt features are found over about 4% of the area, especially in the playa of Shurgaz-e Hamun.

The region has been described in the past as a place of ‘no life’ and information on the biological resources in this area is limited. Nevertheless, the nomination dossier documents the area’s known flora and fauna including an interesting adapted insect fauna and other species which have made their home in this extreme environment.

Within the area, only the western edge includes settlements (there being 28 villages, the largest with just over 700 people). In the buffer zone there are 15 villages and Shahdad town with a population of nearly 6,000. The region has evidence for habitation going back 7,000 years, however this has always been around the periphery of the area, because the aridity of the core zone rendered most of it uninhabitable.

Criterion (vii): The Lut Desert protects a globally recognized iconic hot desert landscape, one of the hottest places on earth. It is renowned for its spectacular series of landforms namely the yardangs (massive corrugated ridges) in the west of the property and the sand sea in the east. The yardangs are so large and impressive that they can be seen easily from space. Lut is particularly significant for the great variety of desert landform types found in a relatively small area. Key attributes of the aesthetic values of the unspoilt property relate to the diversity and sheer scale of its landforms; a visually stunning mosaic of desert colours; and uninterrupted vistas across huge and varied dune system that transition into large flat desert pavement areas.

Criterion (viii): The property represents an exceptional example of ongoing geological processes related to erosional and depositional features in a hot desert. The yardang/kalut landforms are widely considered the best-expressed in the world in terms of extent, unbroken continuity and height. The Lut sand-seas are amongst the best developed active dune fields in the world, displaying a wide variety of dune types (crescentic ridges, star dunes, complex linear dunes, funnel-shaped dunes) with dunes amongst the highest observed anywhere on our planet. Nebkha dune fields (dunes formed around plants) are widespread with those at Lut as high as any measured elsewhere. Evaporite (salt) landforms are displayed in wide variety, including white salt-crusted crystalline riverbeds, salt pans (playa) with polygonally fractured crusts, pressure-induced tepee-fractured salt crusts, gypsum domes, small salt pingos (or blisters), and salt karren. Other dry-land landforms include extensive hamada (stony desert pavements or reg) usually located on pediment surfaces with wind faceted stones (ventifacts), gullied badlands and alluvial fans (bajada).

Protection and management requirements

Due to its remoteness from major population centres and its extreme environmental conditions, including extreme heat and lack of water, much of the Lut Desert has been largely inaccessible and therefore naturally protected. The nomination reports that, apart from some small private landholdings in villages in the area and buffer zone of western Lut, the majority of the land within the Lut Desert is state-owned. The property is subject to a complex and multi-level protection regime and a range of legislation, regulations and protective mechanisms apply (14 legal instruments). Legal protection and management is provided by state level authorities that work under their specific mandates. Three agencies principally share conservation and management responsibility for the property, namely the Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organization; Iranian Department of Environment; and the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO).

Protection of non-conservation lands, study and execution of projects of watershed and rangeland management and desertification is under the control of the Organization of Forests, Range and Watershed Management. This agency is responsible for the prevention of illegal exploitation of deserts. Two protected areas located in the northwest and southeast are under the management and protection of the Iranian Department of Environment. The Darband-e Ravar “wildlife refuge” in the northwest partially overlaps with the area but the Bobolab “no hunting” area in the southeast only overlaps with the buffer zone. In addition to management of the protected area, the Department of Environment is responsible for environmental assessment of development projects. The Lut Desert is also on the national heritage registration list of ICHHTO.

Additionally, based on the documents provided by the State Party, ICHHTO is the sole responsible authority for the management of the property as well as coordination between all other relevant institutions.


2016: Lut Desert is inscribed as a World Heritage Site under natural criteria vii and viii.




Iranian Desert (2.24.9).


The Lut Desert (N: 30o 12’ 58”, E: 58o 50’ 20”) is a hyper-arid region of south eastern Iran that spans three provinces: Kermān, Sistāno Balūchestān and Khorāsān-e Jonūbi. The property itself is devoid of any major conurbations; however, the buffer zone contains or is close to several major towns such as Shahdad in the west, Nosratabad in the east and Dehsalm to the north, and is 100 km away from the Provincial capital of Kerman. The property is approximately 200 km west of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.


1968 - 1977: The first archaeological digs begin around Shahdad, revealing several burial sites;

1994: Archaeological digs continue, focusing on suspected residential areas rather than burial sites;

2011 – 2013: The latest archaeological digs are done within the vicinity of the property;

2016: Lut Desert is inscribed as a World Heritage Site under natural criteria vii and viii.


The vast majority of the property is state owned. Only a small fraction of the property, around the villages in the west of the Lut Desert, is privately owned.


The property covers 2,278,012 ha and has an additional buffer zone of 1,794,137 ha.


The lowest point of the property is found at 117 metres above sea level (a.s.l.), in the northeast of the yardangs region, while the highest point, at the sand dunes of Rig-e Yallan, reaches 475 metres a.s.l.


The main physical features within the property are yardangs (Kalut) and nebkhas in the west, the Yallan Sand Sea (Rig-e Yallan) in the east, the Hamada in the property’s centre and the Shur River. These physical features vary widely in their geographical extent. For example, the Yallan Sand Sea comprises approximately 40% of the entire property, whereas the Shur River accounts for only 2% of the property.

Yardangs, a Turkish word meaning steep flank, are long ridges formed through wind erosion. The yardangs themselves consist of marl and clay which are horizontally stratified with additional layers of sand and silt. The yardangs can range from 50m to 1.5 km in width and can be up to 40km in length. Kaluts are egg-shaped and smaller than other yardangs in terms of height, length and extent. An assemblage of Kalutaks in the southwest of the yardangs region of the property have formed the ‘dreamy city of Lut’ (Shahr-e Khialy-ye Lut) so named because it resembles a ruined city when viewed from afar. The yardangs act as the source of much of the sand found in the Lut Sand Sea.

The Lut (Yallan) Sand Sea is one of approximately 20 sand seas within Iran. These sand seas, which are also called ‘rigs’ or ‘ergs’, are predominantly in the east of the country, of which the Lut sand sea is the largest. Within the sand sea, there are several component landforms, such as the linear dunes (silk), which are low-lying and regularly form in the direction of the prevailing wind. Other distinct landforms include compound crescentic dunes, crescentic ridges, star dunes and complex linear dunes. These features are created largely through wind direction, and often form when wind direction changes, thus acting to shape the sand. The size of these dunes can reach above 400 metres.

Nebkhas are dunes that form around plants and grow to around 12 metres in height. Although not on the same scale as the dunes in the Sand Sea, the nebkhas are important as stabilisation factors and can be formed in several ways (Wang et al. 2010). Because nebkhas require existing plant life to form, they are always found in less arid areas where water is available, e.g. stream courses and alluvial terraces. Nebkhas cover approximately 3% of the property.

The Shur River is a large drainage basin that flows into the Lut desert from the North-west Mountains of Birjand and continues eastward into the yardangs region (Yazdi et al. 2014). There are several notable physical features of the Shur River, all of which are formed from gypsum and salt crystals. Gandom Beryan, also known as Rig Shoukhteh, is a plateau overlooking the Shur River which is composed of relatively young igneous lavas. This cooled lava acts as a protective shield for the more easily eroded substrate below, as such the plateau reaches a height of approximately 400 metres a.s.l. In addition to these notable physical features within the property, several minor landforms are interspersed throughout the property, for example sandstone tafonis, ventifact rocks and hydro-aeolian columns.


In the summer months, a steep north-south pressure gradient develops in the region, resulting in strong NNW-SSE winds blowing across the property. Wind speeds are highest in the months of July and August, where wind speeds approach 17 metres per second. These winds propel 1 mm size quartz sand grains over vast distances across the property, acting as an erosive force. The property has seven meteorological stations, only one of which, Ziyaratagh-e seyf, is within the property itself. This meteorological station shows that the property’s average monthly temperature ranges from 11.8oC in January to 38.1oC in July. Furthermore, satellite data has shown that the Lut Desert has had the hottest surface temperatures in the world for two consecutive years, with the desert more broadly often being the largest contiguous area in the world with a surface temperature that can reach above 65oC (Mildrexler 2011). Surface temperatures do vary significantly within the property however, especially between the various soil structures from sand, stone and wetland (Alavipanah et al., 2007). The Shahdad meteorological station, in the property’s buffer zone, has the highest average monthly recording of 40.1oC and reaches maximums of 46oC. Comparatively, the minimum temperatures in the winter months go down to as low as -10oC. The property experiences the highest levels of precipitation between January and February and is highly variable between the meteorological stations – Ziyartagh-e sayf has average monthly maximums of 6.8 mm in January, whereas Nehbandan, just outside the buffer zone, experiences 29.8 mm. Overall precipitation levels are low as the property is in the rain shadow of several mountain ranges that surround it. Much of the property receives less than 100 mm of precipitation annually.


Vegetation within the property is very limited, both in terms of abundance and diversity. A total of 58 plant species have been recorded, spanning 32 families. There is anecdotal evidence that plant species are more abundant in the west of the property, where there is more water available. The plant species found within the property are all xerophytic. The property is situated in the Bubo-Sindian phytogeographic region of Iran. Overall, Iran is thought to have in the region of 10,000 species of plant, of which 20% are thought to be endemic (Zehzad et al. 2002).


The challenging abiotic conditions of the property, in conjunction with a dispersed and limited abundance of vegetation, has resulted in the property’s fauna adapting their behavioural, physiological and/or morphological characteristics. For example, species will look for food at night or dig tunnels so as to escape the heat of the day. One of the more abundant and well-studied taxa within the property are insects (Navai 1971), which feed off the bodies and excrement of other species. Some species, such as the Lut Cockroach (Mantidae sp.) and the Eskenbil (Tenebrividae erodiini), are thought to be endemic to the desert and are able to survive on the sand surface, which can reach temperatures of up-to 70oC. The property also harbours larger species, e.g. the misonne’s swollen-nose gecko (Rhinogecko misonnei), which may also be endemic to the Lut Desert. The sand fox (Vulpes rueppelli) is the largest known animal to reside within the property. The sand fox is nocturnal and resides in the holes of the yardangs. Several bird species are also present within the property.


The property’s conservation value unequivocally originates from its distinct geomorphological features, which led to the property already being identified as being of high potential for inscription on the World Heritage List (Goudie & Seely 2011). The property has a unique set of abiotic conditions, ranging from some of the hottest temperatures on the planet and extremely low precipitation rates to strong and persistent winds, resulting in a hyper-arid environment. Landforms within the property, although not unique to the property, are considered some of the largest and best examples in the world. For example, the nebkhaz rise up to 12 metres and sand dunes within the sand sea can reach up to 475 metres. These landscape-scale processes thus directly result in unique examples of natural geological phenomena of exceptional natural beauty. The property does not support a particularly large or diverse assemblage of species; however, those species that are present are specialists and several are considered endemic. The property has been relatively isolated and unpopulated for millennia, making it a largely pristine environment.


The Shahdad Plain, near the western fringe of the Lut Desert, is thought to have been populated for the last seven thousand years. Archaeological excavations around Shahdad have provided a plethora of interesting objects, ranging from statues, flags, vessels and containers, as well as jewellery. Many of these objects are thought to have been created four to five millennia ago, as some of the world’s first cities were being formed. For the last ten centuries, the city of Khabis (now Shahdad) has been an important trading post for the region, perhaps most famously when the Silk Road was still active. The region itself was known for producing dates, tamarisks, hemp and henna. As well as being a trade route from east to west, the city of Khabis was instrumental in connecting the north and south of modern day Iran. One of the first descriptions of Khabis is by the 10th Century scholar Estakhri, who in his book ‘Masalek ol Mamalek’ describes Khabis as a small city with water, plenty of trees and fine dates (Estakhri 1990). Around this time, a series of forts were created along a 100km stretch of the Lut desert’s boundary, further demonstrating the area’s strategic importance for trade around the wider region.


There are 28 villages within the property. The smallest of these, Mehdi Abad Village, has only two residents, whereas hemmatabad-e Olya Village is the most populous with 772 residents. All of the villages within the property are located in the western part. Additionally, there are 15 villages within the buffer zone, as well as the cities of Anduhjerd and Shahdad. The city of Shahdad alone contains 5,942 people and is considered the most regionally important conurbation. Anduhjerd supports approximately 3,500 people, making the buffer zone almost twice as populous as the property itself. In total, the property contains 6,177 people, all of which are considered rural, and the buffer zone contains 12,951 people, of which only 25% are considered rural.


Due to the sheer size of the property, it is difficult for the management authorities to calculate accurate visitor numbers. Collected data between 2010 and 2013 shows a steady increase in both national tourists as well as international tourists. In 2010, there was an estimated total of 57,000 tourists, which by 2013 had grown to 77,500. Most tourists arrive at the property via Kerman, where there is an international airport, and consequently most visitor facilities are oriented in this direction, though these are outside the property. There is a desert tourism camp near Shahdad, which was established by the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organisation of Kerman. The camp consists of cottages created using local techniques and materials and has water and electricity. Iran’s many geological attractions, of which the property is one of the most high profile, have been described as having large geotourism potential in the near future (Amrikazemi & Mehrpooya 2006; Yazdi et al. 2014).


Several of Iran’s universities specialise in arid environments, particularly Yazd University, Semnan University and Ardakan University. Iran has several desert research stations, the closest of which is the Kerman research station, founded in 1990. The Kerman research station has undertaken substantial research into the Lut Desert, especially on its botany, and has a herbarium of the region’s flora. Collaborative research has also been undertaken with various universities and organisations around the world, for example the Sorbonne University. There are no scientific research facilities within the property itself.


There are three organisations involved in the management of the property: the Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organisation, Iranian Department of Environment and the Cultural Heritage, and Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation. It is unclear as to which organisation has authority, and over what matters; however, the approval of a recently created Steering Committee has been stated as being required before any management activities are undertaken. The inaccessibility of the property, in conjunction with the harsh environmental conditions and the relatively low human occupation mean that the site has, to some extent, a ‘self-conservation’ system. Furthermore, the property does not contain many species of economic value, and was for a long time considered as a ‘dead zone’, and thus in largely pristine condition.


Despite its relative isolation, the property still experiences both human induced and environmental pressures. The human-based pressures are largely caused by development, e.g. the degradation of nebkhas and other vegetation for grazing or fuelwood. Additionally, the last decade has seen an increase in the construction of roads, as well as other infrastructure around Shahdad, in part to respond to the growing number of tourists. The higher levels of tourism have led to increased levels of erosion at the more easily accessible areas. Iron ore deposits have been identified within the property, but the State Party has guaranteed that no mining, oil or gas exploration will be undertaken. Environmental pressures are more diffuse, both spatially and temporally. Climate change is considered the most serious environmental threat to the property. Reduced precipitation and higher temperatures are for instance affecting the composition of the property’s biota. Natural disasters such as floods also occasionally happen, but are of such limited frequency that they are not considered a serious threat to the property.


The Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organisation office in Shafiabad acts as the staff headquarters for the property. There are three organisations that use this office: the Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organisation, the Iranian Department of Environment and the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation. In total, there are 20 staff based in the office, ranging from administration, guides, tourism management, scientific staff and guards.


The exact budget of the property is not stated. However, all three of the management organisations have the required financial resources and are able to apply for national and regional funds to implement their management plans.


The Office of Deputy for Cultural Heritage of Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation : Headquarters of ICHHTO, Azadi St., Tehran, Iran, Box : 13445-719, Tel : (+98) 21 – 66017071-3


The principal sources for the above information were the original nomination for World Heritage status, the IUCN evaluation report and the site’s management plan.

Amrikazemi, A. & Mehrpooya, A. (2006). Geotourism resources of Iran. Geotourism 78–95.

Estakhri, A. (1990). Masalik wa Mamalik (Al Masalek va Al Mamalek) Anonymous Persian translation from V/VI century A.H Afshar, I., Tehran, Iran.

Goudie, A. & Seely, M. (2011). World Heritage Desert Landscapes: potential priorities for the recognition of desert landscapes and geomorphological sites on the World Heritage List. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Gland, Switzerland.

Navai, S. (1971). Culicoidesfrom southern part of Lut desert, Iran with two new species (Díptera: Ceratopogonidae). Mosquito News, 31(2):199–206.

Wang, X. et al. (2010). Nebkha formation: Implications for reconstructing environmental changes over the past several centuries in the Ala Shan Plateau, China. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 297(3): 697-706.

Yazdi, A., Emami, M.H. & Shafiee, S.M. (2014). Dasht-e lut in iran, the most complete collection of beautiful geomorphological phenomena of desert. Open Journal of Geology.

Zehzad, B., Kiabi, B.H. & Madjnoonian, H. (2002). The natural areas and landscape of Iran: an overview. Zoology in the Middle East 26(1): 7-10.


December 2016.