Building a Better Qanat
In the Sahara, they're called foggara, and considered a romantic mystery. They were made by men--but which men, and when, has been forgotten by the Berber Arabs of north Africa; this is a piece of
their history which they have lost. Their origin is unknown. And yet the foggara still exist, they still
do the work they were made to do. All lie underground. They all run downhill. Some lie several
hundred feet beneath the sand dunes, and some run several hundred miles from source to outlet.
Others are only a few feet down, and some have undoubtedly fallen into ruin, and been swallowed up
by the desert. They are all very old, certainly.
They are rivers, but artificial ones.
They are buried watercourses crossing the desert.
In Berber Arabic, the word for them is foggara; in Turkish, qanat; in Persian, qarez. In the Sahara,
they're a mystery. But they can be found elsewhere, spread across a vast portion of inner Asia: in
Iran, in Iraq, in Turkey, in Afghanistan and the USSR, and in Sinkiang province of China. They're a
piece of ancient technology still being used today. They probably came before aqueducts, and have
certainly outlasted them, but their purpose is exactly the same: to carry water.
This is how qanats were being built by Iranian peasants in the 1950's:
First, you need a man with money to invest. Qanats are a good, sound investment: a well-made qanat
can be used by many families for many, many years. Two or three good qanats will supply all the
irrigation water for a small village. And the man who builds the qanat owns the water that runs
through it; the family who owns a qanat will be collecting revenue for several generations to come.
Next, you need a water-finding expert. The process by which they locate a water-source is apparently
a jealously-guarded secret. But what is needed is a good well, about three hundred feet deep, with
enough water that the bottom will accumulate a depth of two meters overnight. It has to be uphill of
the area to be irrigated; that's very important. If it's not uphill, it's useless.
Surveyors follow the water-finding expert, and dig their well. This well is called 'the mother well'.
The surveyors measure its depth with a rope. They calculate where the qanat will come out . . . and
this must be on lower ground (naturally!) feasible for farming. (Most of the Asian desert is feasible for
farming--just as long as you can get water to it.)
But this is how the surveyors find the spot where water will flow out: they set a pole upright, some
distance downhill from the mother well. And stretch a string taut--from the well, to the pole. The
string has to be leveled, and this they do by dripping water on it, and adjusting the tilt of the string until
this water runs both ways (!!). Then they note the spot where this string meets the pole, and measure
the height of the pole on the rope which measures the mother well's depth. They tie off a knot on the
rope to mark it. Then they set out another pole downhill, mark the height, tie another knot, etc . . . and
when the whole length of the string is knotted off, they have found the level at which the water must
emerge. Theoretically. It seems like a hit-or-miss prospect to anyone raised with Western
engineering; but this is stone-age technology, done with stone-age tools. And it does work: the proof
is in the qanats.
The last task given to these surveyors is to dig shafts every three hundred yards along the course of the
qanat, referring to the knotted string to dig to the correct depth.
Next, qanat experts called muqannis are called in. Wise men that they are, they start a little downhill
from the emergence level indicated by the surveyors. The surveyors' shafts guide them, but they dig
their own shafts every fifty feet or so, to remove material and for ventilation. Then they dig the qanat's
channel, starting at the bottom and burrowing until they come to the top, and this is the channel down
which the water will run. This is the business part of the qanat, and the muqannis dig the whole thing
underground. It's a tunnel linking all these shafts together.
The channel is kept reasonably straight by placing two lamps in it, behind the diggers and several yards
apart from each other. Then, the diggers can glance back over their shoulders as they work; if they
see the two flames superimposed on each other, they know the way is straight. Nevertheless, there
are usually sharp kinks in the channel just below each well, marking errors in the direction taken by the
muqannis. Remember, these diggers start at the bottom and work uphill toward the mother well.
When the muqannis reach water-bearing strata, the seepage runs away down the channel behind them.
Just before the channel breaks through to it, someone has to empty the mother well; otherwise, the
diggers won't be happy men. (You could lose a lot of muqannis that way.) However, once the
channel breaks through, the muqannis are finished. If need be, they brace the qanat walls with oval
bricks. They leave the original shafts open, so that they can climb down into the qanats and clean them
if necessary; for muqannis also hire themselves out as qanat maintenance men.
And there you have it: a working qanat. A great boon to the community. It will be honored with a
name of its own, for qanats are always given names. On the surface, it will be visible from an airplane:
it will be a line of perfectly round green spots running across barren ground, and these green spots are
lush grass growing around each ventilation shaft. The shafts themselves are usually capped with
wooden covers, but obviously the moisture escapes. The channels of the qanat will be about four feet
wide, and muqannis will walk them regularly, cleaning them as sewers are cleaned--and ducking, for
bats with eight-inch wingspans live in the qanat tunnels and fly in and out at every exit. At the qanat's
outlet, canals will run in every direction, carrying the water to fields and gardens and houses. A single
qanat in Iran usually run two miles or more, and irrigates an area two miles square.
Of course, a canal could also carry the water to its destination. But the great thing about a qanat is that
it runs underground. The water it carries won't evaporate along the way. Less water is lost than
would be in a canal.
All the Iranian qanats have fish in them. These fish are healthy, normal fish, neither blind nor white; the
local people do not know where they come from, but they could get into the qanats in the spring, when
rivers and springs overflow their banks and whole areas become flooded. In the nineteen-fifties, Iranian
peasants believed that qanat fish lived forever, needing no nourishment but their own eggs; but then they
also believed that the snails which lived in the qanats were actually fish eggs. They believed that
hedgehogs live on sunlight, that crocodiles flourished in the desert, and that all porcupines were
immortal; they also believed that a treasure lay at the source of every qanat, and upon one day every
year, the largest fish in each individual qanat wore a golden crown borrowed from this treasure hoard.
There are hundreds of qanats in the Old World.
Some are extremely ancient, going back perhaps beyond the dawn of written history--that is, they may
be several thousand years old. The oldest qanats are in Persia, but the furthest-east of all qanats are
probably at the oasis city of Turfan in China. Turfan used to be an important stop on the Gobi desert
caravan routes; it's an artificial oasis, watered by qanats (but the people there call them qarez) which
were begun in the eighteenth century and which now supply most of the area's irrigation. The Turfan
qanats were dug by Turki experts imported from Persia, because the Chinese never mastered the art.
The furthest-west qanats were probably in southern Spain, dug by the Moors: buried watercourses
served to irrigate Andalusia, and buried watercourses supplied all the water used by the city of Madrid.
In central Asia, qanats can be seen all over the place. Where Romans invented aqueducts, the
Persians invented qanats; and yet while everyone who reads this tale will probably know what
aqueducts are, hardly anyone in the West knows about qanats.
That's a pity. More people should know. When history is forgotten, mysteries are created. We've
already forgotten how Stonehenge was raised, and how the pyramids were built, and why; those things
may have been as commonplace as qanats once, and yet now they're lost forever. Want another
example of the loss of knowledge? Here it is . . .
In the Sahara desert, to this very day, innocent tourists are probably hearing exotic tales of the
foggaras. And yet these foggaras are qanats, just like those in Iran; they are qanats that have been
covered by the shifting sands, until some of them lie impossibly far beneath the surface and no one
knows how they could possibly have been made. They're only qanats. They're probably quite old,
and certainly very-well made; they may be a miracle among qanats; but they are only qanats, and they
are no mystery.
Lattimore, Owen, The Desert Road to Turkestan (for a description of qarez in the Gobi desert).
Smith, Anthony, Blind White Fish in Persia (published in 1953, this book is a veritable trove of qanat
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Last Updated April 28, 2000 by Sylvia