Monday, March 28, 2011

Water, Water...Underground

The Kavir Desert of central Iran is the last place I’d go looking for a piece of verdant paradise. But in the Fin suburb south of Kashan, on the edge of this great salt desert, lies a beautiful oasis called Bagh-e Fin (Fin Garden). Enclosed by sand-colored brick walls, the garden is a refuge of cypress-lined paths bordering blue-tiled channels that connect pavilions built over shallow pools of clear water. If you sit on a bench by one of the many bubbling fountains and breathe in the cool, jasmine-scented air, you’ll forget the heat and dust of the arid landscape beyond the enclosure.

The Fin Garden draws its water from the Cheshmeh Suleiman (Solomon’s Spring), located a short distance away. According to local lore, this spring has been the lifeblood of the local population for 7,000 years—and it has never dried up in all that time. But the most astonishing thing about this spring is not its longevity or Biblical name, but the fact that it is part of a man-made water system that dates back to antiquity. Known as a qanat, it is like a Roman aqueduct—turned upside down.

Qanats were invented by the Persians in pre-Islamic times as a way to ensure a regular water supply for settlements and agriculture in arid regions.They begin with a reservoir in the mountains for collecting snow runoff. Qanat builders, known as muqannis, dig a channel deep underground leading from the reservoir to the final destination, sometimes covering distances of many miles. Then they sink shafts at intervals to tap into the underground channel and bring the water to the surface. Some qanats make use of existing subterranean streams or a series of natural springs. In Iran, 22,000 qanats are still in operation today. Running the water underground, rather than in Roman-style aqueducts, prevents evaporation in the desert heat.

These Persian aqueducts are so difficult and time consuming to build and maintain that the Achaemenian kings of ancient Persia awarded land grants to anyone who could create one. It is astonishing how they could have been constructed at all without the use of heavy machinery, power tools, or even modern surveying equipment. Yet even in ancient times, the technology spread throughout the Middle East and as far west as Spain. In fact, the term, qanat, comes from the Arabic; the Persians called their water system a kareez.

Ab anbar (cistern) with 4 badgirs, Yazd, Iran
Photo by Michal Salaban
In some desert cities, including Kashan, the qanat is combined with a traditional ventilation system called a badgir (literally, wind trap). This is a wind tower constructed above a building and designed to capture the wind and direct it down into the interior, where the air passes over cool water flowing through the qanat. The result is a natural air-conditioning system.

The oldest qanat still in operation lies in the northeastern Iranian province of Razavi Khorasan, which shares borders with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. This aqueduct supplies water to nearly 40,000 people in and around the city of Gonabad. It is estimated to be 2,500 years old and is being considered as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Kashan qanat captured my imagination on a visit to the Fin Garden. Our guide explained how the water system fed the small fountains bubbling along the garden’s narrow water channels by using precisely calculated angles and the force of gravity rather than pumps.  Later, after we left the cool shade of the leafy oasis, the guide led us down a dusty lane to another walled enclosure. This turned out to be the Cheshmeh Suleiman, a pool of dark water surrounded by gray rock. I sat on a stone and gazed into the spring, which looked deep enough to emanate from the very center of the earth. How clever the ancient Persians were, I thought, to channel this unassuming pool of water through the ground and carve a life-supporting environment out of the desert.


  1. It could not be a paradise, but the desert has its charm.
    I'm currently in a Buenos Aires apartment looking forward to make an exotic trip!

  2. Oh, I agree that the desert has it's own attraction. As long as you're not driving down a dusty road and breathing nothing but sand. :)

  3. This is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read! Not only I didn't know there was so much water in Persia, but I had no idea the ancient engineers knew how to direct wind. And of course, can't help it with my typical "how languages travel" observation - anbar (in Russian ambar) means "barn" - a place of storage.

  4. That's fascinating the way the words are so similar!

    I first learned about the wind towers on that trip to Kashan. They have some old merchant homes that are now museums (one is even being made into a hotel), where the main living quarters are underground. When you go down there, you can feel the breeze being conducted through the house. It's interesting the way people adapted to their environment, living underground in a place that was intolerably hot in summer and very cold in winter.