AN AGRI-CULTURAL PHENOMENON:
THE PERSIAN QANATS
BY RYAN DENNIS
The Persian Qanats are an ancient water distribution system which pre-dates the Roman Aqueducts. They continue to be an engineering marvel up to the present day, and a shining example of sustainable agriculture. However, with the disrupting forces of social revolutions, high-output farming and loss of tradition, the qanats are becoming imperiled. In this article by Ryan Dennis, a novelist and former Fulbright recipient whose writing focuses on rural issues, you will learn about these incredible structures, as well as hear from the oldest living caretaker of qanats (102), who fears their disappearance could mean a severing of ancestral connection.
Tractors are able to connect to GPS and drive on autopilot. Offsite mechanics can use telematics to access the onboard diagnostic systems of machines. Sheep wear electronic ear tags that send their medical and lambing history to their owner’s smartphone. Let it be said farming has seen its share of advancements.
And yet one of the greatest technological feats in agriculture occurred three thousand years ago.
During the Iron Age (approximately 1200-1000 BCE), inhabitants of ancient Persia found a way to live where no one else could: the arid desert. By engineering an extensive system of underground aqueducts called qanats, one of the world’s earliest civilizations was able to create farms and villages where little life would have otherwise existed. Significantly predating the Roman aqueducts, these qanats built thousands of years ago are still supporting agriculture in modern-day Iran, sometimes carrying water up to 50 miles from its source.
In essence, the qanat is a tunnel built underground that relies on gravity alone to transport water across the desert. While this concept of irrigation may appear fairly straightforward, the qanat is unique for several reasons. Unlike many modern irrigation systems, the qanat takes water from the top of its source—usually the mouth of an old river bed, or a lake within a mountain. Because the functioning of the qanat is contingent on extending a slope over a long distance, it must start from as high a point as possible. This means the qanat never depletes the water table below it, ensuring it remains a sustainable system which doesn’t harm the source. Moreover, the precision it takes to extend a gradient over tens of miles would be a marvel today, let alone accomplishing it with the methods of three millennia ago. The angle must be steep enough to make sure the water keeps moving and doesn’t become stagnant, yet not so sharp that it expedites erosion and collapses the tunnel.
From the sky it seems as if parts of the Iranian desert have been imprinted with rows of craters, but they are actually shafts that burrow into the qanat tunnels. The shafts are necessary during construction, allowing dust to escape the tunnel and providing oxygen to the workers. After the construction phase, these shafts are used to help maintain the qanat. Eventually the underground tunnel emerges as a ditch of running water above the surface, which is then diverted to various farms and villages.
The qanats in Iran are one of four Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems designated by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Since 2002 the FAO has been recognizing these traditional farming sites as culturally distinct models of sustainable agriculture. In addition to the Persian qanats, the FAO has also designated the rice-fish agriculture systems in China, the biodiverse terrace farming of the Peruvian Andes, and the Kuttanad below-sea-level farming system in India that uses wetlands for both rice paddies and catching fish.
In the 1960s, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the final Shah of Iran, launched a program of sweeping reforms meant to ingratiate the Pahlavi Dynasty with the country’s peasantry and preempt growing revolutionary sentiment. Land reform was a major component of the so-called White Revolution. Today, this initiative is widely seen as having paved the way for the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but it also caused massive disruption amongst Iran’s farmers and rural populations. Redistribution of lands became a source of confusion over who was responsible for maintaining individual qanats, and as a result a substantial number of them have fallen into disrepair. However, it has been estimated there are still over 20,000 in use today. Many are managed by a mirab, or caretaker. In 2017, National Geographic reported on the oldest living mirab, Mr. Gholamreza Nabipour, then aged 102. He was officially recognized as a national treasure by the Iranian government. While the qanats allow farming in places it would not otherwise be possible, they are not easily maintained. Each spring young boys are sent into the underground tunnels to clean out the sand and debris that has built up throughout the year. Their fathers wait at the entrances of the shafts to help pull up buckets of debris, standing by to rescue their sons should the tunnel collapse.
Some fear that as mirabs like Mr. Nabipour disappear, so will the knowledge required to adequately maintain the surviving qanats. As modern agricultural techniques continue to take hold, the ancient irrigation system which has sustained one of the oldest civilizations on Earth has increasingly been neglected due to its incompatibility with high-output farming. Mr. Nabipour lamented in 2017 that working qanats had become more like a hobby than a way of life, and he feared their loss would mean a severing of ancestral connection. “These qanats,” he said, “have been the source of life for me and all of my ancestors. It is my duty to preserve them until the last second of my life. If they die, I will die with them.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Dennis has appeared in numerous literary journals, such as The Cimarron Review, Fourth Genre and New England Review. He is a former Fulbright recipient in creative writing and has taught at several universities. He is the author of the literary novel The Beasts They Turned Away, forthcoming by Epoque Press in March 2021, as well as the founder of The Milk House, an online community for rural writing.