This was my first time in desert country. Like so many before me, I asked myself, “How have people managed to live in such a dry climate for thousands of years?” Of course the key is water. Finding it, moving it, storing and distributing it. Much of Iran’s dry land is very fertile when irrigated.
Out for an evening stroll in the city of Yazd, we turned the corner from a busy street into a dark and quiet alley. There in front of us were six lighted bādgirs behind a high wall. The top of a dome emerged between them. Bādgirs, or wind-catchers, are an ancient form of air-conditioning that has been used in this hot desert climate for thousands of years. Towers open to anywhere from four to eight sides at the top, so that even the smallest breeze can be captured. The air moves downward and over a pool underneath. Bādgirs were used in houses and public places to make life more livable. And they really work!
Does the water cool the air or vice versa? Probably both. At night when the air is colder it may cool the water and during the heat of the day the water cools the air. In the Yazd Water Museum we saw that vegetables were kept over a pool of water in basements of older houses, which in turn sat under an opening to the sky.
Here are the bādgirs we saw in the Yazd alley. The top of the āb anbār’s dome is just visible.
Here’s a short video about the museum. It is in Farsi, but you’ll enjoy the pictures even if you don’t understand the language.
Back to the dark alley. A sign on the high wall indicated that this was an āb anbār — a water storage reservoir or cistern — no longer in use but open to the public during the day. It was tantalizing but deserted. Just as we were about to move on, a watchman came out through a small door. Hossein chatted with him, a few rials changed hands, and he took us inside. What a treat to have it to ourselves! The dome came right down to the ground and the bādgirs towered above us. Being so close to them was awe-inspiring.
Another āb anbār, this one at a disused Zoroastrian site in Yazd.
A tiny door squeaked as the caretaker opened it. He took us inside the structure. Ducking our heads and descending a few stone steps, we saw the huge open space below us, where the water once was. We felt the cool breezes coming from the wind towers and looked at the place where an underground channel had brought water in, and at platforms where people filled their water containers.
After we’d seen our fill, the watchman took us around the outside to see two wide staircases leading to the platforms. Their artistic decoration speaks eloquently of the importance of water. There are two staircases – one for Muslims and the other for Zoroastrians. (Yazd is a major centre for Zoroastrianism, which predated Islam in Iran.) Water could be obtained from taps, warmer at the top and cooler at the bottom of the stairs. Fleur recalls that when she went to an āb anbār as a child, she was told not to go to the platform at the bottom as it could be dangerously slippery from moss or algae.
The government now provides piped water to city buildings, and some āb anbārs have been turned into tourist attractions like the one we visited. Another has been converted into a venue for zurkhāne, an ancient form of men’s exercise. In rural areas some āb anbārs and public water taps are still in use, as are a great number of ancient water channels. (For more on the āb anbār see this link.)
But I was already fascinated by water question before my trip. I had read and told a story about a city whose water flowed from seven mountain springs down to the fields and to the city itself. When some power-hungry snakes diverted the water, the streams and irrigation channels dried up and people immediately feared for their lives. They couldn’t survive a day without water. The story is called shahr māran (City of Snakes) by Fereydun Hedayatpur. For some of the delightful illustrations see this link.
I began to investigate. In the story the water simply flowed from the springs through channels above ground. But often when the distance was long and the weather very hot, an underground system was needed — since otherwise the water would evaporate before arriving at its destination. And so the qanāt was invented. As much as 3000 years ago people calculated the angle at which the water must flow — not too fast and not too slowly. A qanāt is a large channel that may extend as far as 100 km. If the ground is hard enough, qanāts are not lined but if the earth is soft, linings are installed. The channel must be big enough for a man to move around in while digging, cleaning and maintaining it. Wells are opened along the pathway for this purpose, but it is a very dangerous job, since there is always the danger of a collapse.
The water emerges from the qanāt beside the tree,
and flows along an irrigation channel.
Workers dress in white — the color used to clothe the dead, to show their constant awareness this danger. At the Yazd Water Museum we met a man who had done that job. He was treated with the utmost respect for his willingness to sacrifice his life so that his people would have that first essential for human survival.
The water would flow to the public āb anbār but some might be diverted into the homes of the wealthy, who had their own storage places in their basements. In some cases they might have their own qanāts or connections to the main system. Fleur explained how the water was measured when it was being diverted to homes along the way. Each diversion had a gate. When it was opened, the measuring began, using a “cup” which was placed at the top of a container of water. The cup had a small hole in the bottom. It was known how long it took for the cup to fill, and when it sank, the gate would be closed.
Water is valuable as gold. Large pools, fountains and even waterfalls in the gardens of aristocracy and royalty — and now in public gardens, made a great show of wealth, besides giving pleasure to the inhabitants. They also served as storage space for water.
Water is pumped to the top of this waterfall in the city of Shirāz
In fact, the water system had a huge influence on the development of cities. Wealthy people made their homes closest to the source for freshest water. Mystics meditated beside pools. Water is the story of Yazd — everything depends on it. Every piece of history involves water — getting it, distributing it, paying for it and fighting over it.
From here on when traveling through the countryside I kept my eye open for waterways, usually stone-lined canals leading to gardens and orchards. I loved seeing the places where qanāt water comes out of the ground and continues along the canal.
For more information on qanāts you can go here, also here.
Continue the journey as I experience my birthday in Iran!
Please feel free to contact me with comments and questions.