Permissible Arms

Water, everywhere?

Posted in arabian peninsula by Karaka on 23 July 2010

I stumbled into reading this fascinating 1968 paper by Paul Ward English, The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World because I’ve been trying to figure out if Yemen’s historical shift from irrigated spice and produce exporter to impovershed, drought-stricken nation came as a result of destruction during the Mongolian invasion or from another cause I can’t pin down through variations on boolean searches.

Image of a qanat from the Irrigation Museum.

It essentially goes into the construction and operations of qanats, their historical significance, and alludes to the challenges nations might face in transitioning from this traditional technology into more modern devices. Challenges, of course, that have remained in place in the intervening forty years since the paper was published.

Most qanats in Iran are constructed by a class of professional diggers (muqannis) who inherited this task from the slaves and captives of the Achaemenid and Sassanian kings. These men form a community of traveling artisans, migrating from place to place as floods destroy qanats in one area or a lowered water table demands that qanat tunnels be lengthened in another. The tools of the muqanni are primitive: a broad-bladed pick, a shovel, and a small oil lamp. His profession is well paid but hazardous. The muqanni must work with water flowing around him, ventilation is poor, and the chances of cave-ins are great. Today, qanats are still being built by these muqannis and the techniques of construction have changed little.

The stuff you learn. I still can’t figure out the origin of the onset of Yemen’s dusty world, but I enjoyed this brief paper too much not to pass it on.

One of the things I pulled from Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted–of the many things, this book was marvellous–was that waterworks throughout the Mongol-conquered Islamic world were destroyed from a mixture of vindictiveness, suppression, and population control. It’s been rattling around in my head for awhile now, this idea that they were never rebuilt to the extent that they existed prior to the Mongolian expansion. How has that contributed to the destabilization of governments (of every stripe) in the Islamic world over time? I hesitate to make an argument similar to that of climate conflict, because simple/reductionist arguments are easily (and rightfully) refuted. But there’s a clear economic impact in the transformation of a producing society into a non-producing society, with political impact close on its heels.

Anyway. Qanats are a good start to a problem I want to understand better.

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