Étiquette : Egypt

 

Persian Qanâts and the Civilization of Hidden Waters


By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.

World Day of handwashing, UNICEF.

By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.

At a time when old diseases make their return and new ones emerge worldwide, the tragic vulnerability of much of humanity poses an immense challenge.

One wonders whether to laugh or cry when international authorities trumpet without further clarification that to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, “all you have to do” is “wash your hands with soap and water”!

They forget one small detail: 3 billion people do not have facilities to wash their hands at home and 1.4 billion have no access to either water or soap!

Yet, since the dawn of time, mankind has demonstrated its capacity to mobilize its creative genius to make water available in the most remote places.

Here is a short presentation of a marvel of such human genius, the “qanâts”, an underground water conveyance system dating from the Iron Age. Probably of Egyptian origin, it was deployed on a large scale in Persia from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC.



The qanât or underground aqueduct

Typical cross-section of a qanât.

Sometimes called “horizontal drilling”, the qanât is an underground aqueduct employed to draw water from a water table and convey it by simple gravitational effect to urban settlements and farmland. The word qanât is an old Semitic word, probably Accadian, derived from a root qanat (reed) from which come canna and canal.

This “drainage gallery”, cut into the rock or built by man, is certainly one of the earliest and most ingenious inventions for irrigation in arid and semi-arid regions. The technique offers a significant advantage: by conveying water through an underground conduit, contrary to open air canals, not a single drop of water is wasted by evaporation.

Oases’ are NOT natural phenomena. All known oases are man-made. It is the qanât technique that allows man, in a given geographic configuration, to create oases in the middle of the desert, when a water table is close enough to the ground level or at a site close to the bed of a river lost in the sands of the desert.

From Mexico till China, diffusion of qanât technique.

Copied and expanded by the Romans, the qanât technique was carried across the Atlantic to the New World by the Spaniards, where many such underground canals still function in Peru and Chile. In fact, there are even Persian qanâts in western Mexico.


While today this three thousand year old technique may not be appropriate everywhere to solve current water scarcity problems in arid and semi-arid regions, it has much to inspire us as a demonstration of human genius at its best, that is, capable of doing a lot with a little.


The oases of Egypt

Egyptian man-made oasis of Dakhleh.



Today, 95% of the Egyptian population prospers on only 5% of its territory, mainly around the Nile delta. Hence, from the earliest days of Egyptian civilization, irrigation and water storage techniques for the Nile floods were developed in order to conserve this silty, nutrient-rich water for use throughout the year.

The river water was diverted and transported by canals to the fields by gravity. Since water from the Nile did not reach the oases, the Egyptians used the gushing water from the springs, which came from the large aquifer reserves of the western desert, and conveyed it to the fields by irrigation canals.

One of the fruits of this attempt to “conquer the desert” was a sustained habitation of the Dakhleh oasis throughout the Pharaonic period, explicable not only by a commercial interest on the part of the Egyptian state, but also by the new agricultural perspectives it offered.



Roman aqueducts

With its 170 km, 106 of which are underground, the Qanat of Gadara (now in Jordan) is the largest aqueduct of antiquity. It starts from a mountain water source held back by a dam (right) to supply a series of cities east of the Jordan River, in particular Gadara, near Lake Tiberias.
The Qanât Fi’raun, or aqueduct of Gadara, in Jordan.

Closer to us in time, the Qanât Fir’aun (The Watercourse of the Pharaoh) also known as the aqueduct of Gadara, a city today in Jordan. As far as we know, this 170 km long structure, depending on the geography, combines several bridge-aqueducts (of the same type as the Gard aqueduct in France) and 106 km of underground canals using the Persian qanât technique. It is not only the longest but also the most sophisticated aqueduct of antiquity, and the fruit of a years of hydraulic engineering.

In reality, the Romans, hiring persian water experts, did nothing more than terminate in the 2nd century an ancient project designed to supply water to the “Decapolis”, a collaborative group of ten cities founded by Greek and Macedonian settlers under the Seleucid king Antiochos III (223 – 187 BC), one of the successors of Alexander the Great.

These ten cities were located on the eastern border of the Roman Empire (now in Syria, Jordan and Israel), united by language, culture and political status, each with a degree of autonomy and self-rule. Its capital, Gadara, was home to more than 50,000 people and known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, its own university attracting scholars, writers, artists, philosophers and poets. But this rich city lacked something existential : an abundance of water.

The Gadara qanat made the difference. “In the capital alone, there were thousands of fountains, watering holes and baths. Wealthy senators cooled themselves in private pools and decorated their gardens with cooling caves. The result was a record daily consumption of more than 500 liters of water per capita,” explains Matthias Schulz, author of a report on the aqueduct in Spiegel Online.

Entrance of the Gardara qanât, Jordan.



Persia

The Shahzadeh Garden in Iran, an oasis built with the age-old technique of qanats.
Maintenance



We all admire the roman aqueducts. But few of us are aware that the Romans only adapted the technique of the qanâts developed much earlier in Persia.

Indeed, it was under the Achaemenid Empire (around 559 – 330 BC.), that this technique spread slowly from Persia to the east and the west. Many qanâts can be found in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Libya), in the South East Asia (Iran, Oman, Iraq) and further east, in Central Asia, from Afghanistan to China (Xinjiang), via India.

The development of these “draining galleries” is attested in different regions of the world under various names: qanât and kareez in Iran, Syria and Egypt, kariz, kehriz in Pakistan and Afghanistan, aflaj in Oman, galeria in Spain, kahn in Balochistan, kanerjing in China, foggara in North Africa, khettara in Morocco, ngruttati in Sicily, bottini of Siena, etc.

Historically, the majority of the populations of Iran and other arid regions of Asia or North Africa depended on the water provided by the qanâts; their construction lifted entire areas to a higher “economic platform”, made deserts habitable and opened new land for agriculture. The map of demographic expansion followed the trail of the development of this new higher platform.


In his article « Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanât » (From natural rhythm to human rhythm: the life and death of a traditional technique, the qanât), Pierre Lombard, a researcher at the French CNRS, points out that this is not an artisanal and marginal process:

Until a few years ago, the importance of the ancestral technique of qanât was sometimes ignored in Central Asia, Iran, Syria, and even in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. For example, the Public Authority for Water Resources of the Sultanate of Oman estimated in 1982 that all the qanâts still in operation conveyed more than 70 % of the total water used in that country and irrigated nearly 55% of the cereal lands. Oman was still one of the few states in the Middle East to maintain and sometimes even develop its qanât network; this situation, apart from its longevity, does not appear to be exceptional. If one turns to the edges of the Iranian Plateau, one can note with Wulff (1968) the obvious discrepancy between the relative aridity of this area (between 100 and 250 mm of annual precipitation) and its non-negligible agricultural production, and explain it by one of the densest networks of qanâts in the Middle East. It can also be recalled that until the construction of the Karaj dam in the early 1960s, the two million inhabitants of Tehran at that time consumed exclusively the water brought from the Elbourz foothills by several dozen regularly maintained qanâts. Finally, we can mention the case of some major oases in the Near and Middle East (Kharga in Egypt, Layla in Saudi Arabia, Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, etc.) or in Central Asia (Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan) that owe their vast development, if not their very existence, to this remarkable technique.”

On the website ArchéOrient, the French archaeologist Rémy Boucharlat, Director of Research Emeritus at the CNRS, an Iran expert, explains:

“Whatever the origin of the water, deep or not, the technique of construction of the gallery is the same. First, the issue is to identify the presence of water, either its going underground near a river, or the presence of a water table under a foothill, which requires the science and experience of specialists. A motherwell will be dug to reach the top of the water table, indicating at which depth the [horizontal] gallery should be drilled. It’s slope must be very small, less than 2‰, so that the flow of water is calm and regular, and conduct the water gradually to the surface area, according to a gradient much lower than the slope of the foothill.

“The gallery is then dug, not starting from the mother well because it would be immediately flooded, but from downstream, from the point of arrival. The conduct is first dug in an open trench, then covered, and finally gradually sinks into the ground in a tunnel. For the evacuation of soil and ventilation during excavation, as well as to identify the direction of the gallery, shafts are dug from the surface at regular intervals, between 5 and 30 m depending on the nature of the land ».

Aireal view of persian qanât system.

In April 1973, Lyndon LaRouche’s friend, the French-Iranian professor and historian Aly Mazahéri (1914-1991), published his translation from Arab into French of “The Civilization of Hidden Waters”, a treatise on the exploitation of underground waters composed in the year 1017 by the Persian hydrologist Mohammed Al-Karaji, who lived in Baghdad. (Translated in English in 2011)

After an introduction and general considerations on geography, natural phenomena, the water cycle, the study of terrain and the instruments of the hydrologist, Al-Karaji gives a highly precise technical outline of the construction and maintenance of qanâts, as well as legal considerations respecting their management and maintenance.

Commentary on the qanâts in the treatise of Al-Karaji (11th century).

In his introduction to Al-Karji’s treatise, Professor Mazaheri emphasizes the role of the Iranian city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan). This ancient city, he says, was part of

“the long series of oases extending at the foot of the northern slope of the Iranian plateau, from the Caspian to the first foothills of the Pamirs. There, between the geological extension of the Caspian towards the East, there is a strip of arable land, more or less wide, but very fertile. Now, to exploit it, a lot of ingenuity is needed: where, for example in Merv, a big river, such as the Marghab, coming from the glaciers of the central East-Iranian massif, crosses the chain, it is necessary to establish dams, above the strip of arable land, without which, the ‘river’, divided into several dozens of arms, rushes under the sands. Elsewhere, and it is almost all along the northern slope of the chain, one can create artificial oases, by bringing the water by underground aqueducts.” (p. 44)

The construction of dams and underground aqueducts are among the most interesting legacies of their (the ancient Persians) irrigation techniques (…) Long before Islam, the Persian hydrologists had built thousands of aqueducts, allowing the creation of hundreds of villages, dozens of cities previously unknown. And very often, even where there was a river, because of the insufficiency of this one, the hydronomists had brought to light many aqueducts allowing the extension of the culture and the development of the city. Naishabur was such a city. Under the Sassanids, and later under the Caliphs, an important network of aqueducts had been created there, so that the inhabitants could afford the luxury of owning a ‘’bathing room’ in the basement, at the level of the aqueduct serving the house.”

Water room of a qanat in the basement of the Water Museum in Yadz, Iran.

Let us recall that most Persian scholars, including the famous mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, not suffering from today’s hyper-specialization that tends to curb creative thinking, excelled in mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine as well as in hydrology.

Mazaheri confirms that this “civilization of underground waters” spread well beyond the Iranian borders:

“Already, under the [Umayyad] Caliph Hisham (723-42), Persian hydronomists built aqueducts between Damascus and Mecca (…) Later, Mecca suffering from lack of water, Zubayda, the wife of Hâroun Al-Rachîd, sent Persian hydronomists there who endowed the city with a large underground aqueduct. And each time the latter was silted up, a new team left Persia to restore the network: such repairs took place periodically under Al-Muqtadir (908-32), under Al-Qa’im (1031-1075), under Al-Naçir (1180-1226) and, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, under the Mongol prince Emir Tchoban. We would say the same of Medina and the stages on the pilgrimage route, between Baghdad and Mecca, wherever it was possible to do so, hydronomic works were undertaken and ‘underground aqueducts’ were created.

Hydronomy is a highly demanding skill. To practice it, it is not enough to have mathematical knowledge: decadal calculus, algebra, trigonometry, etc., it is necessary to spend long hours in the galleries at the risk of dying by flooding, landslide or lack of air. It is necessary to have an ancestral instinct of ‘dowser’.”

The annual rainfall in Iran is 273 mm, which is less than one third of the world’s average annual precipitation.

The temporal and spatial distribution of precipitation is not uniform; about 75% occurs in a small area, mainly on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, while the rest of the country does not receive sufficient rainfall. On the temporal scale, only 25% of the precipitation occurs during the plant growing season.

7,7 x the circonférence of the Earth

Still in use today in Iran, qanâts currently supply about 7.6 billion m3 of water, close to 15% of the country’s total water needs.

Considering that the average length of each qanât is 6 km in most parts of the country, the total length of the 30,000 qanât systems (potentially exploitable today) is about 310,800 km, which is about 7.7 times the circumference of the Earth or 6/7th of the Earth-Moon distance!

This shows the enormous amount of work and energy applied to build the qanâts. In fact, while more than 38,000 qanâts were in operation in Iran till 1966, its number dropped to 20,000 in 1998 and is currently estimated at 18,000. According to the Iranian daily Tehran Times, historically, over 120,000 qanat sites are documented.

Moreover, while in 1965, 30-50% of Iran’s total water needs were met by qanats, this figure has dropped to 15% in recent decades.

According to the Face Iran website:

The water flow of qanâts is estimated between 500 and 750 cubic meters per second. As land aridity tends to vary according to the abundance of rains in each region, this quantity of water is used as a more or less important supplement. This makes it possible to use good land that would otherwise be barren. The importance of the impact on the desert can be summarized in one figure: about 3 million hectares. In seven centuries of hard work, the Dutch conquered 1.5 million hectares from the marshes or the sea. In three millennia, the Iranians have conquered twice as much on the desert.

Indeed, to each new qanât corresponded a new village, new lands. From where a new human group absorbed the demographic surplus. Little by little the Iranian landscape was constituted. At the end of the qanat, is the house of the chief, often with one floor. It is surrounded by the villagers’ houses, animal shelters, gardens and market gardens.

The distribution of land and the days of irrigation of the plots were regulated by the chief of the villages. Thus, a qanat imposed a solidarity between the inhabitants.”

If each qanât is “invented” and supervised by a mirab (dowser-hydrologist and discoverer), the realization of a qanât is a collective task that requires several months or years, even for medium-sized qanâts, not to mention works of record dimensions (a 300 m deep mother-well, a 70 km long gallery classified in 2016 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, in northeast Iran).

Each undertaking is carried out by a village or a group of villages. The absolute necessity of a collective investment in the infrastructure and its maintenance requires a higher notion of the common good, an indispensable complement to the notion of private property that rains and rivers do not take in account.

In the Maghreb, the management of water distributed by a khettara (the local name for qanâts) follows traditional distribution norms called “water rights”. Originally, the volume of water granted per user was proportional to the work contributed to build the khettara, translated into an irrigation time during which the beneficiary had access to the entire flow of the khettara for his fields. Even today, when the khettara has not dried up, this rule of the right to water persists and a share can be sold or bought. Because it is also necessary to take into account the surface area of the fields to be irrigated by each family.

The causes of the decline of the qanâts are numerous. Without endorsing the catastrophist theses of an anti-human ecology, it must be noted that in the face of the increasing urban population, the random construction of dams and the digging of deep wells equipped with electric pumps have disturbed and often depleted the aquifers and water tables.

A neoliberal ideology, falsely described as “modern”, also prefers the individualistic “manager” of a well to a collective management organized among neighbors and villages. A passive State authority has done the rest. In the absence of more thoughtful reflection on its future, the age-old system of qanâts is on the verge of extinction as a result.

In the meantime, the Iranian population has grown from 40 to over 82 million in 40 years. Instead of living off oil, the country is seeking to prosper through agriculture and industry. As a result, the need for water has increased substantially. To cope with rising demands, Iran is desalinating sea water at great cost. Its civilian nuclear program will be the key factor to provide water at a reasonable cost.

Beyond political and religious divisions, closer cooperation between all the countries in the region (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, etc.) with a perspective to improve, develop, manage and share water resources, will be beneficial to each and all.

Presented as an “Oasis Plan” and promoted for decades by the American thinker and economist Lyndon LaRouche, such a policy, translating word into action, is the only basis of a true peace policy.

Bibliography :

  • Remy Boucharlat, The falaj or qanât, a polycentric and multi-period invention, ArcheOrient – Le Blog, September 2015 ;
  • Pierre Lombard, Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanat, Persée, 1991 ;
  • Aly Mazaheri, La civilisation des eaux cachées, un traité de l’exploitation des eaux souterraines composé en 1017 par l’hydrologue perse Mohammed Al-Karaji, Persée, 1973 ;
  • Hassan Ahmadi, Arash Malekian, Aliakbar Nazari Samani, The Qanat: A Living History in Iran, January 2010;
  • Evelyne Ferron, Egyptians, Persians and Romans: the interests and stakes of the development of Egyptian oasis environments.

NOTE:

[1] The ten cities forming the Decapolis were: 1) Damascus in Syria, much further north, sometimes considered an honorary member of the Decapolis; 2) Philadelphia (Amman in Jordan); 3) Rhaphana (Capitolias, Bayt Ras in Jordan); 4) Scythopolis (Baysan or Beit-Shean in Israel), which is said to be its capital; It is the only city west of the Jordan River; 5) Gadara (Umm Qeis in Jordan); 6) Hippos (Hippus or Sussita, in Israel); 7) Dion (Tell al-Ashari in Syria); 8) Pella (Tabaqat Fahil in Jordan); 9) Gerasa (Jerash in Jordan) and 10) Canatha (Qanawat in Syria)

Merci de partager !
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The splendors of the kingdoms of Ife and Benin

Bronze and terracotta heads excavated in Ife, Nigeria, (XIIth-XIVth Century).

The breathtaking beauty of the XIIth century bronze heads of Ife (Nigeria) challenge the colonial view that Africa was a virgin continent, populated by animals and a few primitive tribes which failed walking their first steps into « history ».

Today inhabited by a half million people, the city of Ife in southwest Nigeria, was formerly the religious center and former capital of the Yoruba people whose prosperity was essentially the fruit of their trade with the peoples of West Africa along the 4200 km long Niger River and beyond.

What some call today “Yorubu-land”, inhabited by some 55 million people, covered some 142,000 km2 comprising vast parts of countries such as today’s Nigeria (76%), Benin (18.9%) and Togo (6.5%).

Today, the Yoruba people live in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and, since the slave trade, in the United States. It is not surprising, therefore, that yoruba, also the name of one of the three major languages of Nigeria, is also spoken in parts of Benin and Togo, as well as in the West Indies and Latin America, including Cuba and other settlements populated by descendants of African slaves.

An extraordinary discovery

It was in January 1938, during excavation work for the construction of a house, that workers discovered an unusual treasure in the Wunmonije district of Ife. At a mere hundred meters distance away of the site of what once was the Royal Palace, they unearthed thirteen magnificent bronze heads dating from the XIIth century representing a king (an « Ooni« ), some women and courtiers. Others have since been unearthed.

Their faces, except for the lips, are covered with grooves. The hairstyle suggests a complex crown composed of several layers of tubular balls, topped by a crest with a rosette and an « egret ». The surface of this crown bears traces of red and black paint.

These large heads may have been used as effigies of the deceased in funeral ceremonies, which, among the Yoruba, sometimes took place a year after the rapid burial of the dead imposed by the tropical climate.

At the time of the discovery, the extremely naturalist rendering of the heads is considered anachronistic in the art of sub-Saharan Africa, and even more disturbing than the very “classical” i.e. realistic “mummy portraits” (Ist-IInd century) discovered as early as 1887 in the Faiyum depression of Egypt.

Yet a long tradition of figurative sculpture with similar characteristics as the bronze heads of Ife existed before, particularly among the Nok, a people of farmers who mastered iron metallurgy starting from 800 BC.

Hysteria

Bronze head, site of Wunmonije, Ife, Nigeria (XIIth – XIVth Century).

Since 1938, the « heads of Ife » have provoked reactions close to hysteria in Europe and the West in general.

On the one hand, the « modernists » and the « abstract » artists of the early XXth century, for whom the more abstract a sculpture is and the more distant it is from reality, the more it was considered as typically African. For those who were inspired by African « abstract » art to free themselves from what they considered as materialistic naturalism, the heads of Ife brutally challenged their self-deceiving “smart” narrative.

On the other hand, especially for the supporters of colonial imperialism, this art simply could not be. Frank Willett, at one point the head of the Nigerian Department of Antiquities and author of Ife, an African civilization (Editions Tallandier, 1967), reported that « Europeans visiting Ife frequently wonder how people living in houses of dried mud, with straw roofs, could have made such beautiful objects as the bronzes and terracotta in the museum ». Trying to answer that question, the publisher Sir Mortimer Wheeler replied: “The prejudice is alive and well that artistic creation and sensitivity cannot exist without domestic talent and sanitary comfort!”

The questions of the Europeans were numerous. How, in the XIIth century, could primitive peoples, who had never known an organized form of state, have made bronze heads of such refinement, using techniques that even Europe failed to master at that juncture? How could it have been possible, for tribes, subjected to superstition and irrational magic, could have observed the human anatomy so meticulously? How could savages have expressed such noble feelings towards both men and women? Faced with such an unbearable paradox, total denial was their only answer.

The German archeologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1938).

Hence, when the German archaeologist Leo Frobenius presented the bronze heads, western experts refused to believe in the existence of an African civilization capable of leaving artifacts of a quality they recognized as comparable to the best artistic achievements of ancient Rome or Greece. In a desperate attempt to explain what passed for an anomaly, Frobenius, without the slightest semblance of proof, came up with the theory that these heads had been cast by a Greek colony founded in the XIIIth century BC, and that the latter could be at the origin of the old legend of the lost civilization of Atlantis, a narrative immediately adopted in chorus by the mass media…

Bronze

Bronze head, site of Wunmonije, Ife, Nigeria (XIIth – XIVth Century).

What first shocked Western experts was that these were not carved wood but sophisticated bronze heads (about 70 % copper, 16.5 % zinc and 11.3 % lead).

Given the extreme scarcity of copper ore in Nigeria, these objects demonstrate that the region had trade relations with distant countries. The ore is believed to have come from Central Europe, northwest Mauritania, the Byzantine Empire or, via the Niger River, from Timbuktu where the ore arrived by camel from southern Morocco.

If during the Neolithic period, copper, gold and silver nuggets were hammered cold or hot, it is only starting from the Bronze Age that man develops the science of real metallurgy. From ores, he was then able to extract metals thanks to a precise heat treatment, made possible by the experience of the ceramists of the time, great experts in the construction of high temperature ovens.

Copper only melts at 1083° Celsius, but by adding tin (which melts at 232°) and lead (which melts at 327°), it is possible to obtain bronze at 890° and brass at 900°. The terracotta is made at low temperature, around 600 to 800°. It should be underlined that in China, since the Shang Dynasty (1570-1045 BC), certain types of porcelain obtained much higher temperatures, between 1000 and 1300° Celsius, obtained thanks to the use of charcoal.

The oldest traces of ceramics in sub-Saharan Africa are thought to date back to more than 9000 BC, and perhaps earlier. Bu some fragmentary shards have been discovered in West Africa, in this case in Mali, and considered dating from 12000 BC. Ceramics also were produced further south, notably by the Nok culture in northern Nigeria at the beginning of the first millennium BC.

Lost-wax casting

What also shocked the experts was that the technique used to make them was the quite sophisticated so-called « lost-wax casting » or “cire perdue” technique, a high precision molding process that is still used today to make church bells.

First, a model was made out of wax. This was covered with fine clay to form a mold, which was then heated so that the wax melted and ran away. Molten metal was poured into the clay mold which would be broken open to release the complete object.

Clearly, the foundries producing these artifacts required a highly skilled and well organized professional labor force.

The exceptional know-how and skills of the bronze founders of Ife was preceded by those of Igbo-Ukwu in eastern Nigeria where in 1939 a tomb filled with artifacts dating from the IXth century was discovered, revealing the existence of a powerful and refined kingdom mastering the famous lost-wax casting technique, but which so far could not be linked to any other culture in the region.

Bronze heads and other objects excavated in Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria (IXth Century).

The oldest known example of the lost-wax technique comes from a 6,000-year-old wheel-shaped copper amulet found at Mehrgarh in today’s Pakistan. Although China, Greece and Rome mastered this technique, it was not until the Renaissance that it made its return to Europe.

Ife, an organized state

Pre-colonial kingdoms and states in Africa.
Terracotta head, site of Wunmonije, Ife, Nigeria (XIIth – XIVth Century).
Bronze head of a King (Ooni), site of Wunmonije, Ife, Nigeria (XIIth – XIVth Century).

In reality, the art of Ife challenged the colonial theory that Africa was a virgin land, populated by animals and a few primitive tribes who had never taken their first steps in « history ».

Indeed, any evidence showing the existence of empires, kingdoms or great states on the African continent that allowed Africans to govern themselves peacefully for centuries could only de-legitimize the « civilizing mission » of colonialism.

However, according to oral traditions, Ife was founded in the 9th-10th centuries by Oduduwa, through the fusion of 13 villages into a single city becoming the hearth of Yoruba mythology, who considers Ife as the cradle of humanity and the center of the world.

Recognized as a minor god, Oduduwa became the first Ooni (King) and had an Aafin (palace) built. He ruled with the help of the isoro, former village chiefs who had recovered a religious title and were subject to royal political authority.

According to the same oral traditions, Oduduwa is said to have been an exiled Prince of a foreign people, who left his homeland and traveled south with his suite, settling among the Yoruba around the XIIth century. His religious faith, that he brought with him, was so important to him and his followers that it would have been the cause of their exodus in the first place.

Bronze statue of a tender king offering a helping hand to his Queen. Site of Ita Yemoo, Ife, Nigeria, (XII to XIVth Century).

Oduduwa’s land or country of origin remains a matter of debate. For some, he comes from Mecca, for others from Egypt, as the technical skills he brought with him are supposed to demonstrate.

So far, most historians have looked to influences arriving by sea and waterways. However, it is a very plausible hypothesis that travel routs through the savanna, could have connected the Niger Delta with the Nile, like a sort of great transcontinental land-bridge, passing notably via Chad, a region where thousands of early cave paintings testify the vivacity of pictorial creativity.

As our good friend Kotto Essomé repeatedly underlined, African states often prospered along the climatic zones, following “horizontally” the longitudes. Colonial borders were deliberately drawn (laterally or “vertically”) to break the natural boundaries of pre-colonial African states.

In oppostion to current (colonial) borders, African states often developed horizontally parallel to climate zones. This map shows a tiny red strip of dense urban settlements stretching from Senegal in the East to the Nile in the West, in a climate zone of temperate savannas, optimal for both cattle raising and farming.

Now, as this map clearly indicates, a horizontal “ribbon” of habitable urban areas, on the borderline between the herbaceous and wooded savanna, stretches over the entire continent from the Atlantic till the Southern Nile. Unsurprisingly, this particular climatic and geographical area might have been optimally suited for both hunting, agriculture and cattle raising.

From their part, the Edo people of Benin City believed that Oduduwa was in fact a prince of their extraction, who would have fled Benin during a fight over royal succession. This is why one of his descendants, Prince Oramiyan, would have been allowed to return and found the dynasty ruling the Kingdom of Benin. Prince Oramiyan was thus the first oba of Benin, successfully replacing the Ogiso monarchical system that had reigned until then.

Metallurgy

What deserves attention here is the fact that metallurgy occupies a central place in Ife. Oduduwa had a forge in his Royal palace (Ogun Laadin). Kings from different kingdoms installed their forges within the royal palace, showing the strong symbolic relationship between power and metallurgy.

Nok warrior, copper, Vth Century BC.

Contrary to what happened on other continents, the Iron Age in Africa would have preceded the Copper Age in some regions. The oldest indications documenting the transformation of iron ore in Africa date back to the third millennium BC. They are the archaeological sites of Egaro in eastern Niger and Giza and Abydos in Egypt. While the site of Buhen in Egyptian Nubia (- 1991), after working iron, became a « copper factory », the sites of Oliga in Cameroon (-1300) and Nok in Nigeria (-925) testify clearly of a dynamic metallurgical activity.

As we have seen, bronze casting techniques demonstrate the existence of a very advanced technological know-how. Ife will also be a major center for glass production, especially glass beads. The waste material of this ancestral production, made up of parts of crucibles covered with molten glass, will be looked for in the XIXth century by the inhabitants of the region, although the origin of the glass beads was neglected.

Recent archaeological excavations have shown that the settlements of this area are very ancient. But as we have seen, it was only at the beginning of the 2nd millennium that developments in the field of metallurgy would have made it possible to improve agricultural tools and generate surplus food. Yam, cassava, maize and cotton are cultivated here, the latter giving birth to an important cloth weaving industry.

View of contemporary Ife, celebrating ancient bronze heads.
Map of the remparts of Ife.

Hence, the city of Ife experienced a rapid demographic expansion thanks to this rise in agricultural productivity, itself the fruit of the mastery of an increased energy density allowing the transformation of « stones » (ores) into useful resources.

The medieval urbanization of Ife is today widely attested by the existence of numerous enclosures made of ditches and embankments, which seem to indicate the various spaces that have experienced a demographic concentration and the existence of a political body powerful enough to implement such great infrastructure programs.

Interesting, as a successful centralized state, Ife became increasingly a model for other states in the region and beyond. Several descendants and captains of Oduduwa founded their own kingdoms based on the same model and relying on the same legitimacy. The monarchical experience of Ife is exported with its cultural framework. The adé ilèkè, a crown of glass beads symbolizing royal power, is found in most monarchies in the region.

Remnants of the Sungbo Eredo Wall, close to Lagos.

In total, depending on the sources, an estimated 7 to 20 kingdoms make up the Yoruba world in the first half of the second millennium AD.

  • Oyo State in Nigeria was one of such powerful Yoruba city-states.
  • Another example, the Kingdom of Ketou, currently in the southeast of Benin, is supposed to have been founded around the XIVth century by an alleged descendant of Oduduwa. He is said to have left Ife with his family and other members of his clan and moved westward, eventually settling in the city of Aro, northeast of the city of Ketou. Aro quickly became too small for the growing population, and the decision was made to settle in Ketou. King Ede therefore left Aro with 120 families and settled in this city.
  • Another demonstration of Yoruba building science is the Sungbo Eredo Wall, near the Nigerian capital Lagos, a system of walls and ditches built in the XIVth century and located southwest of the town of Ijebu Ode, in Ogun State, southwestern Nigeria. More than 160 km (100 miles) long, these fortifications, some as high as 20 meters (65 feet), consist of a smooth-walled ditch that forms an inner moat in relation to the walls that overhang it. The ditch forms an irregular ring (Map) around the lands of the ancient kingdom of Ijebu. This ring is about 40 km in the north-south direction and 35 km in the east-west direction, which is the equivalent of the Paris périphérique ! Invaded by vegetation, the construction today looks like a green tunnel.
Map of Nigeria. In red, the Sungbo Eredo Wall.

From Ife to the Kingdom of Benin

Kingdom of Benin and its regional influence.

In the XIVth century, Ife experienced a demographic collapse, characterized by the abandonment of certain enclosures and a strong advance of the forest into formerly residential areas. There was also a break in the transmission of know-how and artisan techniques.

This demographic collapse has been explained as the result of a Black Plague, according to some authors, who draw a parallel with the pandemic waves hitting Europe at the same period.

Part of the inhabitants of Ife were able to take refuge and bring their know-how in metallurgy to the Kingdom of Benin, which lasted for seven hundred years, from the XIIth century until its invasion by the British Empire at the end of the XIXth century. Benin was a coastal West African city-state dominated by the Edos, an ethnic group whose dynasty still survives today.

Its territory covers to present-day Benin, plus part of Togo and southwestern Nigeria, where today « Benin City », a historic port on the Benin River, is located. In the heart of the city, the royal residence with monumental proportions translated visually the importance given to political, spiritual and traditional power.

Benin City, a marvel

The social organization of the city impressed European visitors at the end of the XVth century. As a major regional economic trading pole, Benin was full of ivory, pepper and slaves. Benin offered the Europeans palm oil (the oil palm growing abundantly in the region). In exchange, they requested, and obtained guns, allowing the modernization of the Beninese armament.

Located in a plain, Benin City is surrounded by massive walls to the south and deep ditches to the north. Beyond the city walls, many other walls have been erected that organize the entire region of the capital into some 500 separate boroughs.

In 2016, an article published by The Guardian recounted the lost splendor of the city. The paper reported:

The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.

Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.

Benin City in 1897.

Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fueled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

When the Portuguese first “discovered” the city in 1485, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle.

Benin City in 1686.

In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed:

“Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”

In contrast, London at the same time is described by Bruce Holsinger, professor of English at the University of Virginia, as being a city of “thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market made the medieval city ripe for exploitation by those with a skill for the quick blade or picking a pocket”.

African fractals

Benin City’s planning and design was done according to careful rules of symmetry, proportionality and repetition now known as fractal design. The mathematician Ron Eglash, author of African Fractals – which examines the patterns underpinning architecture, art and design in many parts of Africa – notes that the city and its surrounding villages were purposely laid out to form perfect fractals, with similar shapes repeated in the rooms of each house, and the house itself, and the clusters of houses in the village in mathematically predictable patterns.

As he puts it:

“When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”

At the center of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.

Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other,” writes the XVIIth-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper. “Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected.”

Dapper adds that wealthy residents kept these walls “as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper stores are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water”.

Family houses were divided into three sections: the central part was the husband’s quarters, looking towards the road; to the left the wives’ quarters (oderie), and to the right the young men’s quarters (yekogbe).

Daily street life in Benin City might have consisted of large crowds going though even larger streets, with people colorfully dressed – some in white, others in yellow, blue or green – and the city captains acting as judges to resolve lawsuits, moderating debates in the numerous galleries, and arbitrating petty conflicts in the markets.

The early foreign explorers’ descriptions of Benin City portrayed it as a place free of crime and hunger, with large streets and houses kept clean; a city filled with courteous, honest people, and run by a centralized and highly sophisticated bureaucracy.

Bronze plaque showing in the background the pillars of the Royal Palace decorated by other bronze plaques.

The city was split into 11 divisions, each a smaller replication of the king’s court, comprising a sprawling series of compounds containing accommodation, workshops and public buildings – interconnected by innumerable doors and passageways, all richly decorated with the art that made Benin famous. The city was literally covered in it.

The exterior walls of the courts and compounds were decorated with horizontal ridge designs (agben) and clay carvings portraying animals, warriors and other symbols of power – the carvings would create contrasting patterns in the strong sunlight. Natural objects (pebbles or pieces of mica) were also pressed into the wet clay, while in the palaces, pillars were covered with bronze plaques illustrating the victories and deeds of former kings and nobles.

At the height of its greatness in the XIIth century – well before the start of the European Renaissance – the kings and nobles of Benin City patronized craftsmen and lavished them with gifts and wealth, in return for their depiction of the kings’ and dignitaries’ great exploits in intricate bronze sculptures.

These works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique,” wrote Professor Felix von Luschan, formerly of the Berlin Ethnological Museum. Italian Renaissance artist “Benvenuto Celini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone else before or after him. Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement.”

The fatal encounter with « civilization »

ife and benin african renaissance
British conquerors assembling their loot.

Following the Berlin Conference of 1885, where the British, Portuguese, Belgian, German, French, Italian and other European colonial powers shared Africa like a big chocolate cake that they intended to devour, in the name of the immutable laws of the freshly invented science of “geopolitics”, European invasions multiplied and gained in brutality.

Thus, following the king of Benin’s refusal to cede to the British the national monopoly on the production of palm oil and other products, Benin City was looted, burned and reduced to ashes during a British punitive expedition in 1897. The king (the oba) is arrested and forced into exile and thousands of beautiful « bronzes of Benin », though less realistic than those of Ife, are stolen, sold and partly lost.

They end up on the art market and in museums, including the British Museum (700 objects) and the Berlin Museum of Ethnology (500 pieces). The British government itself sells some of them « to cover the cost of the expedition« .

So, while some clearly entered history with their beautiful art, others exited civilization with their barbarian crimes.

Summary bibliography:

  • Ifè, une civilisation africaine, Frank Willett, Jardin des Arts/Tallandier, Paris 1971;
  • General History of Africa, Présence africaines/Edicef/Unesco, Paris 1987;
  • Atlas historique de l’Afrique, Editions du Jaguar, Paris 1988;
  • L’Afrique ancienne, de l’Acus au Zimbabwe, under the direction of François-Xavier Fauvelle, Belin/Humensis, Paris 2018.
Merci de partager !
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On Leonardo da Vinci’s « Vitruvian Man »

By Karel Vereycken

Leonardo da Vinci’s « Viruvian Man ». Since we’re commemorating this year (2020) Leonardo Da Vinci, who died 500 years ago, many silly things are presented by fake scholars trying to make a real living.

Since I was introduced into the canon of proportions of the human body during my training as a professional painter and engraver, I want offer you some hints on how to look at what is called Da Vinci’s « Vitruvian man », a drawing currently on exhibit at the Da Vinci show at the Louvre in Paris.

Hence, as Leonardo underlines himself in his notebooks, adopting Cusanus wordings, it is only with the « eyes of the mind » that art becomes visible, because the « eyes of the flesh » are intrensically blind to it.

Canons of proportions

Europe, and Classical Greece, as everybody should know, emerged largely by absorbing several major discoveries accomplished much earlier by other civilizations. Much of it came from Asia, but African and especially Egypt, were key.

The very practice of mummification, a process which takes at least 60 days of work, made Egypt the key area of anatomical research.

Left an egyptian stutue. Right a Greek archaic Kuros.

As demonstrated by early Egyptian sculpture, the exact size of the entire adult human body is 7,5 times the size of the head. The size of a newborn is only four heads, that of a seven year old, six heads and that of a 17 years old adolescent, 7 heads.

Drawing class card of the author.

If one subdivides the overall 7.5 proportion, for an adult, from the top of the head till the lowest part of the torso, one measures four heads, one till the nipples, one till the belly button and a fourth one till the lowest part of the pubis. Going up from the sole till the middle of the pelvis, one measures 3.5 heads: 2 heads till the knee and 1.5 till the middle of the pelvis. That brings the total till 7.5 heads for the entire length of the adult human body and it is proportional in the sense that people with smaller heads also have small bodies.

Polikleitos versus Lysippus

In the Vth Century BC, the Greek sculptor Polikleitos’ spear bearer (The “Doryphoros”) of Naples National Archeological Museum applied this most beautiful canon of proportions, known as the “Polikleitos canon”.

During the Renaissance, the nostalgics of the Roman Empire preferred another Greek canon, that of Greek sculptor Lysippus (4th Century BC), formalized by the Roman author, architect and civil engineer, Vitrivius (1st century BC).

Vitruvius only transcribed the prevalent taste of his epoch. Roman sculptors, in order to give an athletic and heroic look to the Emperors which they were portraying, adopting the canon of Lysippus, could reduce the head of their models to only an eight of the total length of the body. The trick was that by reducing the relative size of the head, the body looked more preeminent and powerful, something most emperors, who were often physical failures, appreciated and secured their popularity. Even extreme cases of 12 to 15 heads of body length appeared. In short, Public relations ruled at the detriment of science and truth.

Today’s comic strip drawers chose proportions according to purpose:

–For real life, 7.5 or “normal canon”
–For a movie star, 8 heads, with the “idealistic canon”;
–For a fashion magazine: 8.5 heads;
–For a comic book hero: 9 heads for the “heroic canon”

Vitruvian man

« Vitruvian man », drawing of Leonard da Vinci.

Text accompanying Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man:

Vitruvius, the architect, says in his work on architecture that the measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follows that is that 4 fingers make 1 palm, and 4 palms make 1 foot, 6 palms make 1 cubit; 4 cubits make a man’s height. And 4 cubits make one pace and 24 palms make a man; and these measures he used in his buildings. If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height 1/14 and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the centre of the outspread limbs will be in the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle.

The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.

From the roots of the hair to the bottom of the chin is the tenth of a man’s height; from the bottom of the chin to the top of his head is one eighth of his height; from the top of the breast to the top of his head will be one sixth of a man. From the top of the breast to the roots of the hair will be the seventh part of the whole man. From the nipples to the top of the head will be the fourth part of a man. The greatest width of the shoulders contains in itself the fourth part of the man. From the elbow to the tip of the hand will be the fifth part of a man; and from the elbow to the angle of the armpit will be the eighth part of the man. The whole hand will be the tenth part of the man; the beginning of the genitals marks the middle of the man. The foot is the seventh part of the man. From the sole of the foot to below the knee will be the fourth part of the man. From below the knee to the beginning of the genitals will be the fourth part of the man. The distance from the bottom of the chin to the nose and from the roots of the hair to the eyebrows is, in each case the same, and like the ear, a third of the face.

Of course, Da Vinci’s exploration of the Vitruvian man doesn’t mean he approves or disapproves the stated fakery in proportions.

Soul or muscle?

It should be known that in Italy, the pure Roman taste has become trendy again following the discovery in 1506 of the statue of the Laocoon on the site of Nero’s villa in Rome. From that moment, artist will feel obliged to increase the volume of the muscular masses in order to appear as working « in Antique style ».

Although Leonardo never openly criticized this trend, it is hard not to think of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, when the artist, seeking to raise the spirit to unequalled philosophical heights, advised painters: « do not give all the muscles of the figures an exaggerated volume » and « if you act differently, it is more a sort of representation of a sack of nuts that you will have achieved than to that of a human figure » (Codex Madrid II, 128r).

Drawing by the architect Giacomo Andrea, a close friend of Leonardo da Vinci, who had studied the work of the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius.

No doubt inspired by his friend, the architect Giacomo Andrea, in « The Vitruvian Man », Leonardo is above all interested by other harmonies: if a person extends his arms in a direction parallel to the ground, one obtains the same length as one’s entire height. This equality is inscribed by Leonardo in a square (symbol of the earthly realm). But if one stretches his arms and legs in a star shape, they are inscribed in a circle whose center is the navel. The location of the navel divides the body according to the golden ratio (in this example 5 heads out of a total of 8 heads, 5+3 being part of the Fibonnacci series: 1+2 = 3; 3+2 = 5; 5+3 = 8; 8+5 = 13; 13+8 = 21, etc.).

Leonardo clearly understood what the golden section really means: not a “magical” number in itself, but the reflexion of the dynamic of least action, the very principle uniting man (the square) with the creator and the universe (the circle).

So if you take a look, beware of what you see and especially what you don’t !

Merci de partager !
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