Étiquette : Oman

 

The challenging modernity of the Indus Valley Civilization

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Toys for children, Indus Valley Civilization.

Karel Vereycken, Paris, France, January 2023

A major archaeological discovery has just been made in Israel in 2022: the first evidence of the use of cotton fibers in the Near East and among the oldest in the world, dating back nearly 7,000 years, was discovered by Israeli, American and German archaeologists during an archaeological excavation at Tel Tsaf, southeast of Beit She'an, in the Jordan Valley of Israel. 
Microscopic remains of cotton discovered in Tel Tsaf, using micro-remains analysis. (Courtesy University of Haifa)

So far, the earliest available evidence of cotton fibers in the area was dated to a few hundred years later, to the late Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and Early Bronze Age (about 5,000 to 6,500 BCE) from the archaeological site of Dhuweila in eastern Jordan.

Discovered in 1940, the site of Tel Tsaf reveals its secrets. « Tsaf is characterized by an amazing preservation of organic materials, » said Professor Danny Rosenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. « Tel Tsaf was a kind of pole that concentrated important commercial activities and had established contacts with many other peoples, » Rosenberg believes. « There was massive storage capacity there to accommodate grain, enormous capacity if you compare it to other sites.

For example, the earliest evidence of the social use of beer drinking and ritual food storage has been found there. Rosenberg and the other researchers also found beads from contemporary Anatolia, Romania, Egypt and other parts of Africa; pottery from Iraq, Syria and Armenia; and the earliest copper and other metals found in the world.

“Wool Tree” and “Cotton Roads”

Trade relations of the Indus Valley Civilization.

The cotton found in Israel, probably came from the Indus region—modern Pakistan/India—which was the only place in the world that had begun to domesticate cotton at that time before its cultivation appeared in Africa thousands of years later.

« What’s interesting about this early evidence of a link to such a distant region is that it comes from fibers – microscopic pieces of ancient yarn. We assume that these cotton fibers, found along with wool fibers and plant fibers, arrived at the site as part of fabrics or clothing, i.e., ancient textiles, » Rosenberg says.

In addition, cotton was not only used for clothing: « In the prehistoric era, textiles were involved in many areas of life, not only in clothing but also in hunting, fishing … This is much more important than just saying that what we found are pieces of clothing that were worn by the inhabitants of the area. This discovery tells us a lot about the economic practices of the area, » says Rosenberg.

Since cotton had never been grown in Tel Tsaf, it was a surprise for the researchers to find it, and they felt that its presence underscored the city’s importance as a global trading hub at the heart of what could be called, the « Cotton Roads » of those days.

Growing cotton poses major challenges: a moderate to tropical climate and vast amounts of water. Just to produce a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans (representing about 1 kg of cotton), no less than 20,000 liters of water are required! Which civilization can afford such a performance at the beginning of the 7th millennium BC?


The Indus Valley civilization (IVC)

In yellow: settlements, colonies and outposts of the IVC. In white, the Himalayan snow which feeds the Indus Valley water flow.

The term « Indus Valley Civilization » (IVC) refers to a vast cultural and political entity that flourished in the northern region of the Indian subcontinent between about 8000 and about 1900 BCE., a region that stretched from Baluchistan (Pakistan) in the west to Uttar Pradesh (India) in the east and from northeastern Afghanistan in the north to Gujarat (India) in the south.

In the absence of both literary sources and remnants of palaces and temples to confirm it, one cannot qualify this entity as a “Kingdom” or an “Empire”. Its modern name (IVC) derives simply from its location in the Indus Valley, but also goes under the name of the « Indus-Sarasvati civilization » or « Harappan civilization ». These last designations come from the river Sarasvati, mentioned in the Vedic sources, which flowed next to the Indus and which would have disappeared, and from the ancient city of Harappa (Punjab, Pakistan), discovered by the British in 1829, but deliberately left unexplored.

The rise of a great urban civilization in the Indus Valley, which reached its maturity around 2500-2400 BCE, was long considered a sudden and mysterious phenomenon. Today, a series of discoveries allows us to follow, from 7000 to 2500 BCE, a series of transformations and innovations whose cumulative effects, stimulated by the enlargement of the network of exchanges from 3000 BCE onwards, created the conditions for the development of an incredibly modern and prosperous urban civilization.


Enter Mehrgarh, the light of the world!

Remnants of Mehrgarh (Balochistan, Pakistan). Houses and food storage facilities.



Since prehistoric times, the Indus region has been pioneering and rich in discoveries. As an example, for the Guinness Book of Records, although a case apart, the farming village of Mehrgarh (Baluchistan, Pakistan) which dates from the Neolithic (using only stones as tools) but can be considered as the key culture and city that lead humanity, as early as in the 8th millennia BCE, from the Stone Age into the Age of Copper.

The site is located on the principal route between what is now Afghanistan and the Indus Valley: this route was also undoubtedly part of a trading connection established quite early between the Near East and the Indian subcontinent.

Excavations in Mes Aynak (Afghanistan), where archaeologists are only beginning to find remnants of a 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site beneath the Buddhist level, including an ancient copper smelter, will undoubtedly shed new light on these relationships.

On the basis of a variety of well-documented archaeological finds, it has been established that “pre-Harrapan” Mehrgarh, made several historical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

Mehrgarh gave the world:

  • among the oldest traces of agriculture (wheat and barley) and breeding (cattle, sheep and goats) in South Asia ;
  • the first breweries (with wheat and barley);
  • the oldest reservoirs for irrigated agriculture and flood prevention;
  • the oldest traces of cotton culture (6th millennium BCE);
  • the oldest jewel, called the « Mehrgarh amulet » (6th millennium BCE), produced with the « lost wax » bronze casting technique ;
  • the oldest bow drills (in green jasper) allowing to drill holes in lapis lazuli and carnelian;
  • the very first traces of successfull dentistry practices (!) (9th millennium BCE); The inhabitants of Mehrgarh appeared to have developed an understanding of surgery and dentistry, as evidenced by the drilled teeth of some of the skeletons found at the site. Analysis of the teeth shows that prehistoric dentists worked to treat toothaches with drills made from flint heads. The work was so elaborate that even modern dentists are surprised at the efficiency with which the Mehrgarh « dentists » removed decaying tooth tissue. Among the remains, a total of eleven drilled crowns were found, with one example showing evidence of a complex procedure involving the removal of tooth enamel followed by carving of the cavity wall. Four of the teeth show evidence of decay associated with the drilled hole. None of the individuals with drilled teeth appear to have come from a special tomb or shrine, indicating that the oral health care they received was available to all.
Dentistry practices were common in 9000 BCE in Mehrgarh.



Densely populated

Originally, the IVC was built around the fishy meanders of the Indus, a river nearly 3200 kilometers long that flows from the Himalayan mountains towards the Arabian Sea. Like the populations of other great river valleys, this society was seduced by the fertility of the land as well as by the possibility of using the Indus as a transportation route.

The IVC, whose prosperity rests largely on the increasingly systematic exploitation of the rich silt of the Indus, spread over an immense territory encompassing the entire Indus Valley and part of Indian Gujarat. It is necessary to add to the vast zone of distribution of the Indus civilization some Harappan « colonies » or outposts like Sutkagan Dor (Ballochistan, Pakistan), close to Gwadar on the edges of the sea of Oman, at the Iranian-Pakistani border, and the lapus lazuli mining town of Shortugai, close to Amu Darya river, at the Afghan-Tajik border, at nearly 1,200 kilometers of Mohenjo-daro, by far the largest IVC urban concentration.

Four famous river basin based civilizations.

At its peak, this civilization was twice as large as the Old Kingdom of Egypt. With an area of 2.5 million square kilometers, it was at the time the largest civilization in the world: it included 5 million people, or 10 % of the world population at the time, much more than less older civilizations as Sumer (0.8 to 1.5 million people) or ancient Egypt (2 to 3 million).

To date, about 2,000 sites have been discovered in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because of various wars and conflicts, only 10 % of the territory of these sites has been excavated and scientifically investigated. On the Indian subcontinent, the main centers of this civilization are Harappa (estimated 23,500 inhabitants) and Mohenjo-daro (est. 40,000 inhabitants) in Pakistan and Lothal, Dholavira and Kalibangan in India. In addition to trade relations with Mesopotamia and Iran, the Harappan city-states also maintained active trade relations with the peoples of Central Asia.

Agriculture, crafts and industry

IVC and India.

Agriculture, animal husbandry, industry, trade and commerce were the main source of income.

Agriculture was the main occupation of the people of the Indus Valley. They cultivated barley and wheat on a large scale (and made beer) but also other crops such as legumes, cotton, cereals, sesame, dates, mustard, melons, peas, etc.

There is no real evidence of rice, but a few grains of rice have been found in Rangpur and Lothal.

In the towns of Mehrgarh, Harappa, and Mohenjo-daro, there are remains of large granaries, suggesting that they produced more than they needed and physically stocked cereals and other food products in case of crop failure.

Bull from IVC

Animal husbandry was another major occupation. Seals suggest that they domesticated cows, buffalos, goats, sheep, pigs, etc. Camels and bullocks were also domesticated and used as beasts of burden. Camel bones have been found in large numbers at many sites, but there is no trace of them on the seals. During the excavation of Surkotado in Gujarat, India, the jawbone of a horse was found. Terracotta figurines representing a horse were found in Nausharo and Lothal.

The inhabitants of the Indus Valley were very skillful. They made ceramics, metal vessels, tools and weapons, weaved and spun, dyed and practiced other crafts with potter’s wheels. The weavers wore clothes made of cotton and wool. They knew leather, but there is no record of silk production.

Ceramics from Mehrgarh (3000 BCE).

The inhabitants of this civilization originally came from the Bronze Age and used stone tools, but they soon excelled in the manufacture and processing of gold, silver, copper, lead and bronze, especially for artistic ornaments of great finesse.

Artisans made jewelry in Mohenjo-daro, Chanho-daro and Lothal. They used ivory and various precious stones such as carnelian, lapis lazulite, agate and jasper to make them. Shell work was also a thriving industry. Craftsmen in the coastal colonies used shells to make buttons for shirts, pendants, rings, bracelets, beads, etc.

To supply the production of these craft professions, they needed to import various raw materials. To produce bricks and ceramics, clay was available locally, but for metal they had to acquire it from abroad. Trade focused on importing raw materials to be used in Harappan city workshops, including minerals from Iran and Afghanistan, lead and copper from other parts of India, jade from China, and cedar wood floated down rivers from the Himalayas and Kashmir. Other trade goods included terracotta pots, gold, silver, metals, beads, flints for making tools, seashells, pearls, and colored gemstones, such as lapis lazuli and turquoise.

Ox carts were used to transport goods from one place to another. They also constructed barges used on the waterways along the Indus and its tributaries for transportation.

One of the ways historians know about the maritime trade network operating between the Harappan and Mesopotamian civilizations is the discovery of Harappan seals and jewelry at archaeological sites in regions of Mesopotamia, which includes most of modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria. Long-distance sea trade over bodies of water—such as the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf—may have become feasible with the development of plank watercraft that were each equipped with a single central mast supporting a sail of woven rushes or cloth.

Land and maritime trade relations.

Historians have also made inferences about networks of exchange based on similarities between artifacts across civilizations.

Between 4300 and 3200 BCE, ceramics from the Indus Valley Civilization area show similarities with southern Turkmenistan and northern Iran. During the Early Harappan period—about 3200 to 2600 BCE—there are cultural similarities in pottery, seals, figurines, and ornaments that document caravan trade with Central Asia and the Iranian plateau.

The wonders of Mohenjo-daro

Sometimes referred to as the « Manhattan of the Bronze Age » for the grid pattern of the city plan, Mohenjo-daro (Sind, Pakistan) remained buried under meters of alluvial sediment until 1922.

A real metropolis made of baked bricks, it covers more than 200 hectares. Strictly squared, cut in two by a street of ten meters wide, divided from north to south by a dozen arteries drawn with the cord, and crossed from east to west by paved streets, Mohenjo-daro represents, by its strictly reflected urban framework, the model city of the Indus civilization. It could have accommodated up to 40,000 people!

The stunning contribuions of the Indus Valley Civilization to humankind.
Major breakthroughs of the IVC: production of standardized bricks, tower water wells (left), circular grinding place (mill) for cereals (right), unified system of measurement (center), shipbuilding and sailing (below).

The Harappans were masters of hydraulic engineering, a “riparian” people working in river corridors practicing irrigated agriculture. They mastered both the shaduf (an irrigation tool used to draw water from a well), and windmills.

In the Harappan cities, the domestic and manufacturing areas were separated from each other.

The inhabitants, living in one-, two-, and sometimes three-story dwellings, seem to have been mainly artisans, farmers, and merchants. The people had developed the wheel, cattle-drawn carts, flat-bottomed boats large enough to carry goods, and perhaps also sailing. In the field of agriculture, they had understood and used irrigation techniques and canals, various agricultural implements, and had established different areas for livestock grazing and cultivation.

Seals and harrapan script

Seals with trade-marks.

Among the thousands of artifacts found at the various sites are small soapstone seals just over one inch (3 cm) in diameter, used to sign contracts, authorize land sales, and authenticate the point of origin, shipment, and receipt of goods in long-distance trade. On each seal is a small text in Harappan, a language yet to be deciphered.

Among the thousands of artifacts found at the various sites are small soapstone seals just over one inch (3 cm) in diameter, used to sign contracts, authorize land sales, and authenticate the point of origin, shipment, and receipt of goods in long-distance trade.

Commercial contacts between the Indus and Sumer populations are well documented. Numerous seals from the Indus Valley have been discovered in Mesopotamia. On each seal, a small text in Harappean, a language that remains to be deciphered.

If 4,200 texts reached us, 60 % of them are seals or mini-tablets of stone or copper, engraved, and they comprise on average… only five signs! The longest text has 26 signs. The texts are always accompanied by the image of an animal, often a unicorn or a majestic buffalo. They were intended to mark goods, probably indicating the name of the owner or the recipient and a quantity or a year. Trying to decipher the Indus language is a bit like trying to learn French only from the labels on the food shelf of a supermarket!

The invention of sanitation

Several cities such as Mohenjo-daro or Harappa had individual « flush toilets ».

In addition to this particular attention that they paid to urban planning, the members of the Indus civilization also seem to have been pioneers of modern hygiene. Some cities, notably Mohenjo-daro, were equipped with small containers (dustbins) in which the inhabitants could deposit their household waste.

Anticipating our « all to the sewer » systems imagined in the 16th century by Leonardo da Vinci for the project envisaged by François I for the new French capital Romarantin, many cities had already public water supply and an ingenious sanitation system.

In many cities, including Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Lothal and Rakhigari, individual houses or groups of houses were supplied with water from wells. This quality fresh water was used as much for food and personal hygiene (baths, toilets) as for the economic activities of the inhabitants.

Remnants of a bathing room and evacuation system in Lothal.

As an example, the sanitation system of the port city of Lothal (Gujarat, India) where many houses had a bathroom and private brick latrines. The wastewater was evacuated through a communal sewer system that led either to a canal in the port, or to a soaking pit outside the city walls, or to buried urns equipped with a hole allowing the evacuation of liquids, which were regularly emptied and cleaned.

Water from wells was brought to the highest level of the city. From there, it could flow to households, to bathrooms. Once used, the water flow would be evacuated via underground pipes and sewer systems and be conducted outside the city.

Excavations at the Mohenjo-daro site have also revealed the existence of no less than 700 brick water wells, houses equipped with bathrooms and individual and collective latrines. Toilets were an essential element. However, early archaeologists erroneously identified most toilets as post-cremation burial urns or simple cesspools. Many buildings in the city were two or more stories high. Water from the roof and bathrooms of the upper floors was channeled through closed clay pipes or open troughs that emptied, if necessary via the toilets, into the covered sewers underneath the paved street.

This extraordinary achievement is confirmed by a 2016 scientific study, entitled « The Evolution of Toilets Around the World Across the Millennia, » which reports that,

The earliest multi-flush toilets connected to a sophisticated sewage system that have been identified so far were found in the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley, dating from the middle of the third millennium BC. Nearly every dwelling unit in Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and Lothal was equipped with a private bath-toilet area with drains to carry dirty water into a larger drain that emptied into the sewer and drainage system.

https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/8/8/779/htm

Till now, it are the Minoan (Crete) civilization and China that have been credited for the first use of underground clay pipes for sanitation and water supply. In the Cretan capital Knossos, there was a well-organized water system to bring in clean water, to evacuate wastewater and to provide storm sewers for overflow in case of heavy rains.

In Knossos existed also one of the earliest uses of flush toilets, dating back to the 18th century BCE. The Minoan civilization had stone sewers that were periodically cleaned with clean water. Crete, of course, was a large provider of Copper ore for the entire world in Antiquity and had vast international trade connections.

Religious and cultural worldview

« Great Bath » in Mohenjo-daro, swimming pool or religious temple? In medaillon: artist view.

In the IVC, fertility rituals were probably observed in order to promote a full harvest as well as for women’s pregnancies, as evidenced by a number of figurines, amulets and statuettes with female form.

« King-Priest » found at Mohenjo-daro (4500 BCE).

It is thought that the people, like the Dravidians who some believe were the origin of the Indus Civilization, worshiped a “mother goddess” and possibly a male companion represented as a horned figure in the company of wild animals.

The « Great Bath » at Mohenjo-daro would have been used for purification rites related to religious belief, but it could just as easily have been a public pool for recreation. Our knowledge of the religious beliefs of this culture remains in the realm of mere hypothesis.

The title of the famous statue of the « Priest-King » found at Mohenjo-daro is misleading, as there is no evidence that it is a king or a priest, and it may be a simple cotton trader…

Apart from pottery, certain types of elementary weapons (spearheads, axes, arrows, etc.) and certain tools for practical purposes, two types of artifacts give us cultural clues about Harappean society.

Dancing girl, bronze, Delhi.

First, some figurines, which we try to interpret as devotional objects, seem to be simple toys. For others, they are clearly toys, notably animals (oxen, buffaloes, elephants, goats and even a simple hen), made of bronze or terracotta, mounted on small carts with wheels.

Toys.

Second, among other objects expressing a high level of sensitivity and consciousness, a series of masks, some of which seem inspired by Mongolian masks.

These masks are clearly intended to serve comic or tragic representations and remind us of the ancient masks that have come down to us from classical Greece.

Masks of IVC.

Older than Sumer and Egypt?

Archaeological excavations of the IVC got off to a late start, and it is now believed that some of the achievements and « firsts » attributed to Egypt ( – 3150 BC) and Mesopotamia ( – 4500 BC) may in fact belong to the inhabitants of the Indus Valley civilization.

In May 2016, the report published by a team of researchers from IIT Kharagpur, Institute of Archaeology, Deccan College Pune, Physical Research Laboratory and Archaeological survey of India (ASI), published by the journal Nature, shattered a number of “facts” that were considered unshakeable certainties.

https://www.nature.com/articles/srep26555

Until now, the 900 years of the « mature » phase of the IVC was dated as ranging from 2800 to 1900 BCE. However, the aforementioned Indian study indicates that this civilization was much older than previously thought – it is at least 8,000 years old!

To determine the age of this civilization, researchers dated pottery using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) – and found it to be nearly 6,000 years old, the oldest pottery known to date.

Other artifacts have been dated to 8,000 years ago. The results come from a major site excavated at Bhirrana (Haryana, India) that shows the preservation of all cultural levels of this ancient civilization, from the pre-Harappan phase through the Early Harappan to the Mature Harappan period. Bhirrana was part of a high concentration of sites along the mythical Vedic river « Saraswati », now dried up, an extension of the Harki-Ghaggar River in the Thar Desert.

The submerged cities of the Gulf of Khambhat

These new dates converge with the discovery, in January 2002, of ruins of submerged cities in the Gulf of Khambhat (formerly Cambay), off the coast of the state of Gujarat in northwest India.

It is the oceanographers of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) of Madras who made this discovery. The team was surveying the muddy sea 30 km off the coast of the state of Gujarat, in the Gulf of Khambhat, to measure the levels of marine pollution. As a routine measure, they recorded acoustic images of the ocean floor.

One of NIOT’s sonar scans of underwater constructions.

It was only several months later, while analyzing the data, that the team realized that they had, without knowing it, obtained images of the ruins of a huge city, sunken 40 meters below sea level. And, at the end of January 2002, after having spent weeks to dredge the site and to bring up more than 2 000 objects, the team of the NIOT was able to make extraordinary revelations.

The ruins stretch for 9 km along the banks of an ancient river, and the remains of a dam can be distinguished. The sunken city shares striking similarities with the sites of the Indus civilization. One of the buildings, the size of an Olympic swimming pool, with collapsed steps, recalls the Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro. Another rectangular monument, 200 m long and 45 m wide, is as large as the acropolis discovered at Harappa. The team of NIOT also glimpsed another building, a kind of granary, made of mud bricks, 183 m long. Near these monumental installations, rows of rectangular buildings that resemble the foundations of ruined houses can be seen, and even a drainage system and roads. On another visit to the site, the team recovered polished stone tools, ornaments and figurines, pottery debris, semi-precious stones, ivory and the fossilized remains of a human spine, jaw and tooth. But the team was not at the end of its surprises.

It sent samples of a fossilized log to two major Indian laboratories specializing in dating methods: the Birbal Sbahni Institute of Paleobotany (BSIP) in Lucknow and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) in Hyderabad. The BSIP dated it to 5500 BCE, while the NGRI dated the sample much earlier, probably to 7500 BCE.

This dating would make Khambhat the oldest site discovered in India. According to some, this discovery could mark the end of the theory according to which urbanization spreads from Asia from the west towards the Indus. This dating caused intense controversy. Archaeologist G. Possehl points out that there is no reason to believe that the fossilized piece of wood belongs to the ruins of the ancient city, given the strong sea currents in the region, it could have come from elsewhere. NIOT’s team acknowledged the validity of these criticisms and assured that other objects would be subjected to dating methods. It is also a question of understanding how this city was sunk and how it ended up 30 km from the coast.

Harsh Gupta, geologist, thinks that it is a gigantic earthquake which caused the destruction of the city. We are in a high seismic risk area, and the 2001 Bhuj earthquake showed the vulnerability of the region to such phenomena. However, the priority is to definitively establish the age of the sunken city and prove it to be the most exciting discovery of this century.

Historical cradle of textiles

In his book Empire of Cotton, A Global History (2015) Sven Beckert traces in depth the development of what the ancients, intrigued by its resemblance to the feel of wool, called the « wool tree. » While this plant grows in both temperate and tropical climates, it needs an abundance of moisture to thrive fully, which consigns its cultivation to naturally and then artificially irrigated river valleys.

According to the author, « The farmers of the Indus Valley were the first to spin and weave cotton. In 1929, archaeologists found fragments of cotton textiles at Mohenjo-Daro, in present-day Pakistan, dating from 3250 to 2750 BCE. Cotton seeds found in nearby Mehrgarh have been dated to 5000 BCE. Literary references also attest to the antiquity of the cotton industry in the subcontinent. The Vedic scriptures, composed between 1500 and 1200 BCE., allude to the spinning and weaving of cotton…”

Historically, the discovery of the first cotton fragments was made at Mohenjo-daro during an expedition led by Sir John Marshall, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928. In his book on Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization, Sir Marshall relates that fragments of cloth were wrapped around a silver perfume pot and a salt shaker.

Early forms of Self-government?

Remnants of Mohenjo-daro. Note: the buddhist temple (stupa) on top of the « citadel » is much more recent than the foundation of the city itself.

The fact remains that the political organization of the Indus cities escapes the experts. Because contrary to the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, the researches realized on the sites of the valley of the Indus did not bring to light any temple or palace of scale. There is no proof either of the existence of a permanent army…

Of what to wonder about the presence or not of a political power. Panic among British archaeologists and geopoliticians always inclined to project their own colonial ideology of aristocratic castes on the rest of the world.

In reality, each city seems to have had its own governor, or citizen council coordinating with other urban areas, all adhering to a number of common principles considered mutually beneficial.

This “Coincidence of Opposites”, of great diversity with perfect similarity, intrigues expert John Keay:

What amazed all those pioneers, and what remains the distinguishing characteristic of the several hundred Harappan sites now known, is their apparent similarity: ‘Our overriding impression is of cultural uniformity, both throughout the several centuries during which Harappan civilization flourished, and over the vast area it occupied.’ The ubiquitous bricks, for example, all have standardized dimensions, just as the stone cubes used by the Harappans to measure weight are also standardized and based on the modular system. The width of roads conforms to a similar module; thus, streets are generally twice as wide as side streets, while main arteries are two or one and a half times as wide as streets. Most of the streets excavated so far are straight and run north to south or east to west. The city plans thus conform to a regular grid pattern and seem to have retained this arrangement through several phases of construction.

Hence, given the existence of a unified system of weights and measures; given the similarity of urban organization as well as the standardization of the size of terracotta bricks for hundreds of cities, it is therefore simply impossible that the every man for himself reigned supreme.

Cradle of democracy?

In 1993, in an article entitled « The Indus Valley Civilization, Cradle of Democracy? », published by the UNESCO Courier, the internationally renowned Pakistani archaeologist and museologist, Syed A. Naqv, who has been fighting for the preservation of the Mohenjo-daro site, attempted to answer the question.

In all the highly developed civilizations of the past – Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley, Anatolia, China – the pervasive influence of an imperial authority can be felt, providing patronage for the arts and directing the evolution of society. A close examination of such an imperial authority over this civilization, which flourished some 5,000 years ago and covered almost twice the area of the civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Nile combined seems to belie the presence of an authoritarian regime, the Indus civilization had a well-disciplined way of life, civic controls and organizational system which could only have stemmed from the kind of “rule by the people” that was exercised in some Greek city-State some 2,000 years later. Did Greece give birth to democracy, or did Greece simply follow a practice developed earlier?

Although there are no large structures acting as centers of authority,

the discoveries made so far suggest that the rule of law extended over an area measuring roughly 1,600 kilometers from the north to the south and more that 800 kilometers from east to west. The main argument in support of this thesis is the existence of well-established norms and standards which would have required the consensus of the people if they had not been imposed by an authoritarian regime. It is impossible to ignore the evidence furnished by the perfect planning of the great city of Mohenjo-daro and the use in its construction of standard-sized bricks 27.94 cm long, 13.96 cm wide and 5.71 cm thick.

In the two large cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, about 600 km distant,

the grid pattern of the street layout uncovered by the archaeological excavations shows that great attention was paid to the security of the inhabitants and suggests the existence of a highly developed and well-monolithic system of civic control.

The same is true of the highly sophisticated sewage system and the existence of

a virtually complete series of highly polished stone weights. Their shapes are cubical, half-cubical, cylindrical and spherical, and very few of them are reported to be defective. They provide yet another proof of a civic authority maintaining consistent commercial standards.

It is not possible to conclude that such « a philosophical conception of democracy exists until the Harappan script is deciphered and written evidence is provided. But the signs are there, and further research in this direction may well establish that ‘government by the people’ originated in the Indus Valley, » the author concludes.

Finally, since this agricultural people, who knew the use of the spears and the arrows but didn’t leave any trace of a major military activity – few weapons nor fortifications with exclusively defensive purpose have been found – , many observers agree to say that this society could have known the longest period of peace of the history of the humanity.

Decay and fall

In two of his books, the Timaeus and the Critias, the Greek philosopher Plato tells the story « certainly true, although strange » of a maritime people with incomparable power: the Atlantes whose civilization and capital he describes in great detail.

Starting 10,000 years before our era from an island located beyond the columns of Hercules, the Atlanteans would have ended up dominating the whole of Africa and Western Europe.

In a passage which is not without recalling the type of political organization which could exist in Mohenjo-daro, Critias specifies that Atlantis was then inhabited « by the various classes of men who deal with the trades and agriculture. The warriors, separated from the beginning by divine men, lived separately, possessing all that was necessary for their existence and that of their children. Among them, there were no particular fortunes; all goods were in common: they demanded from the other citizens nothing beyond what they needed to live, and fulfilled in return all the obligations that our talk of yesterday attributed to the defenders of the fatherland as we conceive them. »

Perhaps speaking metaphorically, Plato states that initially virtuous, the Atlantis civilization would have sunk into excess, arrogance and corruption to the point of being chastised by Poseidon himself for having embarked on one war too many, this time against Athens. And « in the time lapse of a single terrible day and night (…) the island of Atlantis sank into the sea and disappeared ».

At the historical level, the sudden decline of the Indus civilization around 1900 BC remains a mystery. Historians point to aspects of Minoan civilization (Crete) showing astonishing similarities with the IVC, especially watermanagement and early sewer systems in Knossos, lost wax broze casting techniques and bull fighting.

A few traces of fire and destruction, as well as forty skeletons wounded with knives and found without burial at Morenjo-daro, first suggested an invasion by Aryan peoples from Central Asia or the Iranian plateau. « This theory has now been abandoned. We have indeed found no effective trace of massacres or violence on the sites of the Indus Valley, or furniture that could be associated with such populations, » says Aurore Didier, researcher at the CNRS and director of the Indus mission.

Another hypothesis, an inability to strengthen its resilience to climatic chaos. « The samples taken in the northwest of India have shown that the climate there has changed significantly about 2000 years before our era. It is reported that this was also the case in Mesopotamia. « It became more like the dry and arid climate of today, which disrupted the cultivation and, in fact, the trade of the Indus civilizations. The ensuing socio-economic upheaval may have led to the decline of these societies. This hypothesis is the most commonly accepted to date, » says the archaeologist.

The inhabitants would have left their valleys become infertile to migrate to the plains of the Ganges. « This was accompanied by a change in livelihood strategies. The Indus civilization gradually converted to summer cereal crops based on rice and millet, two commodities more able to withstand these new climatic conditions and requiring, for rice, the development of irrigated agriculture, » says Aurore Didier. « It has also forged links with new trading partners.”

So there is no reason to talk about the « collapse » of a society in the sense of collapsologists. It is rather a gradual adaptation to the evolution of the environment, spread over several centuries.

As the excavations of the sites of the Indus Valley civilization continue, new information will undoubtedly contribute to a better understanding of its history and development. Any additional knowledge of this common civilizational legacy will serve in the future as a basis for fraternal cooperation between Pakistan, India and Afghanistan and others.

In the meantime, instead of trying to copy the barbaric « models » of the Mongolian Empire, the Roman Empire or the British Empire, the « elites » of the transatlantic world would do better to draw inspiration from a magnificent civilization that seems to have prospered for 5,000 years without perpetual wars and massacres, but simply thanks to a good mutual understanding, at the national level, between citizens, and thanks to mutually beneficial cooperation with the overriding majority of its distant partners.

The Indus Valley Civilization’s modernity, capable of offering food, shelter, water and sanitation to all, in a mirror image, shows all of us living in the present, how backwards we became.


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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)

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Qanâts perses et Civilisation des eaux cachées

aqueduc souterrain
Journée internationale du lavage des mains, organisée par UNICEF.

Par Karel Vereycken, juillet 2021.

A une époque où d’anciennes maladies reviennent et où de nouvelles émergent à l’échelle mondiale, la vulnérabilité tragique d’une grande partie de l’humanité pose un immense défi.

On se demande s’il faut rire ou pleurer quand les autorités internationales claironnent sans plus de précisions que pour enrayer la pandémie de Covid-19, il « suffit » de bien se laver les mains à l’eau et au savon !

Ils oublient un petit détail : 3 milliards de personnes ne disposent pas d’installations pour se laver les mains chez elles et 1,4 milliard n’ont aucun accès, ni à l’eau, ni au savon !

Pourtant, depuis la nuit des temps, l’homme a su rendre l’eau disponible dans les endroits les plus reculés.

Voici un aperçu d’une merveille du génie humain, les qanâts perses, une technique de canalisations souterraines datant de l’âge de fer. Sans doute d’origine égyptienne, elle fut mise en œuvre à grande échelle en Perse à partir du début du 1er millénaire avant notre ère.

Le qanât ou aqueduc souterrain

Parfois appelé « forage horizontal », le qanât est un aqueduc souterrain servant à puiser dans une nappe phréatique pour l’acheminer par simple effet de gravitation vers des lieux d’habitation et de cultures. Certains qanâts comprennent des aires de repos pour les travailleurs, des réservoirs d’eau, des salles d’eau souterraines et même des moulins à eau. Le mot qanâts, vieux mot sémitique, probablement accadien, dérivé d’une racine qanat (roseau) d’où viennent canna et canal.

Cette « galerie drainante », taillée dans la roche ou construite par l’homme, est certainement l’une des inventions les plus ingénieuses pour l’irrigation dans les régions arides et semi-arides. La technique offre un avantage non négligeable : se déplaçant dans un conduit souterrain, pas une goutte d’eau ne se perd par évaporation.

Diffusion de la technique des qanâts perses dans le monde.

C’est cette technique qui permet à l’homme de créer des oasis en plein désert, lorsqu’une nappe phréatique est suffisamment proche de la surface du sol ou parfois sur le lit d’une rivière venant se perdre dans le désert.

Copiée et utilisée par les Romains, la technique des qanâts a été transportée par les Espagnols de l’autre côté de l’Atlantique vers le nouveau monde, où de nombreux canaux souterrains de ce type fonctionnent encore au Pérou et au Chili. En fait, il existe même des qanâts perses dans l’ouest du Mexique.

Si aujourd’hui, ce système triplement millénaire n’est pas forcément applicable partout pour résoudre les problèmes de pénurie d’eau dans les régions arides et semi-arides, il a de quoi nous inspirer en tant que démonstration du génie humain dans ce qu’il a de meilleur, c’est-à-dire capable de faire beaucoup avec peu.

Les oasis d’Égypte

Le génie de l’homme à l’œuvre : l’oasis de Dakhleh, en plein désert égyptien, alimenté par des qanâts.

Dès les balbutiements de la civilisation égyptienne, des techniques d’irrigation et de stockage de l’eau des crues du Nil furent développées afin de conserver cette eau limoneuse, riche en nutriments, pour l’utiliser tout au long de l’année. L’eau du fleuve était déviée et transportée par canaux vers les champs grâce à la gravité. Puisque l’eau du Nil ne parvenait pas dans les oasis, les Égyptiens utilisèrent l’eau jaillissante des sources, provenant des grandes réserves aquifères du désert de l’Ouest, et acheminée vers les terres par des canaux d’irrigation.

Le résultat de cette tentative de conquête du désert fut une habitation soutenue de l’oasis de Dakhleh tout au long de l’époque pharaonique, explicable non seulement par un intérêt commercial de la part de l’État égyptien, mais aussi par de nouvelles possibilités agricoles.

Aqueducs Romains

Avec ses 170 km, dont 106 en souterrain, le qanât de Gadara (actuellement en Jordanie) est le plus grand aqueduc de l’Antiquité. Il part d’une source d’eau de montagne retenue par un barrage (à droite) pour alimenter une série de villes à l’Est du Jourdain, en particulier Gadara, proche du lac Tibériade.
Le Qanât Fi’raun, ou aqueduc de Gadara, en Jordanie.

Plus proche de nous, le Qanât Fir’aun (Le cours d’eau du Pharaon) également connu comme l’aqueduc de Gadara, aujourd’hui en Jordanie.

En l’état actuel de nos connaissances, cet édifice de 170 kilomètres, qui alterne, en fonction de la géographie, plusieurs pont-aqueducs (du même type que celui du Gard en France) et 106 km de canaux souterrains utilisant la technique des qanâts perses.

Il est aussi le plus long aqueduc de l’Antiquité, et surtout le plus complexe et le fruit d’un long travail d’ingénierie hydraulique.

En réalité, les Romains ont achevé au IIe siècle un vieux projet visant à approvisionner en eau la Décapole, un ensemble de dix villes fondées par des colons grecs et macédoniens sous le roi séleucide Antiochos III (223 – 187 av. JC), un des successeurs d’Alexandre le Grand.

La Décapole était un groupe de dix villes [*] situées à la frontière orientale de l’Empire romain (aujourd’hui en Syrie, en Jordanie et en Israël), regroupées en raison de leur langue, de leur culture, de leur emplacement et de leur statut politique, chacune possédant un certain degré d’autonomie et d’autogestion.

Sa capitale, Gadara, abritait plus de 50 000 personnes et se distinguait par son atmosphère cosmopolite, sa propre université avec des érudits, attirant écrivains, artistes, philosophes et poètes.

Mais il manquait quelque chose à cette ville riche : une abondance d’eau.

Entrée du qanât à Gadara, Jordanie.

Le qanât de Gadara a changé tout cela. « Rien que dans la capitale, il y avait des milliers de fontaines, d’abreuvoirs et de thermes. Les riches sénateurs se rafraîchissaient dans des piscines privées et décoraient leurs jardins de grottes rafraîchissantes. Il en résultait une consommation quotidienne record de plus de 500 litres d’eau par habitant », explique Matthias Schulz, auteur d’un reportage sur l’aqueduc dans Spiegel Online.

La Perse

Le Jardin de Shahzadeh en Iran, un oasis construit grâce à la technique millénaire des qanâts.

Travaux de maintenance d’un qanât.

La technique des qanâts, reprise et mise en œuvre par les Romains, leur était parvenue de Perse.

En effet, c’est sous L’Empire des Achéménides (vers 559 – 330 av. JC.), que cette technique se serait répandue lentement depuis la Perse vers l’est et l’ouest.

On trouve ainsi de nombreux qanâts en Afrique du Nord (Maroc, Algérie, Libye), au Moyen-Orient (Iran, Oman, Irak) et plus à l’est, en Asie centrale, de l’Afghanistan jusqu’en Chine (Xinjiang) en passant par l’Inde.

Ces galeries drainantes ou galeries de captage émergentes sont attestées dans différentes régions du monde sous des noms divers : qanât et kareez en Iran, Syrie et Égypte, kariz, kehriz au Pakistan et en Afghanistan, aflaj à Oman, galeria en Espagne, kahn au Baloutchistan, kanerjing en Chine, foggara en Afrique du Nord, khettara au Maroc, ngruttati en Sicile, bottini à Sienne, etc.).

Historiquement, la majorité des populations d’Iran et d’autres régions arides d’Asie ou d’Afrique du Nord dépendait de l’eau fournie par les qanâts ; les espaces de peuplement correspondaient ainsi aux lieux où leur construction était possible.

Dans son article « Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanât », Pierre Lombard, chercheur au CNRS, relève qu’il ne s’agit pas d’un procédé artisanal et marginal :

La technique ancestrale du qanât revêtait il y a quelques années encore une importance parfois méconnue en Asie centrale, en Iran, en Syrie, ou encore dans les pays de la péninsule arabique. A titre d’exemple, la Public Authority for Water Ressources du Sultanat d’Oman estimait en 1982 que l’ensemble des qanâts encore en activité convoyaient plus de 70 % du total de l’eau utilisée dans ce pays et irriguaient près de 55 % des terres à céréales. L’Oman demeurait certes alors l’un des rares Etats du Moyen-Orient à entretenir et parfois même développer son réseau de qanâts ; cette situation, hormis sa longévité, n’apparaît pourtant en rien exceptionnelle. Si l’on se tourne vers les bordures du Plateau iranien, on peut constater avec Wulff (1968) le décalage évident entre la relative aridité de cette zone (entre 100 et 250 mm de précipitations annuelles) et ses productions agricoles non négligeables, et l’expliquer par l’un des plus denses réseaux de qanâts du Moyen-Orient. On peut aussi rappeler que jusqu’à la construction du barrage du Karaj au début des années 60, les deux millions d’habitants que comptait alors Téhéran consommaient exclusivement l’eau apportée depuis le piémont de l’Elbourz par plusieurs dizaines de qanâts régulièrement entretenus. On peut enfin évoquer le cas de quelques oasis majeures du Proche et Moyen-Orient (Kharga en Egypte, Layla en Arabie saoudite, Al Ain aux Émirats arabes unis, etc.) ou d’Asie centrale (Turfan, dans le Turkestan chinois,) qui doivent leur vaste développement, sinon leur existence même à cette technique remarquable.

Sur le site ArchéOrient, l’archéologue Rémy Boucharlat, directeur de Recherche émérite au CNRS, spécialiste de l’Iran, explique :

Quelle que soit l’origine de l’eau, profonde ou non, la technique de construction de la galerie est la même. Il s’agit d’abord de repérer la présence de l’eau, soit son sous-écoulement à proximité d’un cours d’eau, soit la présence d’une nappe plus profonde sur un piémont, ce qui nécessite la science et l’expérience de spécialistes. Un puits-mère atteint la partie supérieure de cette couche ou nappe d’eau, qui indique à quelle profondeur devra être creusée la galerie. La pente de celle-ci doit être très faible, moins de 2‰, afin que l’écoulement de l’eau soit calme et régulier, et pour conduire peu à peu l’eau vers la surface, selon un gradient bien inférieur à la pente du piémont.

La galerie est ensuite creusée, non pas depuis le puits-mère car elle serait immédiatement inondée, mais depuis l’aval, à partir du point d’arrivée. Le conduit est d’abord creusé en tranchée ouverte, puis couverte, pour enfin s’enfoncer peu à peu dans le sol en tunnel. Pour l’évacuation des terres et la ventilation pendant le creusement, ainsi que pour repérer la direction de la galerie, des puits sont creusés depuis la surface à intervalles réguliers, entre 5 et 30 m selon la nature du terrain.

Qanâts iraniens, vue du ciel sur les puits d’aération et de service.

En avril 1973, notre ami, le professeur et historien franco-iranien Aly Mazahéri (1914-1991), publia sa traduction de La civilisation des eaux cachées, un traité de l’exploitation des eaux souterraines composé en 1017 par l’hydrologue perse Mohammed Al-Karaji, qui vécut à Bagdad.

Après une introduction et des considérations générales sur la géographie du globe, les phénomènes naturels, le cycle de l’eau, l’étude des terrains et les instruments de l’hydronome, Al-Karaji donne une description technique de la construction et de l’entretien des qanâts, ainsi que des considérations juridiques sur la gestion des puits et des conduites.

Dans son introduction au traité d’Al-Karji, le professeur Aly Mazahéri souligne le rôle de la ville iranienne de Merv (aujourd’hui au Turkménistan).

Cette ville antique faisait partie de

la longue série d’oasis s’étendant au pied du versant nord du plateau iranien, de la Caspienne aux premiers contreforts des Pamirs. Là, entre l’extension géologique de la Caspienne vers l’Est, se trouve une bande de terre arable, plus ou moins large, mais fort riche. Or, pour l’exploiter, il faut énormément d’ingéniosité : là où, par exemple à Merv, un grand cours d’eau, tel le Marghab, issu des glaciers du massif central est-iranien, franchit la chaîne, il faut établir des barrages, au-dessus de la bande de terre arable, sans quoi, le ’fleuve’ divisé en plusieurs dizaines de bras se précipite sous les sables. Ailleurs, et c’est presque tout au long du versant nord de la chaîne, on peut créer des oasis artificielles, en amenant l’eau par des aqueducs souterrains. (p. 44)

Commentaire sur les qanâts dans le traité d’Al-Karaji (XIe siècle).

La construction de barrages et celle d’aqueducs souterrains sont parmi les legs les plus intéressants de leurs techniques d’irrigation (…) Bien avant l’islam, les hydronomes perses avaient construit des milliers d’aqueducs, permettant la création de centaines de villages, de dizaines de villes auparavant inconnues. Et très souvent, là même où il y avait une rivière, en raison de l’insuffisance de celle-ci, les hydronomes avaient mis au jour nombre d’aqueducs permettant l’extension de la culture et le développement de la ville. Naishabur était une ville de ce genre. Sous les Sassanides, puis sous les califes, un important réseau d’aqueducs y avait été créé, de sorte que les habitants pouvaient s’offrir le luxe de posséder chacun une ‘salle d’eau’ au sous-sol, au niveau de l’aqueduc desservant la maison.

Salle d’eau d’un qanât au sous-sol du Musée de l’eau à Yadz, Iran.

Rappelons que la plupart des savants perses, notamment le fameux mathématicien Al-Khwarizmi, ne souffrant pas de l’hyper spécialisation qui tend à brider la pensée créatrice, excellaient aussi bien en mathématique, en géométrie, en astronomie et en médecine qu’en hydrologie.

Mazaheri confirme que cette « civilisation des eaux souterraines » s’est répandue bien au-delà des frontières iraniennes :

Déjà, sous le calife Hisham (723-42), des hydronomes persans construisirent entre Damas et La Mecque des aqueducs (…) Plus tard, La Mecque souffrant du manque d’eau, Zubayda, l’épouse de Hâroun Al-Rachîd, y envoya des hydronomes persans qui dotèrent la ville d’un grand aqueduc souterrain. Et chaque fois que celui-ci venait à être ensablé, une nouvelle équipe partait de Perse pour y restaurer le réseau : de telles réfections eurent lieu périodiquement sous Al-Muqtadir (908-32), sous Al-Qa’im (1031-1075), sous Al-Naçir (1180-1226) et, au début du XIVe siècle, sous le prince mongol l’émir Tchoban. Nous dirions autant de Médine et des étapes sur la route du pèlerinage, entre Bagdad et La Mecque, partout où il était possible de le faire, des travaux hydronomiques furent entrepris et des ‘aqueducs souterrains’ furent créés.

« L’hydronomie est un art pénible. Il ne suffisait pas, pour l’exercer, de posséder des connaissances mathématiques : calcul décadique, algèbre, trigonométrie, etc., il fallait passer de longues heures dans les galeries au risque d’y mourir par inondation, éboulement ou manque d’air. Il fallait posséder un instinct ancestral de ‘sourcier’. 

Les précipitations annuelles en Iran sont de 273 mm, soit moins d’un tiers des précipitations annuelles moyennes mondiales.

La distribution temporelle et spatiale des précipitations n’est pas uniforme ; environ 75 % concernent une petite zone, principalement sur la côte sud de la mer Caspienne, alors que le reste du pays ne reçoit pas de précipitations suffisantes. À l’échelle temporelle, seulement 25 % des précipitations ont lieu pendant la saison de croissance des plantes.

Les qanâts iraniens : 7,7 x la circonférence de la Terre

Toujours utilisés aujourd’hui, les qanâts sont construits comme une série de tunnels souterrains et de puits qui amènent les eaux souterraines à la surface. Aujourd’hui, en Iran, ils fournissent environ 7,6 milliards de m3, soit 15 % du total des besoins en eau du pays.

Si l’on considère que la longueur moyenne de chaque qanât est de 6 km dans la plupart des régions du pays, la longueur totale des 30 000 systèmes de qanât (potentiellement exploitables aujourd’hui) est d’environ 310 800 km, soit environ 7,7 fois la circonférence de la Terre ou 6/7 de la distance Terre-Lune !

Cela montre l’énorme travail et l’énergie utilisés pour la construction des qanâts. En fait, alors que plus de 38 000 qanats étaient en activité en Iran jusqu’en 1966, ce nombre est tombé à 20 000 en 1998 et est actuellement estimé à 18 000. Selon le quotidien iranien Tehran Times, plus de 120 000 sites de qanâts sont documentés.

De plus, alors qu’en 1965, 30 à 50 % des besoins totaux en eau de l’Iran étaient couverts par les qanâts, ce chiffre est tombé à 15 % au cours des dernières décennies.

Comme le précise le site Face Iran :

Le débit des qanâts est estimé entre 500 et 750 mètres-cubes seconde. Comme l’aridité n’est pas totale, cette quantité sert d’appoint plus ou moins important suivant l’abondance des pluies de chaque région. Ceci permet d’utiliser de bonnes terres qui seraient autrement stériles. L’importance de l’emiètement ainsi réalisé sur le désert se résume en un chiffre : environ 3 millions d’hectares. En sept siècles de travail acharné, les Hollandais conquirent sur les marais ou sur la mer 1,5 million d’hectares. En trois millénaires, les Iraniens ont conquis le double sur le désert.

En effet, à chaque nouveau qanât correspondait un nouveau village, de nouvelles terres. D’où un nouveau groupe humain absorbait les excédents démographiques. Peu à peu se constituait le paysage iranien. Au débouché du qanât, se trouve la maison du chef, souvent à un étage. Elle est entouré des maisons des villageois, des abris des animaux, de jardins et de cultures maraichères.

La distribution des terrains et les jours d’irrigation des parcelles étaient réglés par le chef des villages. Ainsi un qanât imposait une solidarité entre les habitants.

Si chaque qanât est conçu et surveillé par un mirab (sourcier-hydrologue et découvreur), réaliser un qanât est un travail collectif qui demande plusieurs mois ou années, même pour les qanâts de dimensions moyennes, sans même parler des ouvrages aux dimensions records (puits-mère de 300 m de profondeur, galerie longue de 70 km classée en 2016 au Patrimoine mondial de l’humanité par l’UNESCO, dans le nord-est de l’Iran).

L’entreprise est réalisée par un village ou un groupe de villages. La nécessité absolue d’un investissement collectif dans l’infrastructure et sa maintenance nécessite une notion supérieure du bien commun, complément indispensable à la notion de propriété privée que les pluies et les fleuves n’ont guère l’habitude de respecter.

Au Maghreb, la gestion des eaux distribuées par une khettara (nom local des qanâts) obéit à des normes traditionnelles de répartition appelées « droit d’eau ». À l’origine, le volume d’eau octroyé par usager était proportionnel aux travaux fournis lors de l’édification de la khettara et se traduisait en un temps d’irrigation durant lequel le bénéficiaire disposait de l’ensemble du débit de la khettara pour ses champs. Encore aujourd’hui, lorsque la khettara n’est pas tarie, cette règle du droit d’eau perdure et une part peut se vendre ou s’acheter. Car il faut aussi prendre en compte la superficie des champs à irriguer de chaque famille.

Le déclin

Les causes du déclin des qanâts sont multiples. Sans endosser les thèses catastrophistes d’une écologie anti-humaine, force est de constater que face à l’augmentation de la population urbaine, la construction irréfléchie de barrages et le creusement de puits profonds équipés de pompes électriques, ont perturbé et souvent épuisé les nappes phréatiques.

Une idéologie néolibérale, faussement qualifiée de « moderne », préfère également le « manager » d’un puits à une gestion collective entre voisins et villages. Un Etat absent a fait le reste. Faute d’une réflexion plus réfléchie sur son avenir, le système millénaire des qanâts est en voie de disparition.

Entretemps, la population iranienne est passé de 40 à plus de 82 millions d’habitants en 40 ans. Au lieu de vivre de la rente pétrolière, le pays cherche à prospérer grâce à son agriculture et son industrie. Du coup, les besoins en eau explosent. Pour y faire face, l’Iran procède au dessalement de l’eau de mer. Son programme nucléaire civil sera la clé pour en réduire le coût.

Au-delà des divisions politiques et religieuses, une coopération resserrée entre tous les pays de la région (Turquie, Syrie, Irak, Israël, Egypte, Jordanie, etc.) en vue de l’amélioration, du partage et de la gestion des ressources hydriques, sera forcément bénéfique à chacun.

Présentée comme un « Plan Oasis » et promue depuis des décennies par le penseur et économiste américain Lyndon LaRouche, une telle politique, bien mieux que milles traités et autant de paroles, est la base même d’une véritable politique de paix.

Sites de qanâts en Syrie

Bibliographie :


[*] Les dix villes formant la Décapole étaient : 1) Damas en Syrie, bien plus au nord, parfois considérée comme un membre honorifique de la Décapole ; 2) Philadelphia (Amman en Jordanie) ; 3) Rhaphana (Capitolias, Bayt Ras en Jordanie) ; 4) Scythopolis (Baysan ou Beït-Shéan en Israël), qui en serait la capitale ; c’est la seule ville à se trouver à l’ouest du Jourdain ; 5) Gadara (Umm Qeis en Jordanie) ; 6) Hippos (Hippus ou Sussita, en Israël) ; 7) Dion (Tell al-Ashari en Syrie) ; 8) Pella (Tabaqat Fahil en Jordanie) ; 9) Gerasa (Jerash en Jordanie) et 10) Canatha (Qanawat en Syrie).

Merci de partager !