Our World Ancient ideas still hold water in Iran

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

For centuries, water has cooled and cultivated a harsh land on the cusp of two deserts and far from any rivers.

Despite being on the arid cusp where the dusty Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut deserts meet in Iran, not only was the city of Yazd not built next to a river, but the man in the hotel’s garden is happily hosing down the paving, using plenty of water.

For there is, quite surprisingly, plenty of water, which is used specifically and carefully — but freely and everywhere.

Iranians aren’t dependent on rivers, as you find in most arid countries in this region, where there are cities along the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates. 

“We dug our own rivers and took them to where we wanted them to be,” says Karan Jami, a highly knowledgeable scholar and 17 years a guide, who is showing me round.

The secret lies in the mountains that surround Yazd, which is an easy day’s drive from Shiraz, the city of roses and nightingales, which itself is less than a two-hour flight from Dubai.

For it was settled in a valley and water is brought from underground springs through tunnels and covered canals to the valley, just as it is to many villages, towns and cities in Iran, freeing them from the need to be positioned next to a flowing river. Iranians could settle anywhere within range of mountains — and that range was considerable.

The underground tunnels are called qanats, and were conceived and developed here on the Iranian plateau early in the 1st millennium BC.

The qanats and canals might bring water 65km to 75km to a village. At their deepest, in the mountains, they might be 70m underground, often less than a metre wide, dug by pick and shovel, and gently sloping so that the water flowed with gravity.

They were built by skilled workers called muqannis, who were respected and well paid.

 They wore white clothes, so that they would be more easily seen in the darkness of the tunnels, and to act as a shroud, should they die during excavation. They wore a hat padded with cotton to protect their heads. They had caged birds, whose death signalled a drop in oxygen levels.

The water ran from artesian springs or dug wells in the mountains through the qanats. 

If several villages were to share the water, it passed into a water division chamber which had what was essentially a dam wall with slots. If one village was to receive a third of the water, they had two of the six slots, which were separated by a wall from the four slots the other had, to receive two-thirds of the water.

Yazd is highly regarded for its Persian architecture. It’s a big place with an old city built mostly out of adobe — mudbricks with a render mixed from clay, sand, water and fibrous material, rather like rammed earth. The Jaame Mosque, a light tower for the caravans of the Silk Road, stands at the heart of a maze of bazaar alleyways. 

People pass with a quiet “hello”, and then are gone. They are discreet, just as the delivery of water is discreet. It is much the Iranian way.

Homes front streets with just a plain wall and door, but inside are courtyards, and beautiful homes. “Because Iran was much invaded, we learnt to be discreet, so that we could keep our traditions and our wealth and our living,” Karan explains.

But the Governor’s Palace is less so. Set in the beautiful Dowlat Abad Gardens, it is planted with fig trees and wheat, flowers and an orangery, all fed from water channels.

And over it sits the highest wind tower — Yazd is known as “the city of wind towers”.

These structures rise rectangular from houses, and rely on the movement that happens between warm and cool air. They are cleverly designed to use Bernoulli’s Principle and the chimney effect. Negative pressure pulls hot air down, where it is cooled by a water fountain (though sometimes it was drawn down to a qanat channel) and the cool air was then brought into the building.

Combined with the big stained-glass windows, which also help to keep heat at bay, they are “green air-conditioning,” as Karan puts it. And I stand in the cool and appreciate it, and the fact that no energy has been used to create it.

The hotter the day, the faster the circulation and the bigger the temperature difference between outside and in.

“For thousands of years they were benefiting from Bernoulli’s Principle without crediting themselves,” comments Karan with, I think, a wry smile.

But then, it is in Iranian culture, if not politics, to be discreet.

 Top picture: Jaame Mosque in the old city of Yazd, Iran. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

Fact File


Stephen Scourfield was in Iran as a guest of Travel Directors.


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