Groundwater Histories of Iran & the Mediterranean

A review of Hidden Waters: Groundwater Histories of Iran and the Mediterranean, by Abigail E. Schade.

Abigail Schade’s dissertation is an examination of different techniques of accessing and using groundwater in different regions, and also of past literatures that have examined these techniques from various standpoints and with diverse underlying assumptions. The thesis is presented in five chapters, and each deals with a markedly different situation, varying across literature, space and time, and giving us a wide and thorough overview of different methods in, and changing perceptions of, the exploitation of groundwater resources. The dissertation thus examines historical practices relating to human exploitation of physical spaces, but also with the perception and projection of those spaces, opening with a careful consideration of the geographer Paul Ward English’s work on the spread of qanats in the old world. There is also a substantial appendix giving an English translation of a crucial eleventh-century Arabic text on extracting groundwater, and there are a good number of images and maps throughout the thesis where visual illustration is required.

In the first chapter, Abigail Schade introduces us to the subject, inviting us to imagine the underground and to understand ancient Persian methods of accessing and using groundwater resources through systems of tunnels and wells, known as qanats. Drawing on and critiquing materials from environmental history, geography, archaeology, and area studies, Schade also makes it clear that this is not only an examination of different historical techniques and different ways they have been studied, but also a consideration of what this means in the modern world. In the mid-twentieth century, Western development programs intended to alleviate famine and poverty in less developed areas by introducing, for example, intensive agricultural practices, saw local groundwater as a valuable resource. However, these programs brought Western geological approaches to groundwater extraction, often without any consideration of local knowledge, customs or practices. The different status accorded this supposedly universal scientific knowledge over the craft practices of local farmers — this perception of groundwater without situating it in its own space and taking it on its own terms — is the key thread that runs through the dissertation, and has vital importance for the future as well as the past.

In the second chapter these points are illustrated as we move from Iran to the Western desert of Egypt, where we consider the groundwater that lies deep under the Kharga Oasis. This is a crucially different type of resource from the annual snowmelt gathered through the qanats of Iran, for it is a non-renewable resource which accumulated in a previous geological era, and which is no longer supplemented through rainfall. Humans could not, therefore, hope to rely on this supply to sustain intensive agriculture for even a few generations, yet some commentators have treated both historical indigenous use and proposed future uses of this water in a similar way to examinations of the Persian qanats, even suggesting that the expertise of these various ancient craftsmen is comparable, and indeed must have originated in Persia and been transferred to the oases of the desert, despite the manifestly different working conditions.

The third chapter takes us to the mountains of the island of Mallorca, where we consider, historically and archaeologically, the systems used there by peasants to gather snowmelt and runoff for irrigation. Again, past commentators have suggested that this knowledge must have been derived from the Persian expertise in qanat building and carried west by Arab conquerors, but Schade draws on the work of a group of archaeologists, led by Helena Kirchner, from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, who have asked detailed questions about the origins of the technical aspects of local water extraction systems. These archaeologists have concluded that centralized and imperially organized diffusion of Persian qanat building techniques did not occur, and that peasant-farmers on small mountainous Mallorcan plots used techniques that worked in the local area, though they themselves may have been Muslim settlers. Schade then goes beyond this, turning to the work of Thomas Glick to assist her analysis, in which she concludes that the very question of the origins of irrigation systems is a false one, and something of a hangover from colonial perspectives, which led to the conclusion that only the state can build something as large and complex as an irrigation system.

The fourth chapter is of a slightly different type, though similar in final outcome, being an analysis of the vital eleventh-century text, Treatise on the Extraction of Hidden Waters, by Muhammad ibn Husayn al-Karaji, an English translation of which Schade provides in the appendix (translated herself from the French version). As well as considering the text itself, and tackling questions regarding the purpose and audience of the work, Schade also leads us in the examination of work on al-Karaji by recent historical commentators. It seems that this particular text, though translated into French from the original Arabic in the 1970s, has received relatively little attention except at particular moments in the study of Arabic science, and perhaps not enough from historians of mathematics. This is an important point because not only does it itself contain a substantial amount of mathematical technique related to surveying land in preparation for qanat building, but apparently this Persian author al-Karaji is the same writer as the Arabic mathematician widely known as al-Kharki, the name having been incorrectly transliterated in the 1860s, an error which persisted through several generations of scholars. Part of the reason that this error did persist, according to Schade, is the belief that a supposed Arabic mathematician could not be the same author as that of a text on the Persian craft of groundwater extraction, a belief founded in historical and contemporary assumptions regarding different types of knowledge, and this brings us back to the overall aim of the dissertation.

The fifth chapter is the conclusion, or epilogue, and reinforces the main points regarding varying historical practices in groundwater extraction and use in different regions and contexts, as well as revisiting the central questions of the status of different kinds of knowledge and the assumptions behind both historical analyses and future projections, asking what value there may be in “expertise from afar”, the title of chapter 5. Abigail Schade also connects this with imperial and colonial discourses, drawing on the work of, among others, Timothy Mitchell and James Scott. This work should be of interest to a wide audience, touching as it does on the fields of history of science, archaeology, historical geography, regional and area studies, and, of course, environmental history, not to mention its relevance in parts to particular specialists such as historians of mathematics, agricultural historians, Cold War historians and diplomatic historians. Its most crucial relevance, however, should be to those analysts and policymakers who look to future developments and envisage further exploitation of underground resources.

Leucha Veneer
Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine
University of Manchester

Primary Sources

Eleventh-century Treatise on the Extraction of Hidden Waters, by Muhammad ibn Husayn al-Karaji (originally in Arabic; translated into English by the author from the French translation by Aly Mazaheri in 1973)
Archaeological evidence from Mallorca, originally gathered by researchers from Barcelona
Twentieth-century interpretations of groundwaters by explorers, geographers, historians, anthropologists and archaeologists

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2011. 281 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard W. Bulliet.


Image: Diagrams from the original manuscript of Muhammad ibn Husayn al-Karaji’s Treatise on the Extraction of Hidden Waters (Inbat al-miyah al-khafiya), from Transformation of Knowledge: Early Manuscripts from the Collection of Lawrence J. Schoenberg. Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

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