THE QANATS: TRADITIONS OF CAREFUL WATER USE
Deepening in the soil, which form a line, are seen from the height of the hills. Starting in shallow gorges, they go to blossoming gardens of oases speckling the foothills. These lines, which remind of the geoglyphs of the Nazca desert, are nothing but a chain of qanats – an ancient irrigation system of underground aqueducts, which used to carry water from mountains to the valley. This method to collect water and to deliver it to the cities and irrigation channels was common from in ancient times in mountain and foothill regions of Central Asia and Caucasus. Thanks to the qanats, many nations were able to exist and develop in the conditions of dry climate.
Foothill valleys of Central Kopetdag, where early farming culture has sprung, irrigated and livestock farming have been developing and rapid development of cities have been going on thousands years ago, is one samples of this. Hundred years before, same like thousand years ago, underground irrigation systems, which impress with constructive forethought, have been built using simple tools. No wonder the qanats are compared with the Great Chinese Wall by their significance. Going along the line from well to well, one can see alarmed pigeons, which hide in cool abandoned tunnels, flying out from qanats. These are the places where they nest.
Water from qanats is soft and has a nice taste; it is rich with minerals. It is collected in the soil of foothill in the period of spring and autumn rains or forms up underground natural waterways adding water to mountain rivers. This water was used for drinking and afterwards for livestock and irrigation. Sometimes, the shelter was built around the source, the well was deepened and the water was taken underground to the valley where it was required for the fields and settlements. Such type of qanats is called spring or source qanat (gyozcheshme kyarizlery or gyozbash in Turkmen language).
Water collecting system could include one or several water collection galleries up to 1.5 meter height and half meter wide with strengthened walls. The construction has vertical ventilation shafts and diversion channels, which were built near the exit of the gallery. The length of some qanat arms, which remained in the Kopetdag foothills, reaches several kilometres.
Throughput capacity and schedule of repair and maintenance works in the systems remained in archive documents. Works of ancient Greek historian Polybius indicate the existence of qanats on the territory of Turkmenistan in VI – V BC. Narrating about the campaign of Antiochus III across the desert of the Southern Parthia, he noted that irrigation of these places is made by channels from underground wells. The works of medieval Arabic scientists also have information about wide use of underground irrigation systems by our ancestors.
Traces of these waterways and buried wells accompany ancient settlements starting from Merv. They used to serve people as the main source of water supply up to the beginning of the last century. Back then, big qanats operated in Baherden, Bagyr and other settlements of Ahal region as well as in Murgab Oasis. Just one of the outskirts of Ashabad has 17 qanats while the city itself was supplied with water by four big similar systems until devastating earthquake in 1948. The documents indicating that around 40 qanats together with wells have been restored I Ashgabat in 1895 during Russian Empire. The money was allocated for service of the waterways. The work of qanat personnel was always honoured and the names of masters were known far beyond their villages.
Historical sources have interesting information about professional secrets of qanat masters and rituals accompanying the completion of construction of the next tunnel of irrigation system. Nowadays, in the age of scientific and technical progress, the need in these waterways is not required, however, they represent special values in the aspect of cultural heritage and need to be protected as a tribute to tradition of careful water use.