A Persian Odyssey: water, water everywhere.

Water. The stuff of life.


Water is obviously a vitally important factor for life, and the need becomes even more pressing in areas where its acquisition is problematic. In desert regions, the possibilities for accessing water really all involve some element of human intervention. Rainfall is too sparce and/or erratic to rely on it for crop irrigation, to fill reservoirs for drinking, or to be available for washing, general cleaning or all the other many uses we put it to.


This is one of the features that I was most looking forward to seeing in Iran.

8 Qanat (1)

Hmm. A hole in the ground by the side of the road.

But no! This is so much more than a hole in the ground. This is a bit of a qanat.

1 Qanat (6)

When I was working on my masters dissertation, I came into contact with this technology almost immediately, but in Libya (which I was researching) they’re called foggaras.

Basically this is a method for tapping into aquifers and bringing the trapped water to the surface. It doesn’t work like a well; you don’t hoist water up, rather this is a method for releasing water trapped in rocks using gravity and the land contours.* The water source and its eventual place of use may be many many kilometres apart and, in parts of Libya, these systems extend over hundreds of kilometres.

The most visible feature of the qanat is the vertical shaft. On the ground surface we see the hole, sometimes lined with stones, tiles or plaster, with a ring-mound around it.

1 Qanat (5)

Lines of these features snake off for miles into the distance, and they mark the line that the water is being carried in an underground channel from its source to the place where it emerges at the surface and can be utilized.


Water Museum

In the city of Yazd, there is a whole museum devoted to water.


The group that I was with wasn’t due to be visiting this museum, but I was very keen and as it is actually situated right near the main square, it was easy for me to nip in while the others had a little look in the shops and bought some extremely tempting-looking sweeties.

Although this was a flying visit, I was able to have a quick look in each room and see models of water technology used in the city and in the wider area. This models shows how the qanats work, bringing water from under the hills down to the city.

19 Yazd (10)

One thing that I was amazed about was the use of water mills actually in the underground channels of the qanats.

20 Yazd (10)

It is a huge engineering task to build these systems but they are actually very elegant and allow water to be used very efficiently.  Before the water reaches town it has been used for milling; in town water can be directed for drinking and for other industrial or domestic purposes; waste water is then finally directed towards field systems and cottage gardens to be used for irrigation purposes. Nothing is wasted. Sweet.

Ab-anbar and badgir

When the water reaches town, it is stored in large underground cisterns, Ab-anbars, which are kept cool by a system of wind towers, badgirs . The domes and towers can be seen all around the area.

1 P1190951

The wind towers work by catching prevailing winds and drawing the cool air down to the storage cistern, cooling the water stored there. Houses and other buildings also use the wind towers for cooling.

16 Yazd (8)

Some private houses, especially the houses of wealthy merchants, in Yazd have their own private water supply. Smaller channels from the qanats bring water into the basement where is can be drawn off to be used for the household.

In this merchant house in Yazd, there is a small pool in the basement area which, I was told, was used for keeping fish for consumption, rather than for keeping drinking water. The water flows into the pool via the conduit on the left.

19 Yazd qanat (1)

The seats around the room made it a cool, relaxing space for members of the household to hang out in on hot days.

Yakh dan

Another key use of water in Iran has been for ice. In the area around Yazd in particular, these ziggurat-looking buildings can be seen on the edges of towns. These are yakh dan or ice houses.


Inside the building, there’s a lowered floor level and the thick, clay walls mean that the internal temperature is significantly lower than the external temperature. I went inside this one and, despite the heat outside, it was quite cold under the dome. The ice is brought from the mountains and can be kept for many months and used as required.

Persian Gardens

Iran is famous for its Persian Gardens and water is an integral element in the design and layout of these gardens.


Fin Gardens, Kashan

The idea of Persian gardens dates from the Achaemenid period and they are designed to represent paradise on earth. They were usually walled and included areas for relaxation, areas of light and shade, plants, including trees, indoor and outdoor areas and, of course, water.

4 Golestan (2)

Golestan Palace, Tehran

The huge public square in Esfahan, Naqsh-e Jahan  or ‘Imam’ Square, features areas of grass, trees and large expanses of water with fountains. Even in this vast area, there is a relaxed feeling, with families and individuals strolling, relaxing and paying visits to the surrounding buildings.

5 Imam Square (2)

Imam Square, Esfahan

Visitors can also go on pony’n’trap rides, do a bit of shopping and visit a mosque.



*Wikipedia has quite a lot about qanats/foggaras here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qanat



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