It never ceases to amaze me how much people in antiquity knew about other civilizations far beyond their own borders and apparent area of communication. We, in Western Europe, like to keep our attention centered around the Mediterranean countries, where we are aware of seafarers crossing back and forth for eons. We have very little knowledge of what the Persians with their repeated invasions added to our daily lives, but we definitely know that Alexander the Great opened up the eastern world to us as much as he brought Asia in touch with our civilization, which all contributed to what went down in history as Hellenistic.
When I visited the Archaeological Museum of Tripoli in Libya, my guide pointed proudly towards (mostly copies of) petroglyphs from the Libyan Desert made by the Garamantes. They lived in the Fezzan area in the southern Sahara where they created a kingdom of their own. It was a Berber population that prospered from about 500 BC to 700 AD, mainly because of their clever building of “foggaras”, i.e. a network of underground tunnels and shafts by which fossil water was led to the desert surface from a limestone layer buried deep under the desert sands which in the process created fertile lands and oasis.
The Garamantes are mentioned for the first time by Herodotus and he describes them as a very great nation that herded cattle, farmed dates and hunted the Ethiopians from four-horse chariots. Tacitus talks about their raids on Roman settlements along the coast, while Pliny the Elder reports that 15 settlements were captured by his countrymen in 19 BC. How exactly this Garamantian Kingdom declined is not sure but it was probably connected to a change in climatic conditions and/or the overuse of their ground water since fossil water is a non-renewable resource (exactly what is happening right now with the Great Manmade River project in Libya).
So, when I heard the name Garamantes in Libya, it only had a far away familiar resonance but I don’t remember whether anything was said about this marvelous water management. Since I was neither interested in rock art nor in the prehistoric history of Libya, I paid no further attention to this information till last week when I saw a program on TV about the strange shafts still visible in the Sahara desert landscape, remains of said foggaras (a name given by the local Berbers). The program went into some details about their ingenious concept and complex construction (see diagram from Wikipedia)
[photo Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Qanat_cross_section.svg]
They made it appear as something entirely unique, as if the Garamantes had invented the principle. At this stage Alexander came to my mind.
Recently I traveled to Uzbekistan where I stopped at a fort built by Alexander the Great near today’s city of Nurata, roughly north between Bukhara and Samarkand. At the foot of this fort was a holy mosque that boosted about its sacred waters that came from the distant hills through a system of kareez or qanats as the Arabs call them. I was told that it was the doing of Alexander the Great (or his engineers most probably). Of course, I was entirely flabbergasted for I had never heard of this Alexander fort and even less about his laying out such an intricate and sophisticated water system without which the oasis of Nur (modern Nurata) could not have flourished.
In the light of the TV program, my immediate question now was: could Alexander have known about the foggaras in the Libyan Desert? Nothing is impossible, of course, but he had never been further west than the Egyptian/Libyan desert on his way to Siwah. Could he have picked up this tale during that trip or was one of his engineers familiar with the system? Or is the story here in Nur only a legend lost in time and conveniently connected to Alexander? Quite an exciting discovery as far as I’m concerned!
I tried to find out more on the subject and in the process I discovered that this system is known all over the world, from North-Africa, to Asia, Arabia, the Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, and even in the Nazca Valley of Peru and Chili! It goes by many different names according to the country or civilization all through the centuries. The Persian name is kariz or kareez which is still used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the countries of Central Asia like Uzbekistan; in Morocco it is called khettara, in Spain galleria, in Arabia falaj, and in North Africa foggara or fughara. It is also known as kakuriz, chin-avulz, or mayun, while qanat maybe spelled in different ways as kanat, khanat, kunut, kona, konait, ghanat, ghundat. Pick your choice.
But whatever the name, the origin of the entire system has not been traced to any particular location although Persia seems to be the most likely area from where it probably traveled over the Silk Road across the Eurasian continent. I’m quite amazed to read that last century there were approximately 20,000 qanats still is use in Afghanistan and about 50,000 in Iran.
[Image courtesy U. Leicester/DigitalGlobe/Google]
To add some livelihood to my astonishment, I came across an article in the National Geographic (Nov 2011) on the subject – although not directly. It so happened that images of more than one hundred “lost” fortresses were seen on new satellite photographs taken over the Libyan desert. These castles seem to belong to the Garamantes, a civilization National Geographic places between the 2nd and the 7th century AD. Thanks to these views, researchers have discovered walled towns, villages and farms. An early 2011 expedition has found extremely well-preserved brickwalls standing up to 3-4 meter high, which previously had been erroneously attributed to Roman frontier forts. Their investigation led further to these underground canals, which have enabled the Garamantes to cultivate crops such as wheat, barley, figs and grapes, but also sorghum, pearl millet, and even cotton!
What an amazing world out there!