Ancient ambitions: How the Persians brought clean water to the masses
The ancient Persian empire stretched across many miles, a worthy rival to the ancient Greek empire. Great kings like Cyrus and Xerxes took the empire to new heights and during its golden age cities like Persepolis flourished. This was in part due to the incredible inventions that made the lives of its citizens so much easier.
The Persian qanat
In the field of water research and innovation, the ancient Persians began to perfect techniques learned from the Babylonians. One of the most impressive results was the Persian Qanat, which today is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site.
It is a brilliant system still in use to this day. UNESCO explains:
“Throughout the arid regions of Iran, agricultural and permanent settlements are supported by the ancient qanat system of tapping alluvial aquifers at the heads of valleys and conducting the water along underground tunnels by gravity, often over many kilometres. The eleven qanats representing this system include rest areas for workers, water reservoirs and watermills.”
The Qanat system was so successful that it continued centuries after the fall of the ancient Persian empire, through invasions, destruction and the rebirth of Iran. By the middle of the 20th century it was estimated that approximately 50,000 Qanats were still in use, and although that number has dropped a little in the second decade of the 21st century, many villages, towns and some cities still use the Qanat.
The Persian reservoir
The Qanat was not the only invention the Persians perfected, the reservoir system is also something these ancients solidified into a more workable system. The reservoir system is also something that is still in use in contemporary Iran.
The reservoir consisted of vast underground tanks, which were built and insulated using a traditional cement called Saruj, storing the water that had arrived in a village after a long journey. These giant structures are called ‘Ab Anbar’ in the Persian language, which means ‘water storage’. There are two openings, one inlet and one outlet, at two sides of these structures at slightly different elevations.
The need For pure water
Before Islam, the Persians were predominantly Zoroastrian and one of the key tenets of this ancient religion is cleanliness. There is even a goddess of water – Anahita – who is the ‘divinity of the waters’. The ancient Persians understood that clean water was vital in keeping the population healthy. A greater spiritual need for pure water was very much at the forefront, however.
With this dual desire for fulfilling practical and spiritual needs for purified water, the ancient Persians worked a number of other ways to secure clean water. This included ice houses, which were vast stone structures that kept the ice cool during the arid summer months. The other major method was to use water dams, such as those in Shushtar and Dezful. The water dams are one of the greatest feats of ancient engineering, and are still in use today.