Qanat (Part II)

by Carl Pierer

Starting from the formidable climatic challenges faced by cities on the Iranian plateau, Part I of this essay presented the ingenious Iranian invention of Qanats. Those underground aqueducts, which exploit gravitation to redirect an aquifer under a mountain to the surface, are remarkable feats of engineering. Covering distances of several kilometres, they permitted permanent settlements in landscapes otherwise hostile to agriculture. The previous part also argued that qanats have an impact on the settlements they supply with water in three ways. First of all, qanats allowed older settlements – predominantly located in river valleys – to support a larger population, since more land became available for agriculture through irrigation. At the same time, previously inhospitable places, where water cannot be accessed in other ways, could now be permanently settled. Secondly, villages and cities formed in accordance with the course of the water supply. This is particularly noticeable in settlements featuring a single qanat: they have a triangular shape at the top of which are orchards and gardens and further downhill the distribution channels fan out to allow a larger area to be irrigated. At the lower end, a grid of rectangular plots is located, which is designed in such a way that enough water is delivered in the time it takes to flow through the plot. Thirdly, the presence of qanats makes social stratification physically visible. Because qanats have a one directional flow, locating higher up on the canal means earlier access to – and therefore fresher – water. It is thus that richer households will locate further uphill, with the poorest inhabitants living just before the water reaches the fields for irrigation.


Qanats have for a long time played an important role in Iranian society. The first qanats are believed to have been built sometime between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE and even in 1968 roughly 60.000km2 of cultivated land in Iran were irrigated by the help of qanats. Covering such an extensive period of time, it is impossible in the space of this short article to discuss it in its entirety. Rather, the essay will focus on the Sasanian period (224 CE – 651 CE), the last Iranian Empire before the Islamic invasion[i]. This period is generally considered as one of the high points of Iranian history[ii].

Constructions of qanats occurred prior to the Sasanian period. An edict by Darius, for example, grants a tax exemption for revenues derived from hydraulic inventions for 5 generations[iii]. However, during the Sasanian period, a major shift takes place. While previous constructions were carried out by local farmers, Sasanian kings began to centralise control over qanats and other water works. Indeed, it is argued that the popularity of a Sasanian king was measured by the amount of qanats constructed during his reign. The central role of water politics in the Sasanian period is evidenced by two major legal texts. First, The Book of a Thousand Judgements: A Sasanian Law-Book, a collection of legal cases regulating, amongst others, water rights and the sharing of irrigation resources. For Sophia Montakab, this book is a testament to the high level of centralisation of the Sasanian reign. The second source for Montakab is the Babylonian Talmud, compiled by Jews living in Mesopotamia between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE and thus under Sasanian rules. Besides confirming the central role played by water for the Sasanian kings in general and the importance of fertile Mesopotamia as a source of food for the arid Iranian plateau in particular, the most interesting aspects concern the social organisation:

Furthermore, based on the legal indications of water rights, (…) Sasanian society was highly feudalistic and even capitalist in nature. Towards the end of the dynasty, Sasanian kings encouraged wealthy families to invest in irrigation technology. In fact, during the Sasanian era, canal building was a profitable business.[iv]

These arrangements coincide with the push for centralisation of administration by Xusro I, who also arranged the codification of legal cases in the Sasanian Law-Book.

A different perspective on the importance of water (and hence irrigation resources) for the Sasanian kings is presented by examining the role of religion. The legitimacy of a Sasanian king combined material and spiritual aspects. While legitimate descendance from the previous dynasty formed part of their claim to power, it was even more important “(…) to prove descendance from the spiritual Kayanian dynasty of the Zoroastrian Avesta”. In particular, the Sasanian royals claimed investiture from the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, which had been bequeathed on them by the water goddess Anahita. Since according to Zoroastrian faith all material growth derives from Ahura Mazda, the standing of a Sasanian king with the highest god could be evaluated according to the material wellbeing of his subjects. This implies, of course, that a rulers’ legitimacy is not automatically guaranteed. Indeed, Sasanian kings’ hold on power could be undermined by opponents pointing to material losses. Hence a strong incentive for kings to invest in irrigation infrastructure to assure plentiful harvests.

From this outline of the interrelations between water and politics in the Sasanian period, a couple of points become clear: Sasanian kings, in their attempt at centralisation of the administration, derived legitimacy on spiritual and material grounds. Legitimacy, at least partly, was manifested in the material well-being of the state. Water, a scarce but crucial resource for agriculture, is thus related to the king’s power. Consequently, the management of water, the construction of irrigation infrastructure as well as the clarification of its legal status became a major concern.


Marx, in his article The British Rule in India, states that due to climate and geographical factors, artificial irrigation by canals and waterworks formed the basis of Asian agriculture. Note the sheer vastness of territory subsumed under the same analysis: “(…) the vast tracts of desert extending from the Sahara, through Arabia, Persia, India, and Tartary, to the most elevated Asiatic highlands (…)”[v]. Marx writes:

As in Egypt and India, inundations are used for fertilizing the soil in Mesopotamia, Persia, &c.; advantage is taken of a high level for feeding irrigative canals. This prime necessity of an economical and common use of water, which, in the Occident, drove private enterprise to voluntary association, as in Flanders and Italy, necessitated, in the Orient where civilization was too low and the territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary association, the interference of the centralizing power of Government. Hence an economical function devolved upon all Asiatic Governments, the function of providing public works.

Because of the need for irrigation, which could not be solved by individuals, this brought about a strong centralised state. For Marx, this necessity of a strong central government to provide the infrastructure enabling agriculture is partly responsible for what he identifies as a distinct “Oriental” form of historic development. In this relationship to the state, the individual obtained the rights to use the land, but no ownership of the land. Consequently, according to Lutfi Sunar, Marx’s autonomous individual could not arise, “(…) rather the individual in the Orient is dependent on society for their very basic needs, resulting in a condition of social stagnation.”[vi]

This leads Marx to position the Asiatic Mode of Production apart from his classical trilogy of Ancient, Feudal and Capitalist. The Asiatic Mode of Production, for Marx, is characterised by two fundamental factors: the means of production are not private property and the relations of production are not free.[vii] This concept is tightly linked to that of Oriental Despotism, whose historical origins date back to Aristoteles and, as Sunar argues, which has long served as an Other to descriptions of Occidental forms of government. In particular, it describes a situation where the land (and water?) is the property of the political authority and where subjects have no rights against this authority.

The (ancient) need for irrigation, according to Marx, leads to a situation where no (social) development is possible. For Marx, the lack of private property and free relations of production prohibit an appearance of classes, and hence of class struggle. But since “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”[viii] this immediately implies that there can be no history. “For this reason, Oriental societies are stagnant according to Marx (…), and are capable of change only in the political arena and not in the modes of production which will lead to real social change.”[ix]

The concept of a particular Asiatic Mode of Production as well as that of Oriental Despotism has a curious and long history, which lies beyond the scope of this essay. For the present purposes, its more recent history, when it has been strongly criticised as orientalist (in Said’s sense), is more relevant. Sunar’s Marx and Weber on Oriental Societies gives a thorough exploration of this criticism, yet remains sympathetic to Marx’s ideas. Sunar writes:

The “otherization” of Oriental societies in opposition to modern society is one of the basic characteristics of nineteenth-century Orientalism. The Orientalists defined Oriental societies as being non-developed and backwards, attributing this to different causes, such as the environmental and geographical factors, and the racial constitution or the people’s lowly position on the evolutionary scale in contrast to the developed and civilized Europeans. In this context, the Orient is marginalized and identified as opposition to Western society. Thus, modernity was described as a negation of the Orient for the sake of intellectually guaranteeing the progress of the West.

According to Sunar, it is because Marx bases his reflection on Orientalist sources, often written by agents of the British empire, that he comes to draw the above picture. Thereby, he enters into a long tradition reaching back to Aristotle that (mis)construes the political organisation of the Orient as a screen to understand the Occident. It is then no wonder that Marx’s conclusion about the Asiatic Mode of Production have been challenged on grounds of inaccurate and false sources.


In the case of qanats, the thesis of an Asiatic mode of production does seem to hold at least partly. Because of the high costs of construction and maintenance, they are central projects. Nonetheless, the question property is answered differently. As was mentioned before, Montakab finds that Sasanian society was feudalistic in nature. In the same vein, when looking at more recent villages, English finds that qanats are usually built by wealthy individuals “(…) but the constant need for tunnel repairs owing to natural disasters or social dislocations leads to rapid fragmentation in ownership. Many qanats have as many as two to three hundred owners and the water of some qanats is divided into as many as 10,000 time shares.”[x] Yet, he also finds that the maintenance of qanats is accomplished in a communal fashion. Despite the fact that social equality is rare, English observes that cooperation in the village is imposed by the ecological and social demands of this technology. In contrast to Montakab, English writes that “the historic inability of the Iranian upper class to retain property intact over time is the primary reason that Iran never developed a feudal aristocracy comparable to that of medieval Europe.”[xi] There appears to be disagreement in the literature about the very political structure which existed in Iran.


While certain aspects of the thesis seem to apply, for instance the strong communal efforts to afford the upkeep of the infrastructure which provides the basis for the livelihood, there clearly are some formidable problems posed by qanats – up and above the imperialist background of orientalism.


[i] This section follows, unless indicated otherwise, largely the interesting (Montakab, 2013).


[iii] « Un édit de Darius exempta de toutes taxes pendant cinq générations — au moins un siècle — les revenus des exploitations nouvelles fondées grâce à des innovations hydrauliques. » (Goblot, 1963)

[iv] (Montakab, 2013)

[v] (Marx, The British Rule in India, 1853)

[vi] (Sunar, 2014)

[vii] (Sunar, 2014)

[viii] (Marx & Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1969)

[ix] (Sunar, 2014)

[x] (English, 1998)

[xi] (English, 1998)



Goblot, H. (1963). Dans l’ancien Iran, les techniques de l’eau et la grande histoire. Annales. Economies, sociétés, civilisations, 499-520.

Marx, K. (1853, June 25). The British Rule in India. New York Daily Tribune. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1969). Manifesto of the Communist Party. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from

Montakab, S. (2013). Irrigation Management in Ancient Iran: A Survey of Sasanian Water Politics. Sasanika. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from

Sunar, L. (2014). Marx and Weber on Oriental Societies. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.