One of the wonderful things about riding your motorcycle through that enormous part of the world outside your own culture, is that you see interesting things. These then lead to other interesting things until are amazed as the realization dawns on you that our Western history lessons left out so much. You find that your original view of history was skewed so far to one side that even a little research will introduce you to a whole new world.

The locals try our helmets on. Btw, look carefully and you will see that the pumps only have one reel: for quantity. The price is the same all over Afghanistan. (Photo: The Bear)

Charlie and I had stopped our XL250s on a ridge above Charikar in Afganistan, and I could see lines of what looked like craters in the arid alluvial fans reaching down from the Hindu Kush. They were reminiscent of artillery craters, but they seemed to have holes at the bottom. When we got to Bamiyan I tried to find out what they were. Without Google (this was in 1978) or indeed any other source of reference, I fell back on that most useful resource in far places: the local schoolteacher.

I speak neither Dari nor Pashto, and he didn’t speak English but with the aid of a couple of books he had – one was a tourist guide in Arabic – and much hand waving he told me the story of the qanats, although he called them karez. The holes are access shafts to a tunnel dug down from the groundwater level on the hill. The tunnel slopes at exactly the right angle to keep water flowing smoothly, but not so fast that it erodes its floor, and brings water down for irrigation. Digging the tunnels is an exact science, and the muqannis who dug them were expert surveyors. Qanats are found all the way from China to Morocco, and there are even equivalents in Peru. I learned much of this later, but meanwhile my new best friend managed to convey another interesting bit of background knowledge.

This how qanats work. (Illustration: Amanda44)

He pointed to a karez whose outlet we could see and made a chopping motion with his hand. Then he pointed to the Red City, a group of ruins which overlooks Bamiyan valley, and made the same motion. He looked at me quizzically to see if I had understood. Something about destroying the tunnels and the city? I made a sweeping motion towards both, and he smiled. Then he found a picture in one of the books. It looked like Genghis Khan.

The Mongol Horde had descended on the Bamiyan Valley in the spring of 1221. During the Siege of Bamiyan, Mutukhan, the beloved grandson of Genghis Khan was killed by an arrow from inside the beleaguered walls of the city, Shahr e Zohak. This enraged Genghis so much that he swiftly made the journey to Bamiyan to destroy the ancient citadel. Legend has it that the pink-red hues of the ruins and mountainside came from the blood of Genghis’s victims. More importantly for the farmers, he also seems to have destroyed many karez, and that is still held against him today — more than the sacking of the city.

Later, back in Kabul, I learned from a German hitchhiker (the term ‘backpacker’ had not been invented) who also turned out to be a graduate student of Islamic history, that even 800 years after Genghis’ visit, many of the locals still won’t say his name. On the other hand, people in some of the valleys around Bamiyan use it to scare their children. He’s become the boogeyman.

While we’re on the subject of names – westerners are inclined to call Kabul ‘k’bool’ whereas the locals say something like ‘chobble’.

This is quite a spacious qanat. (Photo Naeiksun)

But back to the qanat tunnels. First, the terms. In Persia, the main tunnels were called qanats while any smaller distributor tunnels at the lower end were called karez. Afghanistan seems to have adopted only the latter term. It appears that qanats may go back to 3000 years BCE. They are reliably recorded from the first millennium BCE.

You would never know from above what precise engineering lies underground. (Photo David Kennedy)

The technology required was simple, after all. They were hand-dug with windlasses to remove the spoil, and they are generally just large enough to fit the person doing the digging. A qanat can be several kilometers long – the record appears to be 60km — with vertical shafts sunk at intervals of 20 to 30 meters to remove excavated material and to provide ventilation and access for repairs. If the ground was rock or hard dirt, the qanats were simply tunnels. If the ground was soft, supporting ribs of fired clay were inserted. Repairs and upkeep were required annually.

Quite an elaborate structure holds this qanat’s water flow. Note the holes in the wall  used as a ladder. (Photo Scott Edmunds)

This all sounds like an enormous amount of trouble, but it opened up many otherwise arid valleys to cultivation. People could grow crops and live where there had been only a desolation.

The reason the access holes look like artillery craters is simply that the spoil was dumped around them to create a mound that would keep runoff from entering the tunnels and polluting the water.

But I did not just learn about Genghis Khan and water supply to Afghan farms. I learned a concept: not just that conquerors are bastards but that lack of rain or any other surface water does not mean lack of agriculture. Nearly 50 years later I was able to apply that on another motorcycle tour. But as they say, that is another story.


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