Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.34

Pierre Briant (ed.), Irrigation et drainage dans I'Antiquité. Qanats et canalisations souterraines en Iran, en Égypte et en Grèce, séminaire tenu au Collège de France sous la direction de Pierre Briant.   Paris:  Thotm éditions, 2001.  Pp. 192.  ISBN 2-914531-01-X.  EUR 27.00.  

Contributors: Pierre Briant, Denis Knoepfler, Thierry Chatelain, Michel Wuttman, Michel Chauveau, Mirjo Salvini, Remy Boucharlat, Bernard Bousquet


Reviewed by Philip Kaplan, University of North Florida (pkaplan@unf.edu)
Word count: 1799 words

With the current volume, Pierre Briant demonstrates not only the breadth of his interests but his considerable talents as an academic impresario as well. The subject of irrigation and drainage systems in antiquity is one that has attracted sporadic, highly specialized and highly localized attention. In convening a broadly conceived conference on the topic in March of 2000 and publishing the papers with admirable dispatch, Professor Briant has attempted to pull together the work of historians, epigraphists and archaeologists working in the Aegean, in Upper Egypt, in the Arabian peninsula and in Iran. The results are attractively packaged in this volume in a style which matches Professor Briant's ambitious and useful website, www.achemenet.com. The site promises, among other things, to provide new editions of inscriptions from all corners of the Persian Empire, as well as resources, news and information concerning research on the ancient world in the Persian period. It has become a site of obligatory repeated visits for scholars and students interested in the synthetic study of the various cultures that made up the Persian Empire; and this volume is offered in the same spirit.

It should be noted that the current volume does not provide a comprehensive overview of water management in the ancient world (missing is any discussion of the myriad solutions to the problem of water procurement and storage for domestic use throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, including Roman aqueducts). Instead, the specialized studies presented here, focusing on several significant sets of evidence, bring light to bear on certain key terminological and technical problems in understanding the technology of water transportation. At issue is the position, held widely but not subscribed to by all of the contributors to this volume, that the various subterranean water collection and transportation systems found in the Aegean and the Near East and dated generally to the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. represent a related phenomenon whose origins are in the Persian Empire (or Urartu).

In the introduction, Professor Briant lays out the disparate sources on the subterranean irrigation and drainage systems of antiquity: a passage in Polybius describing an episode in the conflict between Arsakes I and Seleukos II, an inscription from Euboea awarding the contract for draining a lake at Ptechai, the remains of a qanat system at the Oasis of Ain Manawir in the western desert of Upper Egypt, and a few other examples of the use of underground irrigation and drainage systems.

Professor Briant opens the volume with a detailed study of Polybius x.28, the most extensive mention in ancient literature of the qanat, a complex irrigation system used in arid zones in the Middle East into the modern period, in which water is collected and transported through subterranean conduits. The passage, describing the encounter of Arsakes and Seleukos in the region of Hekatompylos south of the Elburz range, mentions a series of subterranean canals (hyponomoi) with wells (phreatiai), built by the Persians, by the use of which one could bring an army across the desert. According to Polybius, Arsakes, retreating from Seleukos, attempted to destroy the wells, to deny his enemy access to the water. Briant lays out the difficulties in interpreting the passage, summarizing the various attempts to translate its terminology. He concludes that Polybius is indeed describing qanats, but that he or his source fundamentally misunderstands the nature of these structures. Polybius' description and his use of the term phreatiai suggests that the water is collected from hidden underground sources, and he believes that the shafts were built to allow access to the water for drinking purposes. Studies of the function of qanats (the most important being that of H. Goblot, Les qanats. Une technique d'acquisition de l'eau , Paris 1979) have shown that they collect runoff water that drains from the slopes of mountains -- in this case the slopes of the Elburz range -- and the shafts, dug at regular intervals, served not for access to the water but to allow maintenance of the canal. Briant also suggests that Polybius has been encouraged in his misinterpretation by his reading of Herodotus' fanciful account of the Arabs' solution to the provision of water to Cambyses' army (III.6-9) and by the description of Diodorus Siculus, probably following Hieronymos, of the Nabataeans' use of hidden cisterns in the desert (XIX.104.5). Briant concludes with a general consideration of the sources that Polybius might have had at his disposal.

The next two articles deal with an inscription from the sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros in Eretria (although found in Chalcis), recording a contract between the city of Eretria and one Chairephanes to undertake engineering works in order to drain a lake at Ptechai. The inscription was first published in 1869; Denis Knoepfler, who is working on a new edition, here presents the history of the inscription, along with detailed comments about the legal forms of the contract, of interest to legal historians but not relevant to the current setting. He also presents an extended consideration of its date, finally settling, on historical, linguistic and iconographical criteria, for a date shortly after 318 BC, when democracy had been restored to Eretria in the aftermath of the Lamian war. As for locating the lake of Ptechai, Knoepfler is hampered by the lack of evidence for the remains of an ancient drainage system in the region of Eretria. Rejecting the lake of Dystos as a candidate for the lake of Ptechai, he puts the ancient lake in the plain bounded by Lepoura, Velousia and Krieza. Knoepfler's discussion would have been helped by a fuller publication of the inscription itself. His study is followed by a more relevant discussion by Thierry Chatelain, a doctoral student, of the technical terminology and hypothetical reconstruction of the engineering works undertaken by Chairephanes. Chatelain, in reviewing evidence for the meaning of the various terms used in the contract -- hyponomos, phreatiai, dexamene, and thyra -- notes the similarity with Polybius' description of the qanats of the Elburz, and proposes that a fundamentally similar arrangement of subterranean canals and shafts was to be used by Chairephanes to drain the lake (with the addition of a reservoir and locks, presumably to save the water for use). Lacking evidence on the ground, Chatelain's reconstruction of the arrangement of the drainage system is hypothetical, if plausible. He adduces similar arrangements used at Kopais in Boeotia, and to a lesser extent water systems at Athens and at Syracuse, to support his reconstruction. The comparanda are hard to date, however, and much about his reconstruction remains speculative.

Turning to hard archaeological data, the next two articles deal with the investigation of a series of qanats in the vicinity of Ain Manawir, a spring in the Kharga oasis in the Libyan desert west of Upper Egypt. Michel Wuttman's study of the remains of this region underscores the difficulty in dating hydraulic works: generally, such works can be dated only by tying them in with associated -- and more securely dated -- habitations or installations. In the case of the region of Ain Manawir, various structures can be dated to the Persian period by associated demotic ostraka; but there is evidence of some reoccupation in the Ptolemaic period, as well as a second major phase in the early Roman imperial period. Wuttman associates the hydraulic works with the earlier period, with a collapse in the Ptolemaic period but continuing use of some of the qanats into the Roman period. Wuttman also provides details of various arrangements for the collection and transportation of water from the spring. Michel Chaveau's brief resumé of the Persian-period ostraka suggests some interesting insights that may be gleaned from the contractual material pertaining to sharing water rights; but on the whole his conclusions about the usefulness of the material in illuminating the use of the water system are negative.

Far more cautious, generally -- in fact, critical of the framework of the entire discussion -- are the final contributions to the volume. Mirjo Salvini stakes his position in the title of his paper: "Pas de qanats en Urartu!" Challenging a view held widely since Lehman-Haupt's early investigations of the Lake Van region, Salvini argues that the water systems built by the kings of Urartu bear no relation to the qanat system employed in Iran. Instead, Salvini takes the position that the canals and irrigation systems are a local development appropriate for the higher-rainfall environment in the valleys east of Van. Rémy Boucharlat's study of the water systems of the Oman Peninsula is even more broadly critical. Boucharlat questions even the use of the term qanat for pre-medieval water transportation systems, preferring the more general "galeries souterraines", and argues that the specific features of the Iranian qanat -- long-distance transportation of water from a source hidden underground and widely spaced service vents -- are not found in Oman, much less in Egypt or any of the other places where they have been claimed. Although he places several of the Oman examples in the Iron Age, Boucharlat notes also the problems with dating these systems, and argues that there are no Iranian examples with a clear chronological priority. Boucharlat's skepticism is salutary, if discouraging. Regional variations in the arrangements of subterranean water transportation systems make it harder to prove a broader commonality in underlying technique; but the variations should not rule out such a commonality either.

The final contribution, by Bernard Bouquet, represents notes towards a broader consideration of the geo-historical and political significance of underground water systems. His comments on the uses that the Persian Empire had in constructing large scale water systems to promote its authority over territory at the ends of its domain are stimulating, but, given the great uncertainty concerning the dating of these systems and the lack of a broad consensus about the common origins of these systems, such insights must remain speculative.

Ultimately, a comparative study of the diverse evidence for subterranean water systems in antiquity can be of great use for the specialists engaged in such study by helping them to clarify problems of terminology, technique and classification. For a broader audience, such a study is mainly useful insofar as real historical connections can be made between the examples in different regions. The possibility that the water drainage techniques of the Boeotians of the fourth century may owe their origins to the irrigation systems on the Iranian plateau is an intriguing one. Such a connection, could it be proven, would contribute substantially to our understanding of the communication of technical knowledge of engineering, surveying and hydraulics from Persia to Greece. Sadly, this volume, an admirable effort though it is, does not advance us materially towards that goal, but serves instead to point out the enormous gaps in our knowledge of water systems in antiquity that first must be filled in.

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