This is probably the UNESCO World Heritage Site I spent the most time in trying to understand how to “properly” visit it during my recent trip in Iran. When I was just about to give up on it, a sign suddenly emerged in the streets of the historic city of Yazd referring to the “Zarch Qanat gallery”. This seems to be an improvement since the last reviewer from our WHS community went to Yazd in 2016, reporting the glaring lack of any public information about the qanats.
A signage that gave me hope. This is one of those that have been mounted on the mud walls of the old city of Yazd to show where the qanat flows underground.
Later on, my friend and I realized that there were in fact a lot of signs all over showing some sort of a direction. Only to find out that — after intently and passionately following the signs for nearly an hour — it was not really leading us to a “gallery” (i.e., an exhibit, a museum, or a showroom)! Rather, it was just illustrating where the qanat flows underneath the city! This finding was interesting, but it was far from constituting a “proper” visit.
The stairway of the Jame Masjid payab, an access to the Zarch qanat inside the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd
Much to my surprise later that day, however, we eventually got the proper visit that we needed no less than inside the Great Friday Mosque itself. It was a sweet accident that I will always be grateful for. At the main gate of the mosque, I already wondered why there was a banner congratulating “… the successful inscription of the Persian Qanats as a UNESCO World Heritage Site”. Sadly, it
obviously and shamefully failed to indicate the more important detail, i.e., that a part of the qanat can actually be accessed within it. Inside, there is a small opening on the ground that can easily be missed which leads to a payab (underground water chamber). This payab, which has been supplying the mosque the water it needs since it was erected 700 years ago, is one of the public openings of Zarch. The properly lit stairway goes down to some 30 meters below the ground until one reaches the well.
The well inside the water chamber 30 metres under the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd
Surprisingly, during our two hour wandering inside the complex, despite the hoards of tourists visiting the mosque and the no lack of tourist guides around, we only saw two other curious visitors who took the effort to go down the site, and they probably were not even aware of what it is at all. Even in the free walking city tour we hopped on the following day, our guide never mentioned anything about the qanats and their importance. We also learned later on that the Zarch qanat runs as well under the Emir Chaqmaq complex, but going there proved futile – there is no way to “see” the qanat.
Courtyard of the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd and the small, unpretentious entry to the payab in the foreground. The tourists do not even find their way to go to the other end of the courtyard to realize that a qanat can be seen there.
In one of those cosy coffee shops in the city, I had a talk with its owner whom I shared my sense of achievement and pride in seeing a part of the Zarch qanat with when I least expected it. What he did next was something unexpected. He enthusiastically showed us a ground cover in front of his shop, opened it, and explained that it’s one of the shafts of Zarch. It was quite deep and one can hear the flowing water well!
One of the vertical shafts of the Zarch qanat in front of a coffee shop in the old district of Yazd.
He also told us about the old underground watermill of Koushk-e No in the neighbhorhood which is also being repaired (or prepared) at the moment to become a tourist showroom for the qanat. Furthermore, he advised that if we go there, and if we’re lucky, we might just have a peek inside. And we eventually did.
The actual watermill is on the second level of this qanat access. The fenced off area is the access to the lowest qanat in this intersection.
Going down through its small opening, several layers of water channels and chambers were seen. Apparently, the site lies at the crossroad of three different qanats, with the Zarch qanat specifically powering the mill. It is also interesting to know that the temperature on the ground compared to the temperature down where the waters flow can differ from 17 to 20 degrees Celsius, making it a wonderful refuge from the heat outside.
A fresh water flowing on the Zarch qanat! Nothing has changed much in the three millenia of its existence – it is still working.
The Zarch qanat has been supplying most of the water requirements of the desert city of Yazd for more than 3,000 years already. It also happens to be the longest qanat in Iran at 120 kilometers in total length. In its entire course, from the mother well (water source) to the farmlands it irrigates, more than 2,000 shafts have been constructed. Indeed, qanats are a proof that ancient Persians were masters in hydraulic engineering.
The forest of badgirs, or windcatchers, in the historic desert city of Yazd at dusk.
The Zarch qanat definitely plays an important role in the nomination of the Historic City of Yazd, which also has a living tradition registered in the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on its own right. This proposal will be decided upon this coming June when the committee convenes in Krakow, Poland. I sincerely wish Yazd the best of luck.
Albeit not among the World Heritage-listed properties, other qanats we saw in the trip include the Solomon’s spring, an opening of a qanat that feeds water to the Fin Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Persian Garden, and the 7,000 years old Sialk Tepe, the remains of the oldest known ziggurat, in Kashan; and the qanat that supplies water to an ancient caravanserai, refrigerator, and ice house in historic Maybod, another desert city along the Silk Road that is also in Iran’s present Tentative List for UNESCO WHS listing.