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2020 †N9-10(186-187)
In the foothills of the Kopetdag mountain, which is one of the most favorable places for living and agriculture in Turkmenistan, one can still find the unique hydraulic structures whose history dates back to ancient times. These structures are called kariz - fortified underground galleries through which water flows from the submontane aquifers into the valley to residential settlements.
There is a saying, "a drop of water is a grain of gold", and this truth is embedded in the mental memory of the Turkmen people. This is explained by the geographical location of the country, most of which is occupied by the desert. Three large river arteries run through Turkmenistan - the Amu Darya, Murghab and Tejen, but even these rivers could not ensure sufficient volumes of life-giving water, especially for irrigation, to all farmers. There was always a shortage of water. Spring high waters disappeared during dry summers, and it was during such periods of time that water was indeed worth its weight in gold. Other than Turkmens, the water of Murghab was used by the inhabitants of Afghanistan used, the water of Tedzhen was used by the inhabitants of Afghanistan and Iran, and farmers of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan built drainage systems for irrigation from the Amu Darya.
Such harsh water consumption conditions forced Turkmens to treat water extremely carefully, as it was the basis for good harvests and increase in livestock that were essential for the prosperous life of ancient farmers and pastoralists who inhabited the territory of modern Turkmenistan. Water and life were equivalent concepts for them.
As agriculture developed, the need for irrigation of fields increased. In the past, lack of water often forced people to leave their settlements in search of fertile lands. However, when facing difficult situations, people become more agile. Thus, the foothill strip of Turkmenistan in ancient times became the arena of constructive thinking for folk craftsmen, and the study of the issue of water supply in medieval Turkmenistan shows that Turkmens proved to be genuine masters in building hydraulic structures and irrigation systems. Kariz is the most striking example of such structures. It is a system of underground well galleries with which Turkmens used to bring waters from mountain rivers to their settlements in the valleys.
The prominent Russian scientist, mining engineer Lev Tsimbalenko, known for his works on irrigation systems in the region, referred to kariz as "a brilliant hydraulic engineering structure in Asia, thanks to which there live and prosper not only villages and cities but also entire oases and provinces of the countries, deprived of natural water resources, with a hot and dry climate." Indeed, in many foothill and desert areas, kariz was the only source of drinking water. So, they were well protected. Their wells were carefully sheltered from desert sediments and disguised from enemies.
For many years, kariz helped people living in the arid regions. And even nowadays, despite the availability of developed irrigation systems that make kariz of little use, people continue by tradition using such water pipelines in some regions of Turkmenistan. At the same time, water from kariz is now used exclusively for drinking for its incomparable taste. "Kariz water is for the good of the soul," Turkmens say.
In the Middle Ages, there were many kariz in the territory of modern Turkmenistan. The Turkmen historian, professor Ovez Gundogdyev writes: "As noted in the Review of the Trans-Caspian Region, from 1882 to 1890, at the beginning of 1890, there were 17 kariz and 140 wells in Askhabad County alone. And in Askhabad itself, there were four large functional kariz systems up to the 40s of the XX century."
The first historical data confirming the existence of kariz systems dates back to the time of Alexander the Great. The ancient historian Polybius wrote about kariz of Parthia, noting that whoever brings the spring water into the area, which had not been irrigated until then, is given the entire area for use for a period of five generations. Yet, this historical reference does not mean that kariz did not exist in this area before.
Therefore, no one will be able to identify the exact time of appearance of the first kariz. For example, folk legends of the Bakherden region of Turkmenistan say that underground water tunnels already existed in these places three centuries ago. Bakherden district is one hundred kilometers west of the Turkmen capital. In this district, kariz are preserved and maintained in good condition. Like hundreds of years ago, the purest water of springs hidden in the depths of the Kopetdag mountain system flows through kariz to the local villages. The largest kariz systems of Bakherden itself, as well as the nearby villages of Durun, Murcha, Suncha, Kelyata, are concentrated there.
There is a great view of this area, as if coming from an old photograph. Against the background of a mountain ridge, just like hundreds of years ago, there is a karizgen (master) working together with his assistants (kelvans). As in the past times, they have simplest tools - picks and shovels with short handles. They even use leather bags to lift soil to the surface. Only old oil lanterns were replaced with electric ones, and metal cables are now used instead of not so reliable ropes. Kelvans descend into a narrow well shaft with the help of a kind of mechanical winch, working in shifts.
Nowadays, there is no real need for kariz, but this Bakherden hydraulic system is maintained in good order. The underground galleries were periodically cleared of landslides, and now the walls of the tunnels are fortified with concrete slabs to avoid landslides. After all, the cleaner the gallery, the more powerful the outlet water pressure. For example, during snow melting, the speed of water flow in a clean tunnel reaches 70 liters per second and 40-45 liters per second in summer.
One may ask a question, as to why in the age of prosperity does one need to keep the ancient water supply system functional? Nonetheless, their availability and uninterrupted functioning are important for our contemporaries, as one of the living elements of cultural heritage, as a reminder of the need to rationally use the most valuable natural resource, and, of course, not to forget the taste of crystal-clear water bestowed on people for their hard work and inventive mind.
The head of the brigade, Redzhep Akmamedov, coming from the family of kariz masters, comments on the work of his assistants:
"Kariz is a drainage tunnel with luftlogs - wells located close to each other, which are used to remove soil that appeared during digging of the gallery of kariz. When the system functions, they are used for ventilation, the master said. As a rule, every 20 meters, the underground gallery is connected to the surface by means of wells. This distance varies from 4 to 42 m and depends on the properties of the rocks, among which the kariz gallery runs. If the rocks are weak and can collapse, then the galleries have a small distance between the wells. Underground tunnels can stretch for 2-3 km before reaching a catchment. The uniqueness of the method of groundwater extraction by kariz systems lies in the fact that these structures extract water from great depths through complex chains of underground galleries, bringing water to the surface of the earth by gravity, without unnecessary power inputs.
Building kariz was a very responsible job at all times. One had to have excellent knowledge of hydrogeology. In the foothills of the Kopetdag mountain, water lay at the depth of 30-150 m, so it was a great art to choose a place for an underground channel. How did the ancestors of Turkmens manage to find this point? When choosing a place suitable for digging a well, they paid attention to whether a camel thorn grows nearby - an indicator of the presence of water, as this desert plant has very long roots that can feel and get to moisture deep underground.
Nearby, they would dig a shallow hole and plant a branch of a vine in it. A few days later, they would return and check the state of the branch. If a "tear" dripped from the incision on the branch, the problem was solved. The place for digging kariz was spotted correctly. By the taste of this tear, they already could understand what this water would be used for - irrigation or drinking.
A brigade of 4-5 kelvan masters of excellent health, athletic build, remarkable strength and courage to take risks would gather for digging kariz. After all, this work hid many unforeseen, dangerous situations. Each of them had their own duties. A chief master - ussa sakil, who would start the work, would determine the depth of a well, sometimes reaching 60 meters, with the help of a simple level (a rope with a weighting agent). The diameter of the inner part of the wellbore did not exceed 80 cm. In the old times, the walls of the well were reinforced with juniper wood. Large boulders were also used as anchorage. Given the lack of air at great depths, a forge was installed near the well to supply air downward through reed pipes.
When an aquifer was reached, they would begin forming the water gallery. The height of the horizontal tunnel of the underground labyrinth usually varied from 1 m 30 cm to 1 m 50 cm. One can imagine how difficult it was to work in such a confined space. So, staying in the thickness of the soil, and "biting" deeper into it, kelvans reclaimed water from nature. They filled their 5-8 liter leather bags with clay, lifted it up to the surface and returned deep underground again. Previously, they worked under dim light of an oil wick made of lamb wool. Now, they use the bright light of battery-powered flashlights on their helmets, but even this lighting is faintly noticeable in the darkness of underground galleries.
Over the centuries, the work of the kariz masters has undergone only the smallest changes, and the underground galleries remain the fruit of purely manual work. At the same time, kariz are still striking in their monumentality. For example, the underground gallery of the Kone Murcha kariz is up to 4 meter high and 2 meter wide, while the Durun kariz are stunning in their length, some of them reach for 3 km. In ancient times, they fed a water conduit made of burnt bricks, stretching for tens of kilometers from the foothills to the city of Shehrislam, located on the border with the desert.
Building new and maintaining the functional kariz required not only endurance, tremendous labor effort, but also skills, ingenuity and extreme perseverance of the kelvan masters. Therefore, it is by no means accidental that kariz were named after their creators.
Kariz builders were much respected among people, because one kariz could feed a large number of people. For example, more than 120 years ago, kariz masters from Durun named Khuntush and Ainabat provided water to 95 and 143 households, and the Koine-Murcha kariz supplied water to 53 farmsteads. The ancient kariz system of Bakherden region, connected today to a modern water distributor, satisfies almost all the water needs of seven thousand villagers of the Durun farm association.
The original folk hydraulic system has existed for centuries. But even now, replaced by new technologies, it still remains a man-made monument to the wisdom and rationality of the Turkmen hydraulic builders of the past, whose invaluable experience is worthy of attention today.
The drainage reservoir at the exit of the kariz system to the surface of the earth is traditionally a significant place for villagers. Housewives come here to fetch water and exchange fresh news, chat about pressing matters. On a hot day, it's just nice to sit by the cool-giving little limpid water lake, lined with stone boulders, to enjoy the sun glare on the water surface. But the most pleasant thing is to scoop up the purest life-giving moisture with hands and take a few sips of amazingly tasty water that feels really sweet... Indeed, one can't argue with folk wisdom - "Kariz water is for the good of the soul!"


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005