These Ancient Irrigation Wells Are Oman’s Best Kept Secrets

12 Dec 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

A bygone facet that’s nourished villages and sustained ancient agriculture in the Sultanate, the ‘zajarah’ well remains a relic of Oman’s historic ingenuity, as Aftab H. Kola reports.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the zajarah well is its prime example. A relatively inexpensive traditional technology used to raise water from an open well via the strength of draft animals such as donkeys or cattle, today few of these historic wells still exist – though, displays of their use still take place each year at the annual Muscat Festival.

From the ninth through to the 16th centuries, the Islamic world experienced its golden age of science and technology – which, among the gamut, was the management of water using traditional methods that may seem rudimentary to the modern eye, but which once helped supply rapidly growing populations with potable water and also for agricultural usage.

Beginning as early as the seventh century in Arab countries and around the tenth century in Spain, early Muslim water engineers were pioneers of agricultural revolution – integrating, adapting, and over-hauling irrigation techniques and methods of water distribution.

Oman is best known for its UNESCO World Heritage status aflaj system which continues, through man-made networks of surface/underground canals, to deliver a substantial portion of the nation’s rural water supply even today. Yet, in a bygone era, raising water from a well, river, or lake in quantities needed by local communities and their agricultural endeavours was a task that required strength – and thinking outside the box.

Animal-powered water lifts were often split into two categories – those designed to lift surface water and those designed to raise groundwater.

The first of these – ‘saduf’ – is one of the oldest known tools used to raise well-water and was first widely used in ancient Persia and then Muslim-ruled Spain. A simple mechanism consisting of a pole resting on a fulcrum, with a counterweight at the short end of the pole; when the long end of the pole was pulled down, the bucket would be lowered into the water source, while the counterweight would haul the full pail back up to the surface.

The second method – ‘saaqiya’ – is also known as the ‘Persian Wheel’ originated in early Persia around the same time as the ‘qanat’ (an underground irrigation canal). This animal-powered mechanism of interlocking wooden gears set at right angles to each other would have a donkey or mule harnessed to a pole that was fixed to a broad, horizontal wheel set with posts generally less than a metre tall – the teeth of the gear.

Oman too developed its own version to lift water from its ancient wells using draft animals – the main one being ‘zajarah’. While seldom preserved in use today, visitors to the annual Muscat Festival can see lively demonstrations of just how these historic well systems worked via built-to-scale models as part of the Sultanate’s commitment to preserving and showcasing elements of its traditional practices and cultural heritage.

In the Sultanate there are three types of traditional wells – ‘zajarah’ and ‘munzifah’. Employing a counter-balanced pivot lifting device, the ‘munzifah’ well is limited to only a few locations across the country were the water table is nearest to the ground. While a ‘zajarah’ well employs animal muscle power to raise water from relatively deeper underground. How does it all work? A rope rests on a pivot with an animal pulling the rope that lowers the bucket into the water source, while the animals’ movement then hauls the overflowing bucket back up the well shaft.

Believed to be similar to the ancient ‘shaduf’ method – one of the oldest known tools used to raise water – Oman’s ‘zajarah’ have several advantages. Being relatively low-cost to construct, they could be locally made and maintained with ease. They’re also easy to operate – able to lift water up to 20 metres of well-shaft, their peak point of efficiency is at depths of less than 7.5 metres.

And while no more such wells exist for modern purposes in Oman today, according to the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources, the ‘zajarah’ well is still worth peering down for an insight into the life-lines that once sustained—and help build–our nation.

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