Foreign plants and qanat irrigation

I’ve written a number of detailed analyses for folios in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical and ‘pharma’ sections, all of which produced a pattern of reference as well as of construction-method which, though not mechanically regular, was sufficiently consistent to describe their construction by a set of rules – or better, of informing principles.

Those results, as you might expect, caused the teeniest  flurry among adherents of the ‘Continental European Author’ hypothesis because my analysis resulted in identifications which were not of plants native to continental Europe and which  in some cases remained a mystery to Europe’s botanical tradition until long after the parchment’s radiocarbon date. (see my posts entitled ‘Balsam’).

It was pointed out – chiefly I think by Rene Zandbergen – that some foreign plants are mentioned in some Latin herbals, but they are not many and far too few to explain the range of those in the Voynich botanical section – by my reckoning anyway.  The makers’ clearly had close and  first-hand knowledge of plants depicted, and these include e.g. the  banana- and  the Artocarpus groups.

There is a simpler explanation, somewhat supported by a diagram on folio 69r, which I first described as the diagram of a qanat in a post* on my research blog findings (Aug. 11th., 21:57 EDST).

*’Irrigation and waters: fols.69r and 69v-i and 69v-ii Qanats?’

At the time, I hoped Rene Zandbergen – an engineer – might comment on what promise this idea might hold for our understanding of the text, but I understand at second-hand (so it might not be true) that his response was incredulity that any work first composed (as he then believed) by a central European protestant Christian author would contain anything of the sort

In this current blog, I have mentioned my proposal of the  ‘qanat’  (July 26th., 2013) but now here’s the matter in brief, reprinting part of my original post from 2010.

Points from Donald Routledge Hill:

In Iran, where qanats are still an important source of water, the construction of qanats is in the hands of experts (muqanni) and the secrets of the profession are largely handed down by word of mouth from father to son. The construction of a new qanat requires considerable outlay…It is customary therefore for the landowner or other authority to engage a skilled surveyor, usually a former muqanni with great field experience and keen powers of observation for the preparatory work. The termination of the qanat, either farmland to be irrigated, or a community to be provided with potable water, or both, will be known in advance, as will the general location of likely aquifers. … A trial well (gamana)…

The Assyrian king Sargon II (reigned 722-705 BCE) learned the secret of tapping underground water during his conquest of Urartu (present day Armenia). It is probably no coincidence that Armenia was one of the oldest mining and metallurgical centres in the Middle East, …


qanats were known in Archaemenid Iran, in Arabia and in Egypt… The great city of Nishapur in Khurasan was supplied entirely by qanats; most of these ran under the city and surfaced outside to form a river which irrigated the gardens of the area and many of the rural cantons… supervised by a force of inspectors and guards… The city of Rayy, near modern Teheran, also obtained its water for drinking and irrigation from qanats. At the other end of the Muslim world the city of Tangier was supplied by qanats from a great distance. It is worthwhile recording the existence of well-preserved remains of a qanat system near the ruins of Palmyra…in low hills about two miles to the north of the ruins… a tunnel is constructed of unmortared masonry.. probably not an Islamic construction, but may date back to Roman times, or to the period of Palmyra’s independence in the first three centuries of our era (pp..33-36)

 Donald Routledge Hill, A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval times (1984) pp.33-36

At the time I was still investigating the Armenian possibility, so the post included reference to that people and linked to a pdf which was available online:

Sala, Renato, “Historical Survey of Irrigation Practices in West Central Asia” 2003.


Here are some of the illustrations I used – the first to show how qanat [= ‘cane’] systems interacted with radii of watercourses. In the second diagram, the term qanat is given in its modern  Armenian Turkish form:  ”ghanat”.

Voynich qanats

map Garmsar Alburtz qanat irrigation

Along the line of the qanat, and so intersecting those water-courses,  from above one sees a series of holes, sometimes made a narrowing ‘funnel’ so as to reduce the amount of debris entering from the land above. The floors of the qanats must be cleared of debris fairly regularly, a task which (so I’m told) is usually done by younger lads.

qanat_anshan_airqanat1 viewVoynich qanats detail

So – altogether I read the diagram on folio 69r as showing the way that waters running from the highest point in the landscape are intersected by the line of the qanat with its chain of ‘eyelets’.

If  folio 69v-i shows that system not generically, but by a specific example or regional style, then  it would – surely – be helpful to people working on the script. The inscriptions written along the radii might refer to directions, to the names of watercourses, to some such sequential list of pertinent information.  But that’s for the linguists and cryptologists.

In other contexts,  ‘qanat’ is a term used less technically, as it was to describe a palace which stood in Baghdad until its recent destruction by military activity.

Qanat Baghdad

Qanat construction is described on numerous online sites, some of which rather curiously try to link it to the  “Aryan” myth, though for what reason I cannot imagine.

About  tropical crops which came to be cultivated in parts of the western Islamic empire, including the southern Mediterranean, and for review of the debate about the theme of the “Arabs Agricultural Revolution”, see:-

Andrew M. Watson, New Crops in the Early Islamic World: A Study in Diffusion,

or his  ‘The Arab Agricultural Revolution and its diffusion, 700-1100’, Journal of Economic History, Vol.34, No. 1, The Tasks of Economic History (March 1973), pp.8-35.

NB-  more  recent publications by Michael Decker and others dispute  Watson’s view that irrigation techniques introduced during the early centuries of the Islamic period were essential to any  introduction of Indian crops to the southern Mediterranean.

Not much has been written in the past three or four years, but an online source mentions a potentially important manuscript:

The Extraction of Hidden Waters by Mohammed Karaji, a Persian scholar of the 10th Century AD, his book having been  ‘recently discovered’ and containing “a chapter on qanat construction”.

A (the?) manuscript [MS LJS 399] is now in the Schoenberg Collection at the University of Pennsylvania.  A caption to the illustration from it which appears on the Muslim Heritage site reads:

Figure 1: Two diagrams from the original manuscript of Al-Karajī’s Inbāt al-miyāh al-khafiya, an influential work on hydraulics and water supply. Paper, 49 folios, in Arabic, nasta’liq script, black ink and over lining in red, 14 large diagrams in black and red. Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania, MS LJS 399, folios 32r, 35r.

The same page notes:

While an underground stream is called a qanat in Iran, it is called a karez in Afghanistan and Pakistan, kanerjing in China, a falaj in the Arabian Peninsula, a qanat romani in Jordan and Syria, a fogarra (fughara) in North Africa, a khettara in Morocco, and a galeria in Spain

The reference given at the foot of the same page is:

Pazwash, Hormoz and Gus Mavrigian, 1980, “A Historical Jewelpiece-Discovery of the Millennium Hydrological Works of Karaji,” Water Resources Bulletin, December, pp. 1094-1096;

Nadji, Mehdi and Rudolf Voight, 1972, “‘Exploration for Hidden Water’ by M. Karaji – Oldest Textbook on Hydrology?” Groundwater, September-October, pp. 43-46.

full citation:

Pazwash, Hormoz and Gus Mavrigian, 1980, “A Historical Jewelpiece – Discovery of the Millennium Hydrological Works of Karaji,  JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association, Volume 16, Issue 6, pages 1094–1096, December 1980.


Nadji, Mehdi and Rudolf Voight, 1972, “‘Exploration for Hidden Water’ by M. Karaji – Oldest Textbook on Hydrology?” Groundwater,  Volume 10, Issue 5, pages 43–46, September 1972.



    • Ah ha! caught you out. I knew that you read a lot more than you let on. Yes, in his seminal (though since disputed) study, Watson talks about rice. More interestingly though, he mentions hard wheat and that links rather nicely to Sardinia, doesn’t it?


    • Thanks for the comment, and sorry about the delay in replying; I’m working on something rather different now, and rarely re-visit this site.

      I looked with at your page but must admit to being disappointed by the lack of detail in your discussion of your reasoning and conclusions, though I wish you joy in any future research into this interesting fifteenth-century object.


  1. A seventeenth century copy of the manuscript is in the Schoenberg Collection at the university of Pennsylvania, and is available to view online.
    Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection
    LJS 399 – Karajī, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥusayn, d. ca. 1016 – [Inbāṭ al-miyāh al-khafīyah]
    Permanent Link:

    In this copy, there are no human figures. Neither is there any evidence of objection to ruling lines or drawing closed, angular forms.


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