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al-Karaji’s Hidden Waters

by Danielle Bermudez

Al-Karaji’s treatise has inspired stories worldwide about famous “hidden waters”. The 1,000 year old ancient text has stirred a 2009 children’s book called Water Scientists, as well as a 1950s Persian story called Blind White Fish. The 1950s story even prompted a group of western academics to conduct an excursion in search of the rare fish species mentioned in al-Karaji’s treatise.

While there is an Orientalist fetishization of al-Karaji’s treatise, Abigail Owen, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in World History of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, contends that al-Karaji’s work should be celebrated as one of the oldest texts of its kind in the field of hydrology. Al-Karaji was a mathematician and engineer from the late 10th century-early 11th century. Of Persian origin, he spent an important part of his scientific life in Baghdad where he composed ground breaking mathematical books. In fact, most scholars regard him for the beginnings of freeing algebra from geometry.

One of his most recognized works is his technical treatise on the extraction of hidden waters, which contains complex and profound understandings of different kinds of natural water systems, proper care of tunnel construction and maintenance, methods of water level measurement, the description of instruments for surveying, the construction of conduits, their lining, protection against decay, their cleaning and maintenance, as well as a structure of ethics based on specific social and cultural notions of law, property, and ownership.

Owen and her research team attempt to translate al-Karaji’s 1,000 year old treatise into English, a challenging process of carefully decoding words, images, and meanings. Al-Karaji’s ancient treatise has been translated before, such as from Arabic to Persian, and from Arabic to French. Oftentimes, however, translations of the treatise have obscured particular meanings of fresh ground water, such as with the origins and use of the word “qanat.”

Owen’s research on al-Karaji’s treatise demonstrates how meanings of water are fluid and dynamic across space and time. She makes evident how al-Karaji’s treatise serves as an important form of representation of knowledge about the environment, through a complex understanding of water systems, encouraging us to take up ongoing questions regarding the urgent need and use of water in our society – past, present, and future.