Timing Falaj Water Shares with Stars
Honorary Research Fellow
UNESCO Chair on Aflaj Studies – Archaeohydrology
I had been to Oman several times in the 1970s and was seconded to the PAWR with many other hydrogeologists for a full year in the mid-1980s. However, it was not until 2005, when working on the Al Hajar archaeological project in Bahla, that I came to appreciate the wealth of traditional knowledge used in falaj management and the deep significance of the falaj to life in Oman. In Mudaybi’s satellite town of Al-Zahib, I was shown a wall with striations where farmhands still came to time their water. I had come across sundials used for timing water shares by the day before, but this was completely new and breathtaking. Back in the UK, my Arabic teacher, Prof. D A Agius, suggested that I register for a PhD under his supervision to investigate the practice and record information before it completely disappeared. Hence I became an ethnographer as well as a hydrogeologist. These disciplines may distant from each other, but the community aspects of water resources, especially learning from beneficiaries, had always been important in my work.
The Ministry of Water Resources provided vital logistical support including accommodation and assistance from regional offices in identifying villages still using stars and introductions to village elders. At the same time, Professor Al Ghafri, then at SQU, willingly shared his extensive library with me and became my main academic mentor in Oman. Several others, especially from the Historical Society of Oman, gave suggestions and more contacts. Five settlements (Qarya Beni Subh near Al Hamra, Al Zahib, Al Fath and Sudayra near Mudaybi, and Barzaman to the south of Sinaw) still using stars for the falaj were soon identified and the search stopped to allow sufficient time to investigate them thoroughly. I also spent some time with former star-gazers in Misfat Al Abryeen and Qala and later obtained information from several settlements (mainly Halam) inland from Sur, and at Hajeer and Stāl in Wadi Bani Kharus. Thanks to Drs Majid Labbaf Khaneiki and Ali Semsar Yazdi then at the Qanat Center in Yazd, I then carried out some comparative work in the Central Plateau of Iran.
I visited Oman a number of times, spending time talking to the falaj officials and people using stars, observing them in practice and recording the star names and time intervals between them. By watching with users and identifying the stars, I found that star names were largely local, bearing little relationship to their names in astronomy books. The stargazers did not study astronomy: their knowledge was handed down orally from generation to generation and was specific to the location. It is likely that stars have been used for as long as falaj shares needed to be timed, possibly for 4000 years. Although some stars correlate with those of the Islamic lunar calendar, many do not and there are many differences between the aflaj communities, such that the name alone is not enough to identify the star. Taking Aldebaran (الدبران) as an example: this is usually called Ad-Dabrān and refers to the well-known star α Tauri, but in Sudayra it was known as Muqbil and in Barzaman as Bū Qābil; in Barzaman, two stars are included: Aldebaran and Capella (α Aurigae), although Aldebaran is the official falaj star, while in Misfat Al Abryeen, it was only Capella.
The basic principle was everywhere the same: night is divided into 24 athars; a number of main stars was selected, rising two to three hours apart, to cover the whole year and the period that a star covers (and after which that period is called) starts when it rises at dawn. It is simplest to explain the system used in Qarya Beni Subh, where stars are watched rising above the horizon. The time of Thurayyā (the Pleiades) starts on 16 May and lasts until 1 June, when Aldebaran is the last star to rise before dawn. Several of the main stars are connected with agricultural seasons (eg from Barzaman: Lam tuṭlac ath-thurayyā min cashayya: yazarac al-burr hayya hayya). On the night of 1 June, the timing would start with Vega (α Lyrae) and finish with Aldebaran, with some eight main falaj stars between them during the night, but to obtain time intervals as short as five minutes it was necessary to know many more stars. Although it should be possible to select stars to give approximately equal athar lengths, this did not seem to be a priority and the night-time athar in Qarya ranges from 20 to 45 minutes. Figure 1 shows the horizon used in Misfat Al Abryeen, where towers marking the location of the rise of some stars were built as an aid to people with poor eyesight.
In Sharqiya, local horizons were used, such as an east-facing wall in Barzaman, so that the same main falaj star could be watched rising at different times by moving forwards towards the wall. In Al Fath, when told that a particular stone was the place to watch Capella rising above a tower by one farmer, but by someone else that the point marked the start of Al Dharācayn (here Regulus and Algeiba, α and γ Leonis), I thought that one of my informants must have made a mistake. However, I soon found that both were correct: Capella seen rising above the tower marks the start of the main falaj star, Al Dharācayn. In Al Fath and Al Zahib, there were many different points for watching stars, which were often not the main falaj star but indicated when that star would be rising above the hidden natural horizon. Figure 2 shows part of the star clock in Al Fath, where two different stars were watched rising, each for three main falaj stars or about six hours, with marks on the wall for the start of each star and divisions between them. With this system, it was only necessary to recognise five or six stars.
As with the sundial, each farmer was responsible for identifying the start of their share of water. This is relatively straightforward with the sundial, but at night, someone with detailed knowledge of the star system was needed to resolve queries and teach it to new farmhands. This knowledge is now practically extinct. Most settlements started using watches at night in the 1970s and by 2010 only eleven settlements were still using stars. No one has learned the system well enough to continue it after the death of the main stargazer, and now it is probably only used in Qarya Beni Subh. Other ways of timing water shares by night were less common, but it is possible that the water clock is still used in Shurayja and the sand timer in Wadi Tiwi and I plan to investigate this in the future.
Water Management: the Use of Stars in Oman, H. Nash Society for Arabian Studies Monographs No. 11, Archaeopress, Oxford. 2011; Arabic version 2019 Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Oman
Traditional Star Knowledge for Falaj Al Hammam, Rustaq, Oman, with Waha Al-Shukaili and Talib Mohammed Al-Rumhi 2020 J Oman Studies 22 228-240.
Timing falaj water shares in the Hajar ash Sharqi, with M Al-Musharifi and A Al-Harthi J Oman Studies, 2014, 18: 63-75
Timing water shares in Wadi Bani Kharus, Oman, with A Al-Ghafri and M Al-Sarmi Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 2013, 43: 1-10
Traditional timing of water shares, with M Khaneiki and A Yazdi Proceedings of the International Conference on Traditional Knowledge for Water Resources Management, Yazd, Iran 21-23 Feb. 2012