Between the third and seventh centuries CE, the emperors of Sasanian Iran developed the hydraulic infrastructure of the alluvial plains in the northern part of today's Khuzistan Province. This region, home to the ancient city of Susa, lay along the royal road between the empire's winter capital at Ctesiphon in lower Iraq and the summer capital at Pasargadae, located to the southeast on the Iranian plateau. The works commissioned by the Sasanian emperors served the dual purposes of improving transportation between the capitals and harvesting the waters of the region's three great rivers, the Karkha, the Ab-i Diz, and the Karun.1
The Sasanian constructions include the great bridge-weirs at Pa-i Pul, Dizful and Shushtar
and the networks of irrigation canals, watermills, and channels fed by their reservoirs, as well as smaller bridges, weirs, and canals. While dry farming is possible in the upper plains of Khuzestan, irrigation had been an important component of agriculture in the region for some time before the Sasanian period. However, the Sasanians' investments in the region were unprecedented. The comprehensive coverage of the system and the technical innovation of these works suggest centralized and intensive planning.2
In addition to state support, the Sasanian waterworks in Khuzistan may have benefited from an influx of foreign labor. Arab historians state that Roman soldiers captured and deported to Sasanian Iran built the bridge at Shustar, and that Shapur I resettled a number of soldiers in Khuzistan after the sack of Edessa in 260 CE. Supporting this claim is the fact that the bridges at Dizful, Shushtar, and Pa-i Pul use Roman construction techniques, and our knowledge that the Sasanians harnessed the skills of prisoners of war for imperial development projects at other points in their history.3
The precise dates of the hydraulic works are hard to determine. None have inscriptions, and aside from aspects of design that point to Sasanian/Roman dates, the best evidence we have are mentions in historical chronicles written in the early Islamic period, such as the works of Tabari and Mas'udi.4 Furthermore, the bridges have been repaired during the Islamic period on numerous occasions. The Shushtar and Dizful bridges, for example, have Sasanian foundations but Islamic or modern superstructures.
The effect of these waterworks on life in Khuzistan is debated. Adams argued that the successful introduction of major cash crops like sugar and rice as well as the foundation of new urban centers at Gundishapur and Ivan-i Karka suggest that these works transformed the region.5 However, a study by Robert Wenke suggested that while urban populations grew, rural populations declined, casting doubt on the idea that the immediate outcome of this imperial investment was a surge in population and productivity.6
--Matthew Saba, Visual Resources Librarian for Islamic Architecture, AKDC at MIT, November 2017
- Graadt van Roggen, "Travaux hydrauliques," 168.
- Adams, "Agriculture and Urban Life," 116-117.
- A. Shapur Shahbazi, Erich Kettenhofen, and John R. Perry, "Deportation," Encyclopaedia Iranica VII/3, pp. 297-312.
- See examples in Le Strange, Lands, 235.
- Adams, "Agriculture and Urban Life," 118.
- Wencke, "Imperial Investments," 131-139.
Adams, Robert McCormick. “Agriculture and Urban Life in Early Southwestern Iran.” Science 136, no. 3511 (1962): 109–22.
Graadt van Roggen, D. L. “Notice sur les anciens travaux hydrauliques en Susiane.” In Mémoires de la Mission archéologique de Perse. Mémories de la Délégation en Perse, Tome 7: Recherches archéologiques. Duxieme série: 167–207. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1905.
Le Strange, Guy. Collected Works of Guy Le Strange. Vol. 3: Lands of the Eastern Caliphate. London: I. B. Tauris, 2014.
Wencke, R. J. "Imperial Investments and Agricultural Developments in Parthian and Sasanian Khuzestan: 150 BC to A.D. 640." Mesopotamia 10/11 (1976): 36-221.