The pyramids of Egypt are astonishing feats of human engineering. The Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest structure in the world built by man for more than 3,800 years. Most structures built today would collapse if left unattended for several hundred years, yet the pyramids have survived for millennia.
A question that baffles many today is: how were the pyramids constructed? It is commonly believed that it took around 20 years to erect the Great Pyramid of Giza. Since the structure is so massive, 800 tons of stone would have to have been moved every day to achieve this. Even with today’s modern technology, this would be very difficult to accomplish. Some therefore claim that The Pyramid of Giza must have been built by aliens, or a high-tech human society that existed in the past.
The most probable explanation is, however, equally unsettling – the pyramids are the greatest ever example of government waste.
The pyramids are monuments to how the resources of the ancient civilisation of Egypt were squandered on building man-made mountains, with little actual value for society. Equally interesting is another wonder of the world which was first constructed some 3,000 years ago. This wonder is the qanats, the underground irrigation system that made much of the Middle East viable for human civilisation. While the pyramids were built by central government diktat, and had little if any practical use, the qanats were built through market mechanisms and had massive practical benefits.
The dawn of human civilisation occurred in two neighbouring regions, Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was here that mankind first read, wrote, made laws, and lived in cities under organised government. However, these two civilisations differed in their approach to economic affairs.
The people of ancient Egypt initially made impressive progress, largely thanks to the Nile river and its dependable seasonal flooding which created a natural system of water distribution in a country with ample sunlight. Growing crops to feed a rising population was easier in Egypt than in many other parts of the world.
Yet, it was mainly Mesopotamia, not Egypt, which led the world in economic and technological advancement. A core reason is that the Mesopotamian civilisations of Babylon and Assyria developed the world’s first market economies , while Egypt moved towards a greater level of government central planning. Although merchants, private artisans and businesses certainly were important economic actors in Egypt, state intervention limited the function of markets.
Understandably, much of Egypt’s economy was centred along the Nile, and the state could easily control this important river. The economy became controlled by the government, and the Egyptian pharaohs went as far as believing themselves to be gods. And so, they directed the resources of their rich lands to building man-made monuments to themselves.
The kings of the Middle East also built monuments, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the impressive Persian capital of Persepolis. But since the state was smaller, the resources put into the monuments to central authority were more limited. The resources of the Middle Eastern civilisations could instead be directed towards private and productive use. Perhaps the best example of this is the qanats.
The qanats are one of the most important infrastructure projects in human history. These underwater irrigation systems, which were first constructed in Iran, made otherwise dry regions habitable. Once water provision was secured, previously barren regions became productive agricultural land. They were vital for development of lands in places such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. With time they also spread to other great civilisations, including Greece, Rome, India and China.
A qanat is a slightly sloping underground channel which transports water from an underground source to the surface. While the concept is easy to grasp, digging a qanat is anything but.
First, one must find a suitable area. Then one needs to find out if this subterranean resource can be used to irrigate lands that can sometimes be many kilometres away. To do this, the expert qanat builders chose appropriate locations and trial wells. It is not enough to find subterranean water, it must be water that is continuously being refilled or is large enough to remain for many generations.
If there is doubt concerning the permanence of the water supply, more test holes must be dug in order to determine the extent of the aquifer and the depth of the water table. However, digging this first well is just the initial step. After this is done, a canal will be dug many kilometres under the earth, to guide the water. This subterranean canal must be sloping a little. The qanat must be aligned so that a slightly sloping tunnel from the water-filled base of the mother well will surface above the irrigated fields of the settlement. Otherwise, water will not flow to the settlement. If the gradient of the tunnel is too steep, water rushing down the tunnel will erode the walls of the underwater channel and soon destroy it.