Wandering the hills above the little town of La Venta, west of Guadalajara, we came upon a huge black hole that looked like the entrance to a railway tunnel.
We walked inside it for a long distance, noticing that every 11 meters there was a hole in the ceiling, just about the width of a man’s shoulders. Through the hole a column of light descended, illuminating anyone standing there as if he or she were a character from Star Trek waiting to be beamed up.
What this tunnel really was we didn’t know, but we enjoyed telling our friends that we had discovered “the world’s only cave with 75 entrances, all nicely lined up in a row.”
So things stood until the day we brought two archaeologists to visit what we were then calling La Cueva de la Venta. Dr. Phil Weigand, discoverer of western Mexico’s circular pyramids or Guachimontones, walked into the tunnel entrance, looked around for a minute and exclaimed, “John, this is not a cave, it’s the remains of a qanat, a kind of subterranean aqueduct.”
Weigand explained that qanats were probably invented in Persia at least 5,000 years ago, and were used to move underground water from a well located at one point to some spot far away where people badly needed water but had none. “The engineer in charge,” said Weigand, “would mark a straight line between the two points and sink narrow vertical shafts to an exact, predetermined depth. These were then connected underground to produce a tunnel with a downward slope of less than two degrees. The entrances to the shafts were then closed with flat stones to prevent contamination and evaporation. If correctly made, the qanat could then supply water for at least the next 200 years.”
To prove that what we had thought of as a cave was really a manmade structure, Weigand pointed to one of the vertical shafts above us. “Just look at the hand and footholds running down one side of the shaft,” he said. These, he explained, were for the benefit of muqannīs, qanat experts who would regularly check to make sure the qanat was free of debris. Anything causing blockage in a qanat, I learned, could cause the water level to rise and then eat away at the sides of the tunnel.
The word qanat, I discovered later, is Arabic, but over their long history these subterranean aqueducts have had many other names, such as falaj, karez and foggara. Unlike wells, qanats do not empty aquifers. They consume no energy, requiring neither fossil fuels nor electricity, and they are great water savers — ideal for desert climates.
How could ancient man create precisely aligned subterranean passages with a slope less than two degrees? One of their main tools, I understand, was string. Tie a plumb bob to a string and you have a perfectly vertical line. Stretch another string horizontally and wet it: when the drops of water run both ways, you know it is perfectly level. Underground, you determine whether a passage is straight by setting candles at regular intervals and checking if all the flames line up.
Qanat technology was such a hit thousands of years ago that it spread far and wide. It was adopted by the Chinese and the Romans and was made popular in Spain by the Moors. The Spaniards then carried this know-how to the new world and frequently employed it when above-ground aqueducts were impractical.
So it was that qanats were constructed in many parts of Mexico. The most celebrated may be what were called the “apantles con tragaluces” of Tehuacán, Puebla, a town famed for its fine mineral water.
Recently I was invited to take a look at “a mysterious passage” which had been located beneath a public park inside greater Guadalajara. “I don’t know exactly what it is,” the directora of the park told me, “but it’s old. Do you want to have a look at it?”
Over the years I have heard about curious tunnels under certain haciendas, churches and pueblos, but upon asking to see the entrance I was inevitably told, “Sorry, it was sealed up years ago.”
Now I had at last found one with an accessible entrance and on top of that, the director had no idea how long it was or where it ended. So I organized a little group of cave explorers and off we went to the tunnel entrance, which we came to after climbing two meters down an iron ladder.
The passage in front of us was made of brick, just over a meter wide and almost two meters high, rounded at the top. Inside was a narrow “sidewalk” next to a channel half full of running water. This construction looked in very good condition, in no way a ruin.
I immediately suspected that this tunnel must have been built in the same style and for the same purpose as Qanat de la Venta. “Does this tunnel have any holes in the ceiling, leading up to the surface?” I asked the park director.
“No,” she said.
Since qanats typically have access shafts at regular intervals, I gave up my idea and we began to survey the passage.
A hundred meters later what did I see above my head but a shaft about seven meters high with daylight filtering in through three small holes in a metal cover.
“Hold it, everybody!” I shouted to the team. “This is a major feature that has to go on our map — this tunnel may be historically important.”
We followed the perfectly straight passage for a distance of 400 meters. Along the way, we came upon a total of three vertical shafts 100 meters apart and, sure enough, each had regularly spaced hand and footholds running up and down its full length.
At the end of the long tunnel, we stood facing a large pool of water entirely enclosed by high walls and covered with a roof. It was a kind of reservoir owned and operated by SIAPA, the inter-municipal potable water department. We had made our way right into the city’s waterworks! And this is why I have not indicated the location of the tunnel entrance.
“This mysterious passage of yours,” I told the park director, “may be as many as 300 years old, very likely built by Fray Buzeta.”
Buzeta’s name is well-known in Guadalajara. Friar Pedro Antonio Buzeta was a Franciscan lay brother, born in Spain, who was brought to the city in 1731 to help resolve its long-standing water shortage. As far back as 1606, historian Mota y Escobar had complained that Guadalajara “had no gardens or fountains, because it lacked water.”
At last, in 1731, the city fathers got around to doing something about this problem and asked for help from Buzeta, an architect renowned for having solved the water problems of Veracruz, where he had constructed a subterranean aqueduct which the local people fondly called “The Friar’s Pipe.”
Buzeta accepted with a will, decided that an above-ground aqueduct would not work and began to construct what appear to be three classic qanat lines to tap underground water sources. Three years later Buzeta had still not been paid for his work and went off to Spain, leaving Guadalajara with “a notorious shortage of water.”
In 1737 they brought him back and apparently paid him something because in June of 1740 the job was finished at a cost of 75,269 pesos of yesteryear. The happy Tapatios finally had plenty of water and applauded the work of Buzeta, but the joy was short-lived because a strong earthquake struck the city in 1750, breaking all the water pipes.
Nevertheless, I think it might be safe to say that Guadalajara would never have become “The City of Roses” if not for Fray Pedro Buzeta and now I had proof positive that it was the classic qanat technology that Buzeta had employed.
How much more of the city’s underground waterworks consists of qanats I don’t know, but a study might reveal that Guadalajara should be called the City of Qanats as well as of roses, and the local citizens might want to think about toasting Friar Buzeta (with something more than water, of course) in the year 2031, which will mark the 300th anniversary of his arrival in Guadalajara.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of “A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area” and co-author of “Outdoors in Western Mexico.” More of his writing can be found on his website.