SAQQĀ-ḴĀNA HISTORY, term referring to public water dispensers.

Public water dispensers were, and in some places still are, a feature of some large institutional buildings, typically mosques, shrines, and bazaars in Iran, serving travelers, workers, and passers-by (FIGURE 1; FIGURE 2). Famous saqqā-ḵānas included the one in the boqʿa-ye Šayḵ Ṣafi-al-Din in Ardabil (16th century), in the Kuča-ye Dabbāḡ-ḵāna in Yazd (1517), the Saqqā-ḵāna-ye ʿAziz-Allāh adjacent to the Friday Mosque in Isfahan, built under Šāh Soleymān (r. 1666-1694), and the Saqqā-ḵāna-ye Esmāʿil Ṭalāʾi erected by Nāder Shah (r. 1736-47) in the shrine of Imam Reżā in Mashad. Of these, only the last mentioned still exists (Ṭabāṭabāʾi, II, p. 128; Afšār, II, pp. 755-56; Honarfar, pp. 136-37; Qaddusi, p. 657, 660; Moʿtaman, pp. 186-88 [with ill.]; ʿAṭṭār-Dey, pp. 237-38). The recorded inscriptions of these Saqqā-ḵānas do not display the Qajar era practice of referring to the Karbalā events, except for an inscription dated 1610 in a shrine (an Emāmzāda) in Astarābād (Rabino, p. 41 [Persian text]). This suggests that a saqqā-ḵāna prior to as well as during the Qajar period and later could be just a public water dispenser and not necessarily a votive institution. During the Qajar period the Saqqā-ḵāna-ye dowlati was also just the water department in the palace complex; and for craftsmen it meant a water storage tank (Ruznāma-ye Irān 2, p. 1557; 3, p. 2954; 4, p. 3464; Wulff, p. 30). The number of these saqqā-ḵānas seems to have been limited since there are hardly any reports about them prior to the 19th century or thereafter in inventories of historical monuments, memoirs, and travelogues. In 1801, Mir ʿAbd-al-Laṭif Ḵān Šuštari (Jazāʾeri) mentions approvingly (p. 262) the numerous public water pumps (saqqā-ḵānas) in London, implying therefore that this was not the case in Iran. For apart from wells (see ĀB), cisterns (see ĀBANBĀR), and underground irrigation systems (qanāts), it was peripatetic and institutional water-carriers (saqqās) that served urban dwellers’ thirst for water in public places.

Saqqā-ḵānas with an explicit votive function became a widespread urban phenomenon only in the late 19th century, for most of those surviving are not more than 100 years old (Bonyādlu; Afšār, II, pp. 756-57). It would seem that from the early 19th century various individuals installed water dispensers in pubic squares (meydāns), thoroughfares, and bazaars. These were simple constructions: a niche in a wall, or even just a ledge with a small water dispenser and a jug (Balāḡi, p. 202). This development was stimulated by the enormous popularity at the time of the Shiʿite mourning ritual plays (taʿziya) in which ʿAbbās b. ʿAli, the water-carrying martyr (saqqā-ye Ḥoseyn) of Karbalā, to whom saqqā-kānas were consecrated, plays an important role (Šahri, I, 1998, pp. 153-56). This may also explain why many popular saqqā-ḵānas were situated at locations where ʿĀšura mourning ceremonies took place (N. N., “Bāzārčahā-ye Tehrān,” p. 28; Afšār, II, p. 752). When a particular water dispenser became popular, people associated with it placed larger water-storage units there, flowerpot-like vessels (dustkāmihā), to attract more users; and candles were placed at these water dispensers to facilitate drinking in the evening. Pious passers-by believed them to be ex-votos and gradually these locations were indeed used as such. Slowly, these dustkāmihā locations became so well frequented in terms of ex-votos placed there that people began to refer to them as saqqā-ḵānas. Believers placed candles, attached written vows and wishes to the water dispenser, tied pieces of cloth or a padlock to it, indicating a binding vow, while they also offered coins or pieces of silver jewelry, placing them in a casket installed for this very purpose. Not everyone felt obliged to drink from the dispenser when visiting the site. Passers-by also just stopped, touched the ex-votos, then their face, probably said a prayer, and moved on. The water dispenser usually was embellished with all kinds of inscriptions cursing the instigators of the Karbalā tragedy, particularly Yazid (Massé, I, p. 226) and only Moslems were allowed to drink from it lest it became polluted on religious grounds (Höltzer, p. 17). In the summer the water was cooled with ice. Some people identified collecting ex-votos as a profitable business venture and they constructed shop-sized saqqā-ḵānas complete with a portico with themselves as its custodian (saqqa-ḵāna-dār). Some of the most profitable and famous saqqā-ḵānas in Tehran such as the Nowruz-ḵāna, Āšeyḵ [Āqā Šeyḵ] Hādi, and Āyina were operated professionally for pecuniary gain (Šahri, 1989, I, p. 275, pp. 459-60; V, p. 114, pp. 126-27 [illus.]; VI, p. 143; Moṣṭavafi, pp. 82-83; Idem, 1998, I, pp. 153-56, 165; II, p. 159; IV, p. 443, n. 87).

These ‘commercial’ saqqā-ḵānas used various ploys to attract customers by encouraging rumors testifying to their miraculous powers, and by having a saqqā standing next to the establishment with his water skin with the street cries of: “Give for the sake of Ḥażrat-e ʿAbbās.” They also employed professional religious performers (rowża-ḵāns) and the like. One of the famous lyric singers (ḡazal-ḵᵛāns) of Tehran at the turn of the 20th century was attached to the Āyina saqqā-ḵāna. The entrepreneurial custodians also embellished the water dispensers with mourning banners and stripes (sometimes partly burnt as an allusion to Karbalā), hand-shaped cut-outs of metal sheet, strings of beads, mirrors, lamps, candle holders and flower pots. In some cases entire parts of the street were bedecked. Later a large water tank might be installed with a faucet and a bowl with religiously edifying inscriptions. The Nowruz-ḵāna saqqā-ḵāna even had a zur-ḵāna bearing the same name attached to it. The portico was often embellished with figurative colored tiles, and/or a small painting on glass on canvas usually set behind an iron grille, depicting ʿAbbās or some other Shiʿite martyr from some incident of the Karbala episode. These paintings have inspired a modern style of painting in Iran after 1960 that has been dubbed the Saqqā-ḵāna painting movement. The religiously devout were attracted by the spectacle and continued to frequent the saqqā-ḵānas, whether run as a business venture or not, since they, particularly women, believed in their efficacy. The ‘custodians’ fiercely defended and promoted their fiefdom and were even capable of turning the saqqā-ḵānas into a place of asylum or bast. The saqqā-ḵāna of Āšeyḵ Hādi acquired some notoriety when in 1924 the US consul Imbrie was killed there on the orders of its custodian, who remained scot-free (Zirinsky, pp. 275-92; Šahri, 1989, pp. 275, pp. 459-60; V, p. 114, pp. 126-27 (illus); VI, p. 143; Idem, 1998, I, pp. 153-56, 165; II, p. 159; IV, p. 443, n. 87; Šahid, p. 207).

One may distinguish three types of saqqā-ḵāna: (i) a stand-alone construction in cubic, cylindrical or octagonal form, usually found in shrines and mosques – these are the original traditional water dispensers; (ii) the most common ones look like a bazaar shop, or part thereof, in shape; they are to be found in bazaars and crowded parts of the city; and (iii) the so-called Rafiʿ saqqā-ḵānas, which are niches in a wall of building covered with a grille; these are found in alleys. The latter two types are products of the Qajar era. In many cases these saqqā-ḵānas were not part of a charitable endowment (waqf), which is probably one of the reasons why most of them have disappeared without a trace (Bonyādlu). Nowadays, in some towns, as for example in Borujerd, some families construct and embellish a make-shift saqqā-ḵāna in their home during the month of Moḥarram as a pious gesture to attract mourners to pay their devotions there. (FIGURE 3).


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(Willem Floor)

Originally Published: August 15, 2009

Last Updated: August 15, 2009

Cite this entry:

Willem Floor, "SAQQĀ-ḴĀNA HISTORY," Encyclopædia Iranicaonline edition, 2009, available at (accessed on 15 August 2009).