Heart Like a Wheel

Heart Like a Wheel

At the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Paul Salopek meets a man and his son who work as waterwheel millers. They use the waterwheels to crush grain into flour.


5 - 12


Social Studies, Geography, English Language Arts, Storytelling, Anthropology

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


In remotest Afghanistan, a 2,000-year-old technology still churns out flour—and life.

The hut is tiny, windowless, and constructed of round river stones. It stands alone in a high, wild valley in Afghanistan.

From 20 paces away you can hear it hum. Its walls emit a strange, wavering sound like an extended sigh—a soft, dry, droning song that rarely stops. Occasionally a man and a boy duck out of the doorway into sunlight. They are covered from head to toe in white dust. They look like pale beings from another world. They wipe their faces with a rag. They go back inside.

Is this some sort of ceremonial site? Is the rock hut a shrine to a forgotten cult? Are the man and boy ghosts?

The answer to all these questions is: yes.

Inside the small building a 600-pound granite wheel whirs on a spindle. The spindle is attached to wooden vanes. A gush of ice water inside a canal shoves the vanes in tireless circles. The water drains from a faraway glacier on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In an act of magic, nature’s fluid power turns seeds of wheat into clouds of flour—a staple of life among the local farmers, whose main meals are bread and tea. The man and boy work effortlessly together. They are father and son. It’s clear they love each other very much. The father cleans the boy’s powdered face. The small boy watches his father carefully, eager to obey commands. They both belong, perhaps, to the last generations of waterwheel millers in the world.

Humans have been harnessing the power of water to crush grain since at least the first century B.C.E.

Around that time, the historian Strabo included a flour mill in the list of items acquired through the Roman conquest of southern Turkey. Earlier, another Classical writer celebrated the freedom water mills gave Greek women, who once sweated their lives away bent over grinding stones, or querns, to pulverize their crops in a poem:

Women who toil at the querns, cease now your grinding;
Sleep late though the crowing of cocks announces the dawn.
Your task is now for the (water) nymphs . . .

Water mills were the first robots of ancient times.

They were everywhere across the agrarian world, from China to Arabia to Europe, proving their effectiveness. The Domesday Book records some 6,000 gristmills in operation in England alone by 1085 A.D. This hydropower grid represented about one mill for every 40 households. Yet by 1900, fossil fuels sent most of humankind’s water mills into history.

Except in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan.

The region is surrounded by 20,000-foot mountains and has tumbling glacial creeks. The people of this remote part of Badakhshan Province depend on the power of running water to eat and survive.

In the tiny village of Pigish, inhabited by peaceful Shia Ismaili farmers, five busy water mills hum through the autumn harvest season. Just as in medieval Europe, each mill is taxed by the government, and each mill is family owned. Milling is a time-honored profession, passed down through families for decades or even centuries. The farmers push their sacks of wheat to the mills in wheelbarrows. These barrows are often made of rough planks. The people of the Wakhan also construct their own mud-brick houses, carve their own poplar roof beams, stitch their own burlap donkey saddles, braid their own yak hair ropes, carve their own wooden shovels, and build their own stone aqueducts. These handmade surfaces make the Wakhan Corridor a pleasure to walk through.

Sultan is 38 years old, and, like some other Afghans, uses only one name. Sultan works the small stone water mill with his nine-year-old son, Shambe.

I see them last on break. They sit on a blanket outside the mill. They don’t speak. The mill speaks. Together, they stare up the sunlit valley, almost shyly sipping from cups of tea they pour for each other from a dented iron kettle.

View the original dispatch to see a video of Sultan at work in the mill.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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