Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Water management in antiquity

Water management is a modern word for something that exists since early antiquity.

We tend to think of the Romans as being the first to bring water where it was needed thanks to the ingenuity and the skills of their architects since they left us a great number of aqueducts and fountains, but they certainly were not the first to “manage” water.

Other civilizations in other climates had to rely on other techniques and other resources. One such system is known as the kareez or qanats, which were first mentioned to me in Libya. There the ancient people of Garamantes, a Berber population that prospered from about 500 BC to 700 AD, used this technique locally knows as “foggaras”. It consists of a network of underground tunnels with shafts by which fossil water is led to the desert surface creating as by magic fertile lands and oasis.

The idea sounded rather abstract till I came across a similar system near the city of Nurata, roughly north between Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. At the foot of the Nurata fort (Nur in antiquity) is a holy mosque that boasts about its sacred waters that come from the distant hills through a system of qanats. Here, the qanat is an underground tunnel that slopes gently and transports water from a spot under a distant hill to the lower lands; it is punctuated with a series of vertical access shafts at set intervals through which the channel could be cleaned. (Read more under: Could Alexander have known the Garamantes?)

More recently, I was told that it was, in fact, an ancient Persian invention or maybe even older since similar waterworks were mentioned in Sumerian and Assyrian documents, i.e., at least, one thousand years earlier. Yet the invention is generally attributed to the Iranians at some time during the first millennium BC who heavily relied on the qanats till the middle of the 20th century. When I recently was in Iran, I was shown a succession of heaps of stones which were the shaft’s entries to the underground channel. Unfortunately, all I saw were these mounds, merely over-sized anthills, not a real illustration of this ingenious system.

Striking, however, were the so-called yakhchal or ice pits which are clearly visible above ground in Iran, like this one on the road between Shiraz and Yazd. The system, said to have been mastered around 400 BC (just before Alexander’s arrival!) is quite sophisticated as clearly explained in Wikipediathey built a wall in the east–west direction near the yakhchal (ice pit). In winter, the qanat water would be channelled to the north side of the wall, whose shade made the water freeze more quickly, increasing the ice formed per winter day. Then the ice was stored in yakhchals — specially designed, naturally cooled refrigerators. A large underground space with thick insulated walls was connected to a qanat, and a system of windcatchers or wind towers was used to draw cool subterranean air up from the qanat to maintain temperatures inside the space at low levels, even during hot summer days. As a result, the ice melted slowly and was available year-round”.

On another front, the water supply system of Petra in Jordan is at present under close scrutiny. The attentive visitor walking through the narrow canyon (Siq) to the heart of the city will automatically notice the water channels at elbow’s height following the contours the side walls, interrupted by shallow holes meant to filter the water. Yet the entire landscape around Petra is thrown with smaller and larger cisterns using the natural slope of the rock walls and the cracks in the cliffs. I was taken to such a cistern from Nabataean times on the road to Little Petra, nothing more than a square door in a huge rock wall. A narrow staircase led me down inside the dark water reservoir and I could only guess its depth. In its glory days it is said to hold as much as 1.2 million liters – how can I size that up? Today’s water level is much lower but the precious water is still being used to irrigate the Bedouin crops in the surrounding fields and to water the animals.

It is rather unusual to encounter a water problem high up the El Deir Temple at Petra, also known as the Monastery. (see also: Hellenistic Petra, indirect heritage of Alexander). Where it stands, El Deir always takes the full brunt of any storm that rolls in from across the desert. Besides, this monument is not cut deep enough into the soft sandstone wall and leaves the façade very exposed.

In front of  El Deir, there used to be a catch pool designed to collect the water from occasional downpours but at present, the very entrance to this pool is obstructed by rubble and soil that accumulated over the centuries. Storms when they occur, are rather violent and turn into torrents of fast-moving water that puddles at the base of the façade. Today the flash floods hit the monument from all sides and water stagnates at the base of El Deir, whose walls absorb salt and other minerals from the soil leaving a crystallized crust on the stone's surface. This crust weakens the stone and eventually will lead to its destruction. The Nabataeans clearly were aware of the problem and built that wall with the catch pool. Archaeologists now realize that the reconstruction of this wall is a priority.

It is clear that water is not always there where we need it and is not always available in the appropriate amount. Another part of the archaeological project at El Deir aims to clear out dozens of water channels and cisterns in order to restore the Nabataeans’ efficient water management. At the same time, the current inhabitants could profit from the precious water and this efficient system could eventually serve other desert communities.

Water management is nothing new and it is quite amazing that in our advanced 21st century we can still learn so much from our forefathers! 

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