The sophisticated water technologies of the ancient Nabataeans
The Nabataeans were an ancient Semitic people dating back to 586 BC, who inhabited northern Arabia and the Southern Levant. The desert climate created agricultural difficulties for the Nabataeans, but they rose to the challenge, creating a sophisticated water collection system, which allowed them to build an impressive trade empire in the heart of Arabia.
The first records of the Nabataeans show that they lived in Edomite territory, although there is some dispute as to how and when the Nabataeans arrived there – some believe that they lived alongside the Edomites for hundreds of years, while others maintain that the Nabataeans migrated to the Edomite territory after the Edomites moved north. They eventually chose the site of Petra to build their city.
The spectacular ancient city of Petra. Source: BigStockPhoto
The biggest challenge for the Nabataeans was the dry, arid climate of the canyon in which Petra was located. This made agriculture challenging, as they had to work towards ways to ensure that there would be an adequate water supply for the inhabitants and to support whatever they planted. One method for gathering water was to plant a single fruit tree in the middle of an area that had been contoured into a shallow funnel. When it rained, all water would flow down into the center of the funnel, and would be sealed in by the silt-sized sediment called loess, and the water would be preserved. But their impressive water channeling technology included many other processes, including the construction of aqueducts, terraces, dams, cisterns, and reservoirs, as well as methods for harvesting rainwater, flood water, groundwater, and natural springs.
Cisterns at the Nabataean city of Little Petra. Photo courtesy of Larry W. Mays
Using their sophisticated water technology, the Nabataeans were able to ensure a continuous water supply throughout the year. They had an intimate understanding of every possible source of water available to them, and of how to best monitor, harness, maintain, and utilize that water supply. They balanced their reservoir water storage capacity with their pipeline system, ensuring a constant water supply. The system design also utilized particle-settling basins to purify their potable water. The Nabataeans’ extensive understanding of hydraulics allowed them to create a system that maximized water flow rates while minimizing leakage. It is not surprising that this highly-advanced technology was used first to benefit the civil elite, eventually filtering down to the lower levels of society.
Aqueduct channel showing rock cover that once covered the aqueduct. Photo courtesy of Larry W. Mays
The Nabateans created their water collection structures so that they would be invisible to passers-by, and so that they could only be found by those who knew of their presence. The complex systems collected water from mountains. They shaped rocks into ledges to collect the initial flow of water from the mountain. They chiseled channels into the sides of the mountain, trailing the water flow into cisterns and dams for later usage. The Nabateans built stone walls and pillars to shade the water collection in the cisterns, keeping the water cool and preventing evaporation. They created underground cisterns that were lined with waterproof cement, to prevent the water from seeping into the earth. The cisterns were very well-constructed, and several of them are still in use to this day. All of these structures were created with the idea of secrecy in mind, so that few would realize the purpose and function of the structures. This protected the Nabatean water supply from invaders and strangers.
Inside large cistern at the Nabataean city of Little Petra. Photo courtesy of Larry W. Mays
In ancient times, one of the most important factors that civilizations had to take into consideration was the water supply. If they wanted to live any distance from a reliable source of potable water, they had to find other ways to collect water for agricultural and other purposes. The Nabataeans are a prime example of a culture that was highly advanced for its time, as they had to understand hydraulics to create their impressive system of water collection. Through ingenious methods, they were able to create a water collection distribution system that allowed their people and the city of Petra to thrive for many, many years.
Featured image: Reservoir at Nabataean city of ancient Hawara, modern Humayma or “Humeima”. Photo courtesy of Larry W. Mays.
Ancient Water Technologies of the Nabataeans – Ancient Water Technologies. Available from: http://lwmays.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/ancient-water-technologies-of-the-nabataeans/
The Water Supply and Distribution System of the Nabataean City of Petra (Jordan) – Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Available from: http://www.bible.ca/archeology/bible-archeology-exodus-kadesh-barnea-petra-water-supply-of-petra-charles-r-ortloff-2005.htm
Solving the Enigma of Petra and the Nabataeans – Bible History Daily. Available from: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/solving-the-enigma-of-petra-and-the-nabataeans/
The Nabataeans – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabataeans
Who were the Nabataeans? – Nabataean History. Available from: http://nabataea.net/who.html
Water collection – Nabataean History. Available from: http://www.nabataea.net/water.html
By M R Reese