Ancient Rainwater Harvesting: It Fell From The Sky and Became Worshiped by Every Civilization
Collecting and dispersing water has always been a matter of life and death for humans. In our informative years we must have cupped water from rivers, springs, and waterfalls while traversing wild landscapes following herding animals and meeting shoaling fish. The dawn of farming brought about innovations in capturing and storing rainwater and using it to irrigate crops, but modern urbanization over the last 500 years has greatly distanced most of us from the strains of water harvesting. But who first conceptualized or invented rainwater harvesting and when?
Inside a ‘karez’ water tunnel at Turpan, Xinjiang, China. ‘Karez’ is the name commonly used in Central Asia for the irrigation system also known as Qanat. (colegota/CC BY SA 2.5)
Ancient Rainwater Harvesting
The term “Rainwater harvesting’ refers to the collection of rainwater in an effort to ‘balance out’ Mother Nature’s inconsistencies. Archaeologists have noticed a pattern, in that the more advanced a civilizations became, the more skilled and diverse they had become at both saving and distributing water, no matter what season or how remote the end users location.
The use of cisterns to store rainwater can be traced back to the Neolithic Age. By late 4000 BC, emerging water management techniques used in farming yielded waterproof lime plaster cisterns which were built in the floors of houses in villages of the Levant (a large area in Southwest Asia, south of the Taurus Mountains, between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and Mesopotamia in the east).
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Rainwater harvesting was greatly developed around 2000 BC in India, China, and Mesopotamia, but it was formalized in ancient Rome. In India, the ancient cities of the Indus Valley had huge vats cut into the rock to collect rainfall; and at times of drought, hundreds of miles of stone gullies weaved their way through the city for the constant hydration of the population and vegetation.
The Renewable Energy Hub website tells that among the ancient Indian water capturing systems archaeologists have identified Talibs: reservoirs that provided irrigation for plants and drinking. Johads: Dams that captured rainwater. Baoris: Wells in the ground for drinking water and Jhalaras: Specially constructed tanks used for religious purposes.
Porch of the vast Shivaganga water tank at the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India. (3eyedmonsta/CC BY SA 2.0)
An informative 2015 paper called Rainwater harvesting in Ancient Times and its Sustainable Modern techniques by Dr. R.K. Gupta and R.K. Agrawal exploring ancient Indian religious texts describes “the sage Narad visiting different kingdoms enquiring as to the state of the ponds and other water bodies and whether these had enough water for the population.” Furthermore, in the epic Ramayana, “the beauty and grandeur of the kingdom of Lanka is described interalia, in terms of its well-maintained lakes, ponds, wells, gardens, orchards and forests.”
The Ancient Basilica Cistern
During the Roman Empire, right up until the 6th Century AD and the rule of Emperor Caesar,
rainwater harvesting became an advanced science which saw cities installed with state of the art hydration technologies. In 2012, I ventured to Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), Turkey and visited some of the most impressive subterranean rainwater harvesting constructions in the world.
With several hundred ancient cisterns beneath the city, the Basilica Cistern is the largest, located 150 meters (490 ft.) southwest of the Hagia Sophia on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, according to an article on Yerebatan.
This subterranean cistern was located under a large public square on the First Hill of Constantinople, the Stoa Basilica. (Dpnuevo/CC BY SA 3.0)
Historical texts inform that this vast underground space was created by “7,000 slaves” on the site of a 3rd and 4th century Early Roman Age Basilica, which served as an ancient commercial, legal and artistic center. The basilica was damaged and reconstructed by Illus after a fire in 476. The enlarged cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 AD. Lonely Planet tells us that this cistern, which is larger than most cathedrals, is approximately 138 meters (453 ft.) by 65 meters (213 ft.), which calculates to about 80,000 cubic meters (2,800,000 cu. ft.) of water.
Fifty-two stone steps descend into the cistern, which is surrounded by a 4 meter (13 ft.) thick firebrick wall coated with a waterproof mortar. 336 Ionic and Corinthian styled marble and granite columns measuring 9 meters (30 ft.) high are arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns, each one spaced by 5 meters (16 ft). The majority of the columns were recycled from older buildings through a process called ‘spoliation’ and they were taken to Constantinople from all over the empire with the stones used in the construction of Hagia Sophia.
The water which fed the Basilica Cistern came from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest 19 kilometers (12 miles) north of the city. It traveled through the 971 meter (3,186 ft.) long Valens (Bozdoğan) Aqueduct, and the 115 meter (377 ft.) long Mağlova Aqueduct, which was built by the Emperor Justinian.
Located in the northwest corner of the cistern, the bases of two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa. The origin of the two heads is currently unknown. (Mark Ahsmann/CC BY SA 3.0)
Native American Rain Dances
Meanwhile, in North America, native peoples from the Southwestern region’s Pueblos, Navajo, Hopi, and Mojave tribes developed ceremonial rain dances to appease the rain gods. Because water was identified as essential to continued human life, ancient people around the world revered and worshiped fresh water since the very beginning of time. This is why water, along with air, earth, and fire, has a firm hold in religions, myths, and their associated ceremonies. The cultural belief in rainmaking, or that humans can bring forth rain, dates back several millennia, and Native Americans have long danced in honor of the rain to receive blessings.
Rain dance ceremonies are traditionally performed in the spring, after planting seeds, and then again in the fall, just before harvesting. They were also held in the summer if droughts threatened crops. After dancers had summoned the attention of spirits, both good and bad, they danced to cleanse the earth of evil spirits and to welcome the blessings of the spirit world.
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"Rain dance", ca. 1920" (from the Potawatomi agency, presumably Prairie Band Potawatomi people.) (Public Domain)
The Continued Importance of Rainwater Harvesting
For an idea of where our race is today so far as rainwater gathering is concerned, we can look to Australia, the driest continent on earth, where in most rural communities rainwater is the only supply of water for human consumption and cooking, bathing, laundry, and toilet flushing. Nowadays, even when mains or reticulated water supplies are available to communities, many people choose to use rainwater that is collected from the roof and stored in tanks for the significant economic, social, and environmental benefits which can be achieved.
Rainwater.com tells us that not only does it reduce your dependence on water mains, but there “is no better quality water available naturally than rainwater.“ On a community level, the construction of dams, pipes, and treatment plants is massive and rainwater collection means in the long term tax payers can lower these costs. And finally, environmentally, rainwater harvesting reduces the significant damage to creeks, water habitats, and organisms caused by stormwater runoff.
Top Image: Subterranean water supply (cistern), Istanbul. Ancient rainwater harvesting sometimes included highly decorative cisterns, further demonstrating the importance of the element to human life. Source: stereotyp-0815/CC BY NC SA 2.0
By Ashley Cowie
The Renewable Energy Hub. (n.d.) ‘History of Rainwater Harvesting.’ The Renewable Energy Hub. Available at: https://www.renewableenergyhub.co.uk/rainwater-harvesting-information/the-history-of-rainwater-harvesting.html
Gupta, R.K. & R.K. Agrawal. (n.d.) ‘Rainwater harvesting in Ancient Times and its Sustainable Modern techniques.’ Available at: https://icid2015.sciencesconf.org/74834/document
Yerebatan Sarnici. (2014) ‘Basilica Cistern.’ Yerebatan Sarnici. Available at: http://yerebatan.com/homepage/basilica-cistern/about-us.aspx
Lonely Planet. (2017) ‘Basilica Cistern.’ Lonely Planet. Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/turkey/istanbul/attractions/basilica-cistern/a/poi-sig/402088/1324696
Rain Harvesting Pty Ltd. (2018) ‘Ideal Uses for Rainwater.’ Rain Harvesting Pty Ltd. Available at: https://rainharvesting.com.au/knowledge-center/ideal-uses-for-rainwater/