Petra: Archaeologist takes a look at ancient water storage system
The ancient and lost city of Petra has been excavated for years.
It was once a bustling hub of commerce and culture, the centre of the world and one of the vital waypoints between East and West.
Inhabited from as early as 7000 BC, Petra was officially transformed into a liveable city by a people known as the Nabataeans around the 4th century BC.
Making it their kingdom, they quickly grew rich and used this money to invest in the settlement, using cutting-edge technology to enhance living conditions and make Petra a city of splendours.
Archaeologists have found a number of exciting relics at the site and previously came across a complex irrigation system that researchers said was one to match anything found in the modern world.
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The ancient monastery Ad Deir at Petra
The system was explored during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Secrets: Riddle of Petra’, with the show’s narrator noting: “It seems Petra thrived thanks to the Nabataean skill in managing the scarce resource of water.
“The Nabataean storage and irrigation system was an incredible marvel of engineering, a complex network of cisterns, dams and channels harnessing water from desert springs and its four inches of annual rainfall to maintain a year-round water supply.”
Located in one of the most difficult and inhospitable places for a city to prosper, the Nabataeans had to think on their feet when making the metropolis viable.
It is carved into a narrow valley known as Al Siq in a desert, with temperatures often exceeding 40C. Crucially, there is no nearby source of water.
At its height, 30,000 people lived in Petra, but native water sources were only sufficient enough to provide for 2,000 people.
All the different points at which researchers found irrigation systems and reservoirs in Petra
Dr Christopher Tuttle, Council of American Overseas Research Centres, said: “It’s a testament to the resilience of the Nabataeans and their ingenuity that they could modify the landscape to meet their needs,” and Dr Thomas Paradise, an geoscientist from the University of Arkansas, added: “We’d be pretty hard-pressed in the 21st century to be able to create a city that was sustainable and live very well.”
The system begins in the hilltops where dozens of reservoirs can be found. These would have once caught and captured every drop of rainwater that fell on Petra.
“[At] the highest place in the valley, we have a cistern that was able to collect water from the whole summit area,” Dr Paradise explained.
“It was so successful in holding water that we can see how high and rich the water was that was being collected.”
The rainwater would have flowed through a giant cross-cross of channels which descended into the city.
Dr Tom Paradise heads to one of the reservoirs high above the city
Today, terracotta pipes can be found all around Petra, the material that hydrated Petra’s people.
Dr Paradise noted: “They would have been covered, tubed and connected all the way down. These are very much like the exact same terracotta pipes we use across the planet two thousand years later.”
He added: “And we have more than a hundred miles of these channels throughout Petra where the water would have been fed into the city very slowly, stored again in a series of cisterns.
“They’re not very steeply angled, it’s a very gentle angle: if it was too steep the water would rush through too quickly and back up, and if it’s too flat the delivery of the water into the various cisterns would be too slow.”
Research shows that this system worked extremely well, providing some 12 million gallons of water every day, solving all of the city’s agricultural and domestic needs.
Broken terracotta pipes can be found all around the city, once serving the Nabateans their water
It was so good that the Nabateans were even able to build a 140-foot public swimming pool in the Royal Gardens, what the narrator described as an “unparalleled luxury in the middle of a desert”.
“We’re looking at a 2,000-year-old engineering feat that is nothing short of brilliant,” said Dr Paradise.
Neighbouring powers grew jealous of Petra and soon made attempts on besieging it.
The Greeks attempted to overthrow the Nabateans in 312 BC but failed. When the Romans came 400 years later, in 106 AD, their forces proved too much. Soon, Petra fell.
The Roman Empire made itself the ruling power for a few hundred years until an earthquake tore through the region in the fourth century AD and completely destroyed the city.
The Byzantine Empire sought to reestablish Petra but failed, and it once fell again into disrepair. Most people forgot about Petra and it was mostly used by shepherds looking for shelter from the rain or warmth in the winter.
It wasn’t introduced to the West until the early 19th century when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt stumbled upon its ruins and took stories of the forgotten city back home to Europe.