(ORDO NEWS) — The Nabataeans were an ancient Semitic people dating back to 586 BC who inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant.
The desert climate made it difficult for the Nabateans to farm, but they succeeded by creating a sophisticated water harvesting system that allowed them to build an impressive trading empire in the heart of Arabia.
The first records of the Nabataeans indicate that they were nomadic peoples living in Edomite territory, although there is some dispute as to how and when the Nabataeans arrived there.
Some believe that they lived side by side with the Edomites for hundreds of years, while others argue that the Nabataeans migrated to Edomite territory after the Edomites moved north.
At some point, they exercised political control over the territory from Yemen to Damascus and western Iraq to the Sinai desert.
The Nabataean culture was very secretive but left no records, making it difficult to decipher its history. Around the 4th century BC, the Nabataeans chose to build their city in Petra, located on the territory of modern southern Jordan and hidden in a rock crevice.
The biggest problem for the Nabataeans was the dry, arid climate of the canyon that contained Petra. This made farming difficult, as they had to find ways to provide enough water for the inhabitants and sustain whatever they planted.
One method of collecting water was to plant a single fruit tree in the center of the site, which was outlined as a shallow funnel. When it rained, all the water flowed into the center of the funnel, sealed in a silt deposit called loess, and the water was stored.
But the Nabateans’ impressive water diversion technology included many other processes, including the construction of aqueducts, terraces, dams, cisterns, and reservoirs, as well as methods for collecting rain, flood, groundwater, and natural springs.
Using their sophisticated water supply technology, the Nabataeans were able to provide a continuous supply of water throughout the year.
They had a deep understanding of all the possible sources of water available to them, and how best to control, use, maintain and use these supplies of water.
“For in the waterless region, as it is called, they dug wells at convenient intervals and hid the knowledge of them from the people of all other nations, and therefore they retreat body into this region from danger,” wrote the ancient Greek historian Diodorus about the Nabataeans.
“Because they themselves know about the places of hidden water and open them, they have drinking water for their use in abundance.”
“They take refuge in the desert, using it as a fortress, for there is no water in it and others cannot cross it, but only themselves, since they have prepared underground reservoirs lined with plaster,” Diodorus explained.
“Filling these tanks with rainwater, they close the holes, making them level with the rest of the earth, and leave marks that are known to themselves, but unrecognizable to others,” he continued.
They balanced the storage capacity of the reservoir with the pipeline system, ensuring a constant supply of water. The design of the system also used pools to purify drinking water from particles.
The Nabataeans’ deep understanding of hydraulics allowed them to design a system that maximized water flow with minimal leakage. It is not surprising that this highly advanced technology was first used in the interests of the civilian elite, and then migrated to the lower levels of society.
The Nabataeans designed their water-collecting structures so that they were invisible to passers-by and could only be found by those who knew they were there. Complex systems collected water from the mountains.
They formed the rocks into ledges to collect the initial flow of water from the mountain. They carved channels into the sides of the mountain, directing the flow of water into cisterns and dams for later use.
The Nabataeans built stone walls and pillars to shade the water in the cisterns, keeping it cool and preventing evaporation. They created underground cisterns that were lined with waterproof cement to keep water from seeping into the ground.
The tanks were very well constructed and some of them are still in use today. All these structures were created with the idea of secrecy so that few would guess about their purpose and function. This protected the Nabatean water supply system from invaders and outsiders.
In ancient times, one of the most important factors that civilizations had to consider was water supply. If they wanted to live at any distance from a reliable source of drinking water, they had to find other ways to take water for agricultural and other purposes.
The Nabataeans are a prime example of a highly developed culture for their time, as they needed an understanding of hydraulics to create an impressive water harvesting system.
Through ingenious methods, they were able to create a water distribution system that allowed their people, trading network, and the city of Petra to prosper for many, many years.
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