Exploring Petra, one of the main surprises is the shear immensity of this ancient city. On a blistering hot day, it is imperative to carry a water bottle while exploring this incredible site. How sophisticated was the Petra water system to be able to supply its population with enough water in such a dry climate?
How Did Petra Survive In Such A Dry Climate?
The city of Petra, first founded around 312 BC by the Nabataean Empire, was a viable city for close to 1,000 years. The Petra water system needed to be extremely robust to sustain the population for so long. Much research and investigation revealed amazing facts about how the city of Petra thrived in such a dry climate.
Although earlier versions of water gathering and distribution systems existed around the Petra area before the Nabataean Empire, The Nabataeans vastly expanded the Petra water system to capture the water sources much more effectively.
Water from natural springs and rainwater were efficiently captured and utilized. An intricate and ingenious system of reservoirs, channels, pipelines, dams, cisterns and basins supplied water to a population of some 30,000 continually and consistently throughout each year. Petra’s water requirements would have been roughly 1,800 m3/day (475,000 US gallons/day) based on presumed per capita and public area requirements.
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Natural Springs – The Life of Petra
Nine known natural springs, scattered around the area, were the primary source for the Petra water system, ensuring an ongoing water supply for the inhabitants. However, the flow would vary throughout the year. The largest spring, Ain Musa, dominated the natural spring water flow into Petra. Also known as Moses Well, it is believed water began flowing after Moses struck the rock.
When It Rains It Can Pour
If you have ever seen photos of Petra and the surrounding terrain, you know it is very dry indeed. The average annual rainfall in Petra is only 86 mm (3.4 inches), mostly in the winter months. But even though it rains infrequently, downpours can occur. In November 2018 a rare heavy downpour created flash flooding in Petra, as the ancient Petra water system no longer functioned as it once did.
The Petra Water Reservoir
Near the entrance of Petra, the remnants of the Zurraba Reservoir can be seen. Its main purpose was to enable rapid deployment of large volumes of water to replenish cisterns or supply increased volume into the city as large trade caravans arrived. This reservoir was large enough to hold a three-week supply of water.
The Dual Purpose of Petra Dams
Several dams, strategically positioned across stream beds throughout the mountainous terrain, captured, diverted and temporarily stored a high percentage of the runoff water during rain events. The dams were also critical for flood control by holding and diverting excess water.
The Cistern Water System of Petra
A multitude of cisterns were carved into key locations throughout Petra and surrounding area to safely store diverted rainwater. Cistern water would supplement Petra’s water needs when necessary, ensuring a consistent volume of water throughout the year. In aggregate, the cisterns could retain several months worth of water supply for Petra.
The Basins Inside Petra
Basins were utilized for various purposes. For example, four basins were situated along the Petra siq (entry canyon) were connected to the pipeline and used as settling basins. This clarified the water for consumption and to remove particles which could potentially clog the pipes. These basins were ornate and impressive as this was the main route into Petra.
On the other hand, raised basins along the Cardo (or Roman Colonnaded Street) were connected to elevated pipes and used to hold volumes of water well above ground level. These provided pressurized water for fountains and lower public basins.
The Petra Pipelines
Evidence of over 200 kilometres (125 miles) of mostly clay pipelines have been discovered in and around Petra. The pipelines were designed and positioned to transport and distribute the water throughout the city of Petra. The Petra water system evolved over hundreds of years to become a complex system which connected reservoirs, cisterns, dams and basins to the inhabitants and structures of Petra.
The pipelines were well designed to optimize flow, minimize turbulence, mitigate leakage, and prevent clogging. Most of the pipe sections were designed and constructed by the Nabataeans.
Following the transfer of power to the Romans in 106 AD, the water system was expanded to accommodate additional development. The Romans, however, did not replace the Nabataean water storage and distribution system, but rather just expanded the Petra water system as needed.
The Water Channels Petra
Channels were carved into the mountainous terrain to divert and focus runoff water to the nearby dams and cisterns, improving the rainwater capture efficiency. Other channels were carved into the rock to accommodate and support the clay pipes that distributed the water.
How Old Is Petra? A Petra History Timeline
The Petra water system survived the changing rulers and trade activity through the centuries. Most of the water system development of Petra was during the Nabataeans’ rule from 312 BC to 106 AD.
Petra was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 106 AD and further development took place which required the water system to expand. The Roman’s ruled Petra for some 220 years until the Byzantines took control in c. 330 AD.
In 363 AD, a massive earthquake destroyed many buildings and heavily damaged the vital water system. The devastation to Petra, and changing trading routes, resulted in the beginning of Petra’s long slow decline, culminating in its abandonment by 700 AD.
Have you encountered other ancient water systems in your travels?
Thanks for this highly interesting and educating post! 🙂
Thanks so much Pit. It definitely intrigued me!
Did these long water pipelines not require any slope for flow continuation I was at Petra, but that was never talked about and now I wonder.
Yes, the pipelines all were sloped at such an angle as to allow laminar flow (i.e. minimize turbulence). This gave the city the most efficient system to distribute the water. Referring to the map above, the park entrance is higher in elevation than the main part of the city of Petra.
Wow, I had no idea about the water system at Petra! They were amazing engineers.
So true John. I too was amazed of how intricate the water system was!
Very interesting Dave – thanks!!
My pleasure Phil! Thanks for the comment!
The intellect of ancient civilizations never ceases to amaze me. Thanks for this information, Dave.
So true Darlene. Incredible knowledge of how to capture and distribute all the water.
I’ve read many books and watched just about every documentary out there about Petra. I haven’t come across such detailed information about the water system. Amazing.
Last year we walked along the ancient Roman aqueduct bridge–Pont Du Gard in Southern France. Incredible to know how ingenious architects, designers and builders were so long ago.
Thanks Wendy! I guess you can tell I get a bit obsessed with digging up the info, so to speak😊
It truly is incredible what the ancient engineers and architects were capable of so long ago!!
Great post, Dave! I was fascinated by the water channels in the Siq, but I have to admit that awe did not prompt any further research into Petra’s water system! Thank goodness for you science-y types who feed us this info! 🙂
Sue shakes her head at me on occasion when I get an idea like this.😊
I have to admit I love investigating this kind of stuff!
A very interesting post. When we first learned of Petra, there was little discussed except the buildings carved in rock. It has been interesting to see how much more has been learned since then. But in those more recent reports, this was the first I have seen devoted to the water system.
Thanks Ray! I too noted the vast majority of info on Petra was about the amazing carved structures and the empires that built them. Most posts mentioned the water system, but with little detail. Looked like a challenge.😊
Fascinating information, I had no idea. I guess water was their most important commodity indeed. Preserving it would be very serious business. Great post.
I imagine the lure of a water filled oasis in this desert environment made Petra a very popular place to visit!. Thanks for commenting Gilda!
Their water system is so amazing! I remember hearing about it when we were there.
Everyone’s writing about Petra these days! You, Bama, Nicole! James too I think. But I don’t think there can be too many posts about this extraordinary place!
Yes, it’s impossible not to talk about this amazing ancient city! It looks like I’m in a great crowd who have written about Petra!
It’s fascinating to see the complex planning and design that went into the system – even to the squiggly water channels that would have slowed the water flow and reduced erosion. It’s amazing that they were able to provide sufficient water for themselves on only a few inches of rain per year – our modern cities could take a lesson from that.
The carved stairs made my jaw drop, too – is that sandstone? I’m imagining how long it took to chisel in all those steps… 🙂
When I first saw the ‘service’ stairs my jaw dropped as well! Yes, Petra is carved out of sandstone which can be most noted on ancient stair cases that are still in use. They are very worn down.
The piping was made up of short sections of pipe joined by grouting. This makes sense by the obvious curves and corners that needed to be navigated.
This is very interesting – I never really thought about how they got water to such a dry place. Our stomachs were clearly much better at dealing with bugs – you just know that water wasn’t exactly pure.
Jeff, so true. I too thought about the distance the water was transported through channels and pipes. Not sure it would retain its purity during the long journey. I presume it was a combination of stronger stomachs and shorter life spans!
Very neat post. It always amazes me how advanced their systems were. Imagine what minds like that could accomplish today.
Thanks Laure. They were truly amazing designers and builders so long ago! Mind you, they did have hundreds of years to perfect it😎
It’s amazing that they had such a sophisticated water system.
So true Sheryl! The complexity and sophistication of the water system is astounding!
I was utterly astonished when I learned about the Nabatean water management system at the Petra Museum. Even today, 2,000 years after Petra was founded, this sophisticated system still amazes us, modern-day city dwellers. It was amazing to know that this entire ancient city was made possible by the intricate water network the Nabateans utilized and harnessed for their benefit.
Bama, I too was amazed by their knowledge of water hydrodynamics so long ago! To be so efficient at capturing and storing virtually all the water available is incredible indeed!!
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention and no one can survive without water. This is a very clever system.
So true! I imagine it developed more and more as the population grew. Petra probably reached its sustainability max at some point.
Amazing and very informative. Well done!
Thank you so much John and Susan!
I found the water system to be absolutely incredible. I’m so glad I stopped at the Jordan museum in Amman before going to Petra where I read all about it. Pretty amazing technology!
A very smart move Nicole. Such advanced technology so long ago is truly amazing! Always good to get a pre-read before the actual visit!!
Great post…very informative. I just saw something on TV about the rise and fall of Petra and their water system. Petra is so beautiful and your pictures make a person feel like they are there!
What an incredibly detailed and interesting overview of the Petra water system, Dave. In this era of droughts, I found it doubly fascinating. Thanks for you effort in putting the post together. –Curt
Thanks so much Curtis. I imagine Petra went through it’s share of droughts, but sure seems they had a resilient system to keep them going!
This is really amazing dear Sue. Thanks for this great article.
Yes! They intrigue me so much. Any time I can I try to find a way to research anything about one of the ancient civilizations from different parts of the world.