Lecture 9. Supplying Water, Displaying Hygiene, and Extending Authority: The Power and Pride of Water Management in Rome and Constantinople, 400 BCE-600 CE

This lecture modules examines how the strategic and economic rise of the Nabataean city of Petra—located at the crucial intersection of trade routes, connecting the Mediterranean world, Arabia, Africa, and the Far East—also provided the impetus to develop sophisticated hydraulic systems to sustain a burgeoning urban population and various water needs. Steadily rising since 300 BCE as a nomadic settlement, Petra came under the Roman fold in 106 CE and continued on as an important trading hub under the Byzantines till the 7th century CE. Petra’s strategic location led to an urban center with a thriving economy. It was no surprise that Petra would absorb the cultural, architectural, and technological influences of Egyptian, Seleucid, Syro-Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Far Eastern civilizations. The city’s hydraulic technologies derived from a ingenuous synthesis of native and foreign water-management systems that transformed Petra into a veritable “aquatic paradise” in the desert. The desert city’s water systems, consisting of dams, cisterns, channels, pipeline networks, and groundwater storage utilized multiple springs and wadis (a ravine that channels rainwater runoffs or spring water) that dotted the surrounding areas, as well as rainfall runoff storage. Petra’s limited water resource situation, in combination with its complex topography and hot-arid climate, led to many innovations in water storage methodologies at an urban scale, one in which stored runoff water met part of yearly demands, while also connecting natural springs with highly efficient pipeline networks.

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