Source of Life: Water Management in the Premodern Middle East
Source of Life: Water Management in the Premodern Middle East

Source of Life: Water Management in the Premodern Middle East

Duration
1 September 2019 until 1 May 2025
Project type
Research

Water is the single most important requirement in sustaining large cities and complex societies. Harsh climatological conditions make water provision the greatest challenge Middle Eastern societies face, today and in the past. Yet, in the premodern era, highly populated cities in the Middle East—which dwarfed their European counterparts—succeeded in providing water to their inhabitants. This raises the crucial question: How did urban communities organize this vital service? The Source of Life project combines historical and archaeological evidence to explore the interrelationship between water installations, governance, and legal and cultural frameworks within five Middle Eastern cities from the first Arab conquests to Ottoman rule (the 7th-15th centuries).

Podcast

The first episode of our "Abbasid History Podcast" is out now:

Listen here

Project details

‘Every living thing is made from water’ (Qur’an 21:30)

As water scarcity is one of the greatest threats faced by human societies, the management of water is vitally important. This is especially the case for densely populated areas in environmentally challenging regions such as the Middle East. It has often been thought that the institutions of premodern ‘Islamic’ cities were relatively weak and ineffective compared to those of medieval Europe. Compared to contemporary Europe, however, the presence of much larger and more densely populated cities in the Middle East runs counter to this narrative. Many of these cities persisted for long periods attesting to the ability of their occupants to successfully manage and regulate access to water.

Through a combination of historical and archaeological sources, the Source of Life project examines exactly how the urban communities of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Damascus and Cairo were able to successfully manage water over the long-term. Within these 5 cities, this includes mapping the various formal and informal arrangements that exercised control over water as well as the driving forces for change and evolution within these water management systems.

Invariably, supplying urban populations with water was a highly complex operation. Different types of physical infrastructure, including wells, aqueducts, cisterns and fountains, fed by diverse sources, including rainwater, rivers, lakes and springs, were required to meet both basic demands for drinking water and hygiene in addition to those motivated by religious practices, industrial processes and elite display. Furthermore, between the 7th and 15th centuries, considerable political shifts took place across the Middle East. Understanding the extent to which these transformations impacted urban water management is, therefore, a key component of this project.

Related project

Dr Peter Brown is working together with Iraqi colleague Dr Jaafar Jotheri and Dr Louise Rayne to try and date the ridges of a massive irrigation system surrounding the former site of the city of Basra, Southern Iraq.

Dating the Remains of an Agricultural System in Southern Iraq

Dating the Remains of an Agricultural System in Southern Iraq

Remains of a massive irrigation system covering over 50,000 hectares surround the former site of the city of Basra, Southern Iraq. This project is a collaboration to try and date the ridges of soil on site.

Results

Workshops and conferences

  • Final conference – Water Management in the Premodern Middle East: Forces from ‘above’ and ‘below’ (February 6-8, 2024)
  • Workshop in cooperation with the Saudi Heritage Commission – 3000 Years of Water Management in Arabia (June 20-21, 2023)
  • Workshop in cooperation with KNAW – Water and the Urban/Rural Nexus in the Medieval Islamic world (March 30-31, 2023). The results of this workshop will be published in the Journal of Islamic Archaeology.
  • Workshop – Aqueducts, Canals, Qanats: Construction and Management of Water Conduits in the late Antique and Medieval Mediterranean and Middle East (June 23-24, 2022). The results of this workshop will be published in al-Masaq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean.
  • Round Table Workshop in cooperation with partners from the water, heritage and development sectors -  Water Management of the Past and its Potential for the Future (January 28, 2021)
  • Workshop – Flowing Together: On archaeological and historical approaches to Middle Eastern Water Management (7th to 15th centuries) (November 12-13, 2020)

Expert meetings and guest lectures

Expert meeting with Hugh Kennedy, Baghdad and the involvement of state and society in water provision (June 22, 2022)

  • Expert meeting with Bethany Walker, Archaeological and historical evidence of "water cultures" in the rural areas of the Sham (June 17, 2022)
  • Expert meeting and lecture by Derek Kennet, Samarra: buildings and urban layout in 9th century Iraq (April 21-22, 2022)
  • Yossef Rapoport, al-Nabulusi and water management in the Fayyum (April 20, 1922)
  • Expert Meeting by Ingrid Heymeyer, Water and urban life in medieval Zabīd, Yemen: Textual foundations, archaeological remains and religious implications (May 11, 2021)

Research visits

  • Team research visits to medieval hydraulic systems in Cairo, Egypt (December, 2021), sites on the pilgrimage road to Mecca (Darb Zubayda), Saudi Arabia (September, 2022), and to several sites with hydraulic installations in Jordan (October 2023)
  • Individual research visits to Egypt, Israel, Washington and Durham.

Publications

In addition to individual and team presentations at conferences and publications in several journals and edited volumes:

  • A special issue on water in al-Masaq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean, edited by Peter Brown and Angela Isoldi.
  • A special issue on water in the Journal of Abbasid Studies. Forthcoming 2025, edited by Maaike van Berkel.
  • A special issue on water in the Journal of Islamic Archaeology. Forthcoming 2025, edited by Peter Brown.
  • The results of the final conference will be published in an edited volume. Forthcoming in 2026, edited by Josephine van den Bent, Maaike van Berkel and Edmund Hayes

We also have an X-account (formerly Twitter).

Funding

NWO Vici Grant

Contact information