Aqueducts, Canals, Qanats: Construction and Management of Water Conduits in the Late Antique and Medieval Mediterranean and Middle East

Date:  23-24 June 2022
Time: 10:00-17:30
Location: Maria Montessorigebouw 02.630, Thomas van Aquinostraat 4, Radboud University, Nijmegen & Zoom

This workshop will explore topics connected to the hydraulic infrastructure and its management that allowed water to be transported to, and distributed within, cities in the medieval world (c. 600–1500 CE). Many medieval cities depended on the transportation of water across long distances, requiring the construction of significant infrastructure—or, in some cases, the maintenance and extension of pre-existing structures from earlier periods—to supply urban populations. Conduits of various varieties—such as canals, qanats and aqueducts—were huge investments in terms of labour and financial resources and their construction, through sometimes difficult and unforgiving landscapes, often presented considerable engineering challenges that had to be overcome. Once built, these structures required frequent maintenance to remain effective and the distribution of water had to be actively managed to ensure an equitable supply of water regularly reached urban users. Rulers often took a personal interest in the construction, extension or repair of these conduit systems while local authorities and other institutions played key roles in their management and regulation. The material evidence for many of these conduits is well preserved and its analysis often illuminates how, when and why these structures were built as well as episodes of maintenance, repair and abandonment. Textual evidence, on the other hand, provides an equally valuable strand of evidence which often contains more ephemeral details relating to their management, the social obligations that related to their upkeep and the users that depended on the water they conveyed.

In this workshop, we aim to gain an insight into these processes—construction and upkeep, management, (dis)repair, etc—as well as the relationships between the many people and groups involved in these processes and/or who made use of the water transported and distributed via these conduits. We, therefore, invite contributions which explore any aspect of conduit systems that brought water to, and distributed water within, medieval cities—e.g. their construction, repair, management, materiality, symbolism or abandonment. Our focus is the medieval Middle East but we are equally interested in contributions which consider evidence from neighbouring cultural and geographic zones (including, but not limited to, the Byzantine Empire, Al-Andalus and Central Asia) as well as earlier periods (such as the Roman and Sasanian empires).

This lecture will be held live and in-person though it is also possible to join online via zoom. To register please email

Download the full programme here (pdf, 3,4 MB).

Conference - City, Citizen & Citizenship. New Perspectives on the Middle Ages AD 400–1600, Utrecht University

On 16th June 2021 the Source of Life team presented two papers at the fascinating conference: 'City, Citizen & Citizenship. New Perspectives on the Middle Ages AD 400–1600' organised by the NWO VICI project: 'Citizenship Discourses in the Early Middle Ages, 400–1100' led by Els Rose at Utrecht University. You can find out more about their project and the conference here:

source of life Conference City, Citizen & Citizenship

The first paper presented by Maaike van Berkel and Peter Brown was titled: 'Water Provision in Middle Eastern Medieval Cities: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Urban Water Governance' and combined textual and archaeological sources of evidence to explore how water was supplied and distributed within the Abbasid capital of Samarra during the 9th century. They discussed evidence for both the major pieces of infrastructure constructed at the behest of the caliphs themselves as well as the more informal and everyday water arrangements for which evidence survives, such as water carriers and domestic water use.

source of life conference angela isoldiJosephine van den Bent and Angela Isoldi presented the second paper titled 'Pleasing God, Serving the Citizens: Charity and Water Supply in Cairo and Baghdad' which compared the elite endowment of water facilities in medieval Cairo and Baghdad. In particular, they highlighted the expectation that rulers would make endowments - which frequently included public fountains - to benefit the urban populace as well as the diversity of members of the elite who contributed to these public works.

Workshop - Water and urban life in medieval Zabīd, Yemen: Textual foundations, archaeological remains and religious implications

source of life workshopOn 11th May 2021 the Source of Life team held a webinar with Dr Ingrid Hehmeyer, Associate Professor in the History of Science and Technology at Ryerson University, Canada.

Together we had an extremely fruitful discussion focussing on Dr Hehmeyer’s work on the medieval Islamic water management system of Islamic Zabīd, Yemen. In particular, we discussed the results of archaeological excavations within Zabīd and traditional knowledge relating to how water is used within the town today.

For us this was a fantastic exchange of knowledge with very strong ties to the research that we are currently working on together as a team.

source of life workshop 2source of life workshop 3

Round Table: Water Management of the Past and its Potential for the Future

On 28 January 2021 Source of Life organised a Round Table, aimed to explore the potential for collaboration between historians/archaeologists and experts from the water, heritage and development sectors. Up until today the disciplines of water management and history have been largely separate fields. More recently, however, some very promising initiatives by, among others, ICOMOS-Netherlands have shown the capability of building on knowledge from the past to explore sustainable water management for the future. This roundtable linked up with these initiatives and seeked to exchange insights on water management in Middle Eastern cities.
Water is the most precious commodity societies need to manage, and the provision of sustainable water is one of the most pressing concerns today worldwide. This is specifically true for densely populated areas in environmentally challenging regions such as the Middle East. 'Every living thing is made from water', says Qur'an 21:30. In this respect, cities in the medieval Middle East worked wonders. During the Middle Ages, the region hosted huge urban communities (200.000 500.000 inhabitants) which were sustained
by complex water systems. How did they succeed in this? This is the focus of Source of Life, a research project funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), which analyses water management in pre-modern Middle Eastern cities (7th-15th century) from a historical and archaeological perspective.

This round table aimed to explore a culturally- and historically embedded approach to present-day water management. Its main objectives were:

  • To investigate ways in which historians and experts from the water and development sectors might fruitfully exchange knowledge on water management in the Middle East;
  • To define uses of historical knowledge to present-day attempts to sustainable water management;
  • To exchange successful and unsuccessful examples of historically-inspired strategies of water
    management nowadays;
  • To identify specific questions from the water and development sectors that our historical research
    project Source of Life might be able to examine.

Workshop - Flowing Together, a workhop on archaeological and historical approaches to Middle Eastern water management (7th-15th centuries)

This workshop on November 12-13, 2020, aimed to explore the various challenges, problems and potentials for collaboration between historians and archaeologists in the study of water management. Since early 2020, the NWO-VICI project 'Source of Life' has been combining archaeological and historical data to study the different ways in which water was managed in Middle Eastern cities and their hinterlands between the 7th and 15th centuries AD. As disciplines, archaeology and history share common aims and interests yet often produce data at different scales, both spatially and temporally, which relate to different groups of people and spheres of life. As a broad theme 'water management' encompasses an extremely broad variety of components including physical infrastructure, social institutions and individual actors. It is a complex task, therefore, to select which methods are most appropriate to combine, analyse and understand these different elements - and the overall systems they created. The various sources of data-both material and textual-and the ways we choose to put these together affect the reconstructions of the past that we create. Through a variety of presentations exploring different case studies and methodologies that address different approaches, difficulties and best practice, this event aimed to consider, critique and develop cross-disciplinary approaches to water management in the past from the combined perspectives of archaeology and history.

Main aims and objectives:

  • To explore case studies that examine any aspect (or aspects) of water management in early Islamic (or closely related) contexts.
  • To evaluate issues in integrating different sources of evidence (such as archaeological evidence, historical sources, remote sensing data etc)
  • To identify potential opportunities for future research relating to water management in the medieval Middle East​

For the full programme, click here (pdf, 1,7 MB).