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‘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.