The Cisterns of Alexandria from Ancient Egypt

The Cisterns of Alexandria

by Jimmy Dunn

A map dating to 1619 showing the branches of the Canopic canal into Alexandria

In recent years, the discovery of artifacts beneath the waters of the Alexandria coastline have made big headlines, but the ground beneath the streets of the city are also revealing many new discoveries from ancient Egypt. There have been tombs found, and explored, but one of the most amazing discoveries is actually that of the city's ancient system of cisterns.

We must suppose that few tourists visiting a city would wish to see its cisterns, but in fact, archaic travelers to Alexandria, Egypt did just that. Below Alexandria, the English traveler, Henry Blunt, who visited Alexandria in 1634, notes that:

"Fresh water is brought to Alexandria in a large, and deepe channell cut by men, almost fourscore miles, through the wilderness to the Nile... It is conveighed and kept in Cisternes, whereof there remains but five hundred, of two thousand at the first."

A cistern of Alexandria reconstructed by the Graeco-Roman Museum dating from 1915

Napoleon's Scholars had counted only four hundred after his invasion of Egypt, but a few decades later Mahmud el-Falaki had listed seven hundred. By 1990, there was only one ancient cistern that could be visited, called el-Nabih. The others were lost to us, only memories of a distant past. However, ten years later, thanks to the efforts of some very dedicated archaeologists, many of these forgotten wonders are once again found.

This is fortunate because these subterranean canals were frequently described as underground cathedrals. Sometime between 1710 and 1712, Francois Paumier, a member of the third order of St. Francis, exclaimed with admiration, "there is nothing more beautiful and complete than the vaults; nothing better constructed than their apertures; nothing more superb than the pieces of marble with which they are surrounded". Seventeenth and eighteenth century artists, including the scholars of Napoleon, though enough of these monuments to make numerous engravings, which give us an idea of their imposing proportions. In a report of the events of 1882, the English periodical, The Graphic, in an article concerning the shelling of the city center by the British Navy, gives an illustrated account of adventurous visitors, armed with hurricane lamps, exploring these huge subterranean spaces. Shrouded in darkness, they balance precariously on the arches which link the rows of columns rising out of the depths.

Like Constantinople, Alexandria was a city of cisterns. When Khedive Ismail instructed el-Falaki to draw up a plan of the ancient city, the resulting book, published in 1872, explains that Alexandria was "superimposed on another city of cisterns, the streets of which are subterranean canals".

The Alexandria cisterns have had their moments in history. Alexandria's development had always been dependent on the quality of its waters, but in his "Alexandrian Wars", Caesar discovered just how important they could be. After having fortified and entrenched himself in the great theater, the Alexandrians had made the wells he depended on unusable by contaminating them with sea water. We are told that:

"Soon the water drawn from the houses nearest [to the enemy] was a little more brackish than usual, and occasioned no little wonder among the men as to why this had come about. Nor could they quite believe the evidence of their own ears when their neighbors lower down said that the water they were using was of the same kind and taste as they had previously been accustomed to; and they were openly discussing the matter among themselves and, by tasting samples, learning how markedly the waters differed. However, in a short space of time the water nearer the contamination was entirely undrinkable, while that lower down was found to be relatively impure and brackish. This circumstance dispelled their doubts, and so great was the panic that took hold upon them that it seemed that they were all reduced to a most hazardous plight, and some asserted that Caesar was being slow in giving orders to embark".

Caesar eventually solved the problem by sinking wells down to the water-table. However, he nearly lost the war he was waging against the Alexandrians because he had no control over the cisterns.

The water for houses and buildings was drawn from the cisterns with the aid of saqiehs, consisting of wheels with jars on them. Thevenot described them as, "These lifting devices consist of a wheel with a loop of rope to which are attached at intervals several clay pots (like rosary); these rise full of water and pour it into a channel which brings it wherever it is wanted."

Alexandrians have relied on a twenty kilometer long canal, dug from the Canopic branch of the Nile, to ensure a regular and controlled supply of water from the city's earliest history. The maintenance of this canal was a perpetual concern, not only during Egypt's Greco-Roman Period but into the archaic Muslim dynasties as well. Any number of inscriptions and literary texts mention the cleaning, widening and repairs of this canal. For example, one inscription written in both Greek and Latin, found near the Canopic Gate, records that Augustus renovated the canal between years ten and eleven of the common era, stating that "The emperor Caesar, son of a god, Augustus, high priest, has brought the august river to Schedia, so that it flows [...] through the whole city. [Given] when Gaius Julius Aquila was prefect of Egypt, in the year 40 of Caesar".

A reused Corinthian capital in the el-Nabih cistern

In 1318, Abul Feda, Prince of Hama and a relative of the Ayyubids, spoke glowingly of the canal, stating that "the canal which comes from the Nile, is an enchanting sight. It is steep-sided, covered in greenery on both banks and surrounded by gardens. A poet named Dhafer also praised it, saying, "how often has it offered to your eyes in the evening light a sight which filled your heart with the purest of delight!" Henry V of England instructed Ghillebert de Lannoy to report to him on the state of the region in connection with a plan to re-establish a Christian kingdom in Jerusalem and in 1422, he wrote:

"Underneath the streets and houses, the whole city is hollow. Under the ground there are conduits roofed over with arches, through which the wells are filled up once a year by the River Nile. And if this were not so, they would have no fresh water in the town, since it rains there very little or not at all and there are neither wells nor natural springs in the city. Thirty miles from here, starting from a village on the Nile called Hatse, a man-made canal begins its course. It runs for a mile close to the city, along the walls and flows into the sea in the Old Harbour [Western Harbor]. Every year, at the end of August and throughout all of September, the River Nile, which rises considerably at this time of year, flows through this canal to fill all the wells of the city for a year, and also the wells outside the city, which are used for watering the gardens."

Inside the el-Nabih cistern in Alexandria

Captain Norden of the Danish Royal navy, in 1737, provides another description of the canal, which he calls "the calich of Cleopatra" (calisch is a corruption of the Arabic term for a canal, khalig):

"It was simply dug out of the earth, without being reinforced by any facing in stone or brick and it was filled up by degrees.[...] Nowdays it resembles a badly maintained ditch, and only just enough water flows in it to fill the reservoirs required to meet the needs of modern Alexandria. I crossed it dry-shod in the month of June."

Running from east to west, the principal canal branched off into several underground canals oriented south to north that then fed the cisterns of the old city within the walls. It was possible for many years during the modern era to trace the course of at least one of the subsidiary canals due to some holes that were still visible on the surface. Norden notes in 1737:

" can see a walled place there - this is where the aqueduct stars which one can follow right over the plain, and even as far as Alexandria; for, although it is under the ground, the ventilation holes which exist at intervals help us to trace accurately enough the route it takes to reach the reservoirs or cisterns, which are found only in what we have seen to be the ancient city."

Another Corinthian capital resting on an octagonal base in el-Nabih in Alexandria

Napoleon's scholars also mention the holes, and Ghillebert de Lannoy records an iron grating at the point where the south to north canals branch off of the main canal. Emmanuel Piloti tells us that:

"The city of Alexandria is situated in a waterless place, and only has wells of brackish water. But each house is built above an underground chamber, in which there is a cistern which fills with water. Thus, every year after the Nile flood, thanks to the man-made ditch described above - this ditch is called caliz - by which the water reach the walls of Alexandria, there is a passage where there is an opening with an iron grating, and the waters enter through the conduits into the wells of the city".

The iron grating was not meant as a filter, but rather as a gate to keep intruders from taking the city by way of the underground aqueducts.

The water brought by the Nile flood was not readily drinkable. It was full of silt, and visitors to Alexandria relate how people waited for the water to clear while drinking that which had been supplied the previous year. Villamont, in 1590, writes:

"The water in the cisterns in which it has recently arrived, is very bad to drink, causing fever and dysentery, which usually kill those affected. Accordingly, the inhabitants who are careful about their health, keep the water from the year before to use until November."

The cistern of el-Nabih in Alexandria

In 1672, Father Vansleb, who was sent to Egypt to buy papyrus by Colbert, describes in more detail the efforts made to clear the water of silt and impurities:

"There is outside the Rosetta Gate [a canal running south-north]. It is the height of a man and vaulted inside. At a quarter of a league from the town, it meets the calitz of Cleopatra, which comes past there and feeds into it some of the water it receives from the Nile itself, before then conveying the water as far as the walls, where, having met another conduit, which is not very far from this gate and which by means of an ingenious system communicates with all the cisterns, it fills them. You must however know that its mouth, although it is as high as the rest of the canal['s tunnel], has almost two thirds of its opening walled up, from bottom to top, so that only a little aperture is left, through which the waters of the calitz enter, as if through a window. But because they are very dirty for the first three days, and because the cistern would soon be filled with dirt if the water were allowed to enter freely during that time, those who are in charge of the town's water supply in order to avoid this inconvenience, immediately have the aperture of this canal walled up and leave it in this state for three days, after which they go to the mouth of the canal, accompanied by a crowd of people to unblock it and allow the water to enter until the cisterns are full. The day of this opening is one of great rejoicing for the whole town."

From the fourteenth century and for a hundred years before the Ottoman invasion, the canal declined, and so did Alexandria. The Canopic branch, which fed the Alexandrian canal, had rapidly silted up, and when Mohammad Ali put it back into service, he had to extend it eastward by about fifty kilometers to the Bolbitine branch of the Nile, which flows into the sea near Rosetta.

Located in Sharia Sultan Husayn, about 200 meters north of the main artery of the ancient city (the Canopic Street), until very recently the sole (known) surviving cistern called el-Nabih is very impressive. One reaches it by descending a flight of steps to a window which offers a dramatic view of ancient columns rising over three stories. There are four rows of columns, each linked by delicate arches, making a total of forty-eight columns. There is an oddity here, as one finds finely carved ancient capitals reused as bases to support shafts of Aswan granite topped by Ionic bases of white marble that serve as capitals. It is really a confusion of architectural elements, with capitals of all shapes but e4specially Corinthian capitals of the Roman period with finely chiseled acanthus leaves made of marble from the Princes' Islands.

A cistern rediscovered, and used as an air-raid shelter during World War II

However, thanks to individuals such as Jean-Yves Empereur, el-Nabih is no longer the orphan of this underground world. After having been told a story of these subterranean chambers being used as air-raid shelters during World War II, he set about to find one of these more recently lost cisterns. With the aid of the city's Director of Islamic Antiquities, Mohammed Abdel Aziz, he was able to locate and descend into one of these very ancient bomb shelters, which was located in a cul-de-sac between two early twentieth century buildings. Steps fell away into a first basement that was fitted out as a shelter with partitions made of modern bricks covered with whitewash that filled the spaces between columns surmounted by ancient capitals. A modern concrete floor separated this level from a lower floor, accessible by a modern flight of steps. However, the lower level was filled with water. Later, he was also able to visit two other cisterns which had also been made into air-raid shelters during the war, and he began to wonder whether there were not records kept of others.

Drawing of a cistern dating to 1896.

Though he had difficulties finding archives concerning the cisterns, he was also able to identify one on Sesostris Street in the middle of the city, but could not gain access to it, as a shop had been build above its entrance. However, he soon found a "beautiful, harmoniously proportioned cistern" nearby, in the courtyard of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, and was taken to see a third in the Antoniadis Gardens, three kilometers south east of the city center. He hoped to find a few others.

Then one day, he received a bundle of documents from the Graeco-Roman Museum which had been gathering dust for some decades. They included plans, section drawing and sketches of the locations of some 140 cisterns drawn up by the municipal water board at the end of the nineteenth century. Having spread the word of his interests, Jean-Yves soon afterwards received a second list of Alexandrian cisterns from the Jesuit College in Cairo, thanks to its librarian, Father Martin. The later documents predated the earlier ones, and though somewhat less useful, nevertheless aided the hunt for the lost cisterns.

Known, probable and hypothetical locations of cisterns in Alexandria

So far, almost a hundred cisterns have been identified on the ground, but investigations continue. Some new cisterns have been found in the district adjoining the ancient Heptastadion, and another beside Qait Bey Fort. In fact, Jean-Yves informs us that not a month passes that another cistern is not added to their list. His work, together with his associates, is expected to eventually serve as a basis for the restoration, improvement and presentation to the public of the best-preserved of Alexandria's ancient cisterns.

Twenty years ago, most people experienced in Egyptian travel believed there was very little of interest in Alexandria, but today, as interest grows, more and more ruins are being unearthed, and some are just being remembered.


Information for this article is taken mostly from:

Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Alexandria Rediscovered Empereur, Jean-Yves 1998 British Museum Press ISBN 0-7141-1921-0

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011