Friday, April 3, 2009

The aqueduct and the water wisdom of the ancient town of Kition, in Larnaca-Cyprus

Cyprus is very well known for its periodic droughts and low waterfall winters causing severe scarcity of water. This characteristic has been the rule through its long history until today. The city of Larnaca at the south coasts of Cyprus was born at the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. as the island’s major port, due to the need of exporting the copper richness of the island, wood, salt from the nearby salt-lake and the other rich products of the island. Imports included food items, handcraft items, jewelry, olive oil and many other products from the nearby civilizations. The choice of the site was due to the excellent natural port facilities and not due to the availability of water, which is the rule for the majority of prehistoric and early settlements. 

Contacts and trade exchanges during this period were archaeologically proven with the civilizations of Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, Crete and the Aegean. The city was originally known as Alasia (the place of the salt), but after the first millennium B.C. was known as Kition (Grail – Kivotos). The geographical position of the city, opposite the great civilizations and powers of the World soon made it a strategic navigation point in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its fiord-like natural ports hosted the ships, the wisdom and frictions of all above mentioned civilizations. 

The first settlements in the area of Larnaca in the second millennium B.C., soon became the first urban centers of Cyprus. Population increased and the water availability for the local population and for the visiting ships was a subject, which caused a little problem. Due to the absence of any major stream around the port facilities of the first settlements, especially during the long hot summers, the early population of Larnaca made their own wells. At the beginning, the water supply from these wells was sufficient and the water always cool and pleasant. Storing water in the locally made clay water jugs, left in the shade and in the constant Cyprus summer breeze, produced cool and pleasant drinking water. If this valuable forgotten wisdom is reapplied, it is possible to save energy even today.  

In both early settlements of the Larnaca area, archaeologists found extensive and stone protected wells, dating in the beginning of the second millennium B.C. They were extensively found in almost all houses and public buildings. Some of these fine stone protected and build wells is thought to be the work of the religious authority of the city, which at the time was also the political authority of the city. Around these wells, archaeologists found holy gardens and intensive plant growing. The city underground water is now at the face of being used in organized agriculture. There is now an overdue use and deeper excavations for more water quantities started to affect the quality of the water, as the sea is very near.

The city became noticeably bigger towards the end of the second millennium. The conflicts with the surrounding powers and civilizations obliged the local authorities to built a mad-straw and stone city walls, around the 13th century B.C. At the end of the 13th century the Mycenaean Greeks controlled the city and they constructed cyclopean walls. But, the population within the city walls since Archaic Times (700-480 BC) increased tremendously. A new method for extensive underground depositing in clay – argil cisterns have been discovered by the archaeologists dating in this period. Depositing water underground is a very wise method, as it is always cooler and safer for drinking, especially in hot climates like Cyprus. The combination of low temperature and darkness makes the possibility of developing bacteria or other dangerous microorganism in water almost impossible. This is a piece of mind of the ancient populations, which modern man forgot to a great extend.  

A tomb inscription of the archaic period in Cyprus (700-480 B.C.), found in the Kition cemetery of this period, refer to the “Minister” of the king responsible for the water supply of the kingdom, an officialdom held by his family, as the inscription mentions, for six generations before him! Therefore, organized, wise, efficient and official administration of the water needs of the town can be traced even before the Archaic Period (700-480 BC). Good planning for sufficient quantities of water was in the minds of ancient civilizations to a much greater degree than we think or do today. 

The greater needs for good drinking water for the constantly increasing population living within the city walls obliged the Kingdom of Kition authorities and the Minister for the water supply of the city, to import the wisdom and experience of other nearby civilizations. During the Persian overrule of Cyprus (546-335 B.C.), the technology of “Persian Quanats” has been imported by the city. This technology seemed to be known even before the Persian presence on the Island, as the Assyrians, who ruled the island for about 50 years in the beginning of the 7th century, new this technology and applied it for their own cities. 

The last part of a long “Persian Quanats” underground channel-system has been discovered in the early 1990’s in recently in the ancient port of the Classical times of Larnaca (480-300 BC.). This sophisticated water supply system was obviously bringing sufficient quantities of water from appropriate sites outside the city walls. The size of this channel in the site of the ancient port is quite large and must have satisfied the needs of a populous city and of a busy military and commercial port. The building technology of the “Persian Quanats” was so wise, that remained in use for more than 2000 years later. These underground channels were bringing with the flow of water large quantities of cool air, therefore supplying the community with freshness in the hot months of the summer.  

In the summer of 45 AD, Saint Barnabas and Evangelist Marcus passed by Roman period Kition. In the book “Secret Acts of Saint Barnabas” written by Saint Marcus, a detailed account of their visit in Larnaca is mentioned. A long stay for refreshing at the public aqueduct of Kition is well described. The city was then at its most populous face and the operation of public aqueducts was a mere necessity, which the Roman and later the Byzantine State policies are known to have financed and encouraged in great devotion. Archeological findings of this period in Larnaca show extensive distribution networks with clay pipes, which seem to carry water through small valleys and hills despite the general unscientific view of the Romans that such thing could not happen. At least one such aqueduct was found to operate in Larnaca. Hydraulic wisdom in Larnaca pre-existed Pascal?

In Medieval times, in the book of the chronicle of “Leontios Machairas” written in the 14th century A.D., we find the information that grain mills operated in Larnaca, and that Luzinian King Peter I supplied his army and fleet with flour for people and for the horses of his cavalry from Larnaca. This information is given in relation to the preparation of the military expedition of King Peter against Alexandria-Egypt. Without being able to prove it archaeologically as yet, we assume with a great degree of certainty that these gain mils worked on the main Persian Quanat system of Larnaca, still being repaired and used since Classical, Roman and Byzantine times. The use of hydraulic power in Cyprus for the operation of grain mills was a real achievement for the medieval engineers of the island. The Venetians (1486-1570 A.D.) de-routed the stream of this Persian Quanat system, so it would not pour in the salt lake, when there was a year of plentiful rainfall. This was very necessary as the production of salt, which was a great source of income for the Luzinians and Venetians, was negatively affected when there was too much water in the lake, which would not dry on time to allow the collection of salt.  

At the time that Larnaca became once again the main port and populous center of Cyprus, in the Ottoman times, but especially between the years 1746-1878 AD, the Ottoman Governor of Larnaca “Bekir Pashia” (1746-1748) claimed that he constructed a new Aqueduct for Larnaca. A 15 kilometers long aqueduct, with 7 kilometers long underground Persian Quanats channel system initiating at river Tremithos, and with an 8 kilometer long over ground channel passing through 3 different small valleys over arched beautiful constructions, all in excellent condition until today. All these together with the 2 surviving grain mills on the channel, comprise a great monument of the water wisdom of the area. The administration document of the quanat water of the Bekir Pashia aqueduct is surviving too. However, a closer look at the above mentioned archaeological and literal evidence, indicate that the Bekir Pashia aqueduct was an extensive reparation and renovation of pre-existing installations of the ancient aqueducts of the city.  

The Bekir Pashia aqueduct system, with all the condensed wisdom of antiquity in relation to the administration of public water-supply, was in full operation until the 1950’s. Its operation was destroyed, not because of less amount of waterfall on the island, but because of the unwise actions of our generation. Over pumping in the water bed of the sourcing of the aqueduct became so great that gradually lowered the underwater level of the whole area. A natural source for the water supply of Larnaca ceased to operate! Modern Technology, used in an unsustainable manner brought its end after perhaps more than 2.5 thousand years. 

Larnaca 21.03.2009

Alexis Michaelides
Deputy Mayor.
Writer and independent researcher