Celebrating Water
Urban Crossroads #76

The central plaza of the National Gallery Park. The plaza includes a shallow water channel and grills opening to the park's underground water reservoir.

The central plaza of the National Gallery Park. The plaza includes a shallow water channel and grills opening to the park's underground water reservoir.

This past fall, I participated in a symposium in Doha organized by Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar entitled Rivers of Paradise: Water in Islamic Art and Culture. The symposium featured a dozen papers covering a wide diversity of subjects that ranged from small-scale water vessels to the supply of water in Muslim urban centers, and also a wide geographic expanse that extended from Bangladesh in the east to Muslim Spain in the west.

I was one of two people from Jordan to present papers at the symposium. The other was Professor Yasser Tabbaa, a world-renowned scholar on Islamic art and architecture, who currently is the Deputy Headmaster and Dean of Faculty at Kings Academy. My paper was on a contemporary topic, a public park in Amman, the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts Park in Jabal al-Luwaybdah, which was completely redesigned and rehabilitated in 2005 as a model water-conserving park and demonstration garden. The other papers of the symposium addressed historical subjects that predated the twentieth century.

The challenge of water shortages is nothing new in Jordan. This problem, however, is becoming increasingly felt throughout the world as freshwater resources are coming under considerable pressures as a result of factors including rapid population growth and rising pollution levels. The papers of the conference, although intended as academic papers addressing historical subjects, still were very illuminating regarding the challenges of providing urban populations with water for their daily needs.

If we consider cities in our part of the world today, the supply of water most often is relegated to merely being part of urban infrastructure. Although the importance of urban infrastructure is not to be underestimated in any way, it often is taken for granted by the city’s residents, and its components are made to be as invisible as possible. Accordingly, such components, whether pipes for water and sewage or electricity conduits, often are buried underground. Those responsible for the layout and maintenance of the city’s infrastructure are fully aware of it, but the rest of the population does not give much thought to infrastructure services, except for when they break down.

In contrast, and as a number of papers in the symposium showed, infrastructure services relating to water in the pre-modern world not only were visible to a city’s population at large, but often also were celebrated as architectural and urban monuments. They also served to glorify and commemorate the rulers who built them.

Examples of this include the aqueducts found in cities such as Cordoba, Cairo, and Istanbul. Those elevated graceful water channels on arched colonnades, which extended for kilometers in length, moved water from water sources to various points in the city. The same is true of the public water fountains known as the sabils found in the cities of the Mamluk and the Ottoman Empires. A number of these sabils are highly elegant works of architecture. Their trademark usually is the grilled windows from which water would be handed out for free in cups to those passing by. These elegant and often delicate structures would be located on top of massive water cisterns. In the case of the sabil built in Cairo by the nineteenth-century Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali, and which bears his name, the size of its cistern allowed for about one million cups to be served from it every year.

A great deal of effort was placed in the pre-modern Islamic world on developing systems that collected, stored, and distributed water. Although these remain issues of paramount importance in the modern period, they took up more of society’s resources and attention during the pre-modern period. One of the speakers at the symposium remarked that as much as ten percent of the populations of urban centers such as Istanbul or Cairo during the pre-modern period probably made their living securing water to the urban population. It therefore should not be surprising that while water today is supplied to users in pipes that are buried underground and not intended to be seen, elements of the water-related infrastructure in the pre-modern Islamic world was not only were more visible, but also were featured prominently as monuments of the built environment. These structures highlighted the aesthetic value of water and provided a reminder of its importance as an essential substance for all forms of life.

A subtle example of celebrating water in Amman is found in the recent rehabilitation of the National Gallery Park, which was carried out by a team of designers at the Center for the Study of the Built Environment led by landscape architect Lara Zureikat. The rehabilitation of the mid-twentieth-century park included the construction of a 160-cubic-meter underground water reservoir. The reservoir is intended to collect rainwater from the park’s paved surfaces during the winter months so that the water may be used later on in the year for irrigating the park’s plants. The paving of the park’s main plaza includes a water channel with stone water grills. The rainwater falling on the park’s paved surfaces is directed to the plaza, and from there to the channel and into the grills, where it goes down to the reservoir. If one visits the park during periods of rainfall, one can view the rainwater as it falls on the paved areas of the park, and is directed to the channel and then to the grills before collecting in the cistern. This modest example serves as a reminder of the importance water is in our lives. In a city such Amman, where water is so scarce, we constantly need such reminders as we should never take the availability of freshwater for granted.

Mohammad al-Asad

January 9, 2008