Duct, Duct, Sluice

Ol’ Blue. She is scratched and battered but is still going strong after four continents of travel in one year.

I slouch on a stone wall near the entrance to Sepphoris. There, on the Jesus Trail just outside ancient “Bird-town,” the pine trees provide some welcome shade. The pack is peeled off my back and rolls over on the ground. I am a sweaty mess.

I retrieve my blue Nalgene bottle from the pack pocket and flip back its lid. A plastic straw springs up. I latch onto it with my lips, pucker, and pull. My mouth becomes an antigravity machine. The water rises. It climbs up the straw, fights through a filter (that I cleverly engineered into the bottle’s innards to exercise my vacuumy muscles!). It then races up the final stretch to my mouth. I hold it there for a delicious moment, swish a few times, and finally swallow. It is warm. But who knew water could be so good? I suck it down like a blistered warthog on the Serengeti.

Thirsty little guys on the Serengeti. Image from here.

The human body is 60% water. Experts say that the adult male needs at least three liters of water per day to function. This amount rises even higher with heat, exercise, or shatah sauce on a falafel ball sandwich. Fresh water does many pleasant things: it regulates body temperature, moves nutrients around, purges the innards of falafel balls, helps you whistle, etc. Too little water and not-so-pleasant things happen: the heart thumps, the head aches, the whistle becomes a wheeze, and the body turns to beef jerky.

Recently I learned that physical and mental impairment begins at a dehydration rate of only 1%. Now, as I slouch on the wall, I run through a few complex algorithms as a general systems check. However, given that I can’t do math even when stretched out on the couch at home (comfortably retaining water and feeling all bloated-like), the unreasonableness of the idea ranks me somewhere on the spectrum between the seriously impaired and Jack Link’s Original Teriyaki.

The pine forest to the east of Sepphoris provides welcome shade.

It makes a fella wonder how the ancients of Sepphoris dealt with the problem of water? After all, it is a city on a hill rising more than 250 feet above the valley (see my “Hide and Seek, Seek and Hide”). There are springs in the valley (I passed them on the outbound trek from Nazareth), but these are situated too low to be of much help. Certainly there were donkeys, jars, and irritating teenagers available for hauling duty in antiquity, but giant plastic straws? Filters? Vacuum pumps?

Tsvika Tsuk, an Israeli scholar who specializes in ancient water systems, has studied the problem. More than 25 years ago, Tsuk demonstrated that the residents of this New Testament period city were able to get fresh water by building aqueducts (literally, “water ducts” or “channels”). The map below is found in his work (see the full article in Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2000: 34-41).

Regional map. Note the site of Sepphoris in the upper left hand corner. The “Sepphoris Springs” just south of the site are too low to be of practical use. However springs to the southeast of the site sit above it, and were therefore tapped. For future reference, note the modern Arab village of Mashhad. Image from BAR (July/Aug, 2000: 36).

Two channeled systems brought water from springs on the shoulders of the ridge near Nazareth. The earlier channel was constructed early in the first century AD, possibly during the administration of Herod Antipas. As Sepphoris grew, however, this system proved inadequate and was thus supplemented in the second century AD by a another channel. Parts of each system were both below ground and above ground. This was no mean feat of ancient engineering, the water from the springs had to be transported between eight and nine miles!

The remains of the aqueduct are visible running through the woods immediately east of the site.

The two systems were joined just east of Sepphoris and today may be found approaching the city through the pines. Inside the National Park one can enter a subterranean stretch and see a silting basin (that acted as a filter for sediments) and an impressive reservoir capable of holding more than one million gallons of freshwater. According to Tsuk, this reservoir alone could supply a population of 15,000 people for two weeks! Tsuk also describes a lead pipe (complete with a lug that may have been a part of a gate valve or stopcock) that could be opened or closed so water would flow from the reservoir into the city.

The path steps down between plastered walls. Water still collects here in places.

I rest, Nalgene in hand. It is curious that the inhabitants of Sepphoris did, in a way, have a giant water-bottle. It even had straw and filter. However there was no need for an anti-gravity machine to pucker and pull. Gravity provided the necessary power to move the life-giving water that these folks required daily.