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Egypt’s Great Aqueduct

I have inspected some of the world’s greatest aqueducts, mostly built by early Roman engineers. Then I found another, not built by the Romans, in Cairo.

How I found it was amazing. While in Jerusalem I purchased some hand coloured prints by the 19th Century Scottish painter David Roberts. Roberts produced over 300 oil paintings and hand coloured lithographs. I have two original hand coloured lithographs and a book containing the other 300 (which is really three volumes of his original publications.) He created a prolific series of detailed prints of Egypt, Palestine and other places in the Middle East, produced during the 1840s from sketches made during long tours of the region (1838-1840). While always a Scot, he dressed and related to the people of the Middle East as a local. His massive oil paintings made him Britain’s greatest Orientalist painter at a time when they were coming into vogue. Then many people purchased paintings depicting the great monuments of ancient Egypt, scenes from Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon.

In the volume on Egypt and Nubia, there is a wonderful watercolour of a huge aqueduct with a pump house drawing water from the Nile. You pass it travelling the Corniche from Maadi to Downtown Cairo, a huge brick structure with arches. It is called Borg El-Sakkiyat (Tower of the Waterwheels) and the aqueduct flowing from it is called Magra Al-Uyun.

The system was built in the 1500s by the Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh Al-Ghuri to supply Nile water to his magnificent garden located in the vicinity of the Citadel. Al-Ghuri’s aqueduct connected to an existing one that had been built by another Mamluk sultan, Al-Nasir Mohamed. The journalist Bill Key writing about the aqueduct quotes from historian Ibn Ilyas in the 1500’s, “From the trees hung cages of songbirds with a thousand melodious songs while a great variety of birds ranged freely: Abyssinian hens, Mandarin ducks and partridges. The sultan sometimes settled beside the reflecting pool, which was 40 cubits long and was filled daily with water from the Nile by machines that worked night and day lifting water into the aqueduct.”

Magra Al-Uyun is 2,300 meters long and is supported on approximately 356 piers of varying height. The water runs by gravity feed into the heart of down town Cairo. The bricks for the aqueduct were chiselled from limestone slabs into 10 by 10 by 16-inch pieces with smooth faces. The approximate weight of the chiselled stones and footings in Al-Ghuri’s modest 2.3-kilometre water system is approximately 120,000 tons. The pumping station lifted water from the Nile with six oxen, about 10,000 barrels of water flowing to the garden each day. Al-Ghuri’s pumps lifted the water 25 metres in clay buckets.

The aqueduct and pumping station were eventually taken out of service when Cairo’s first municipal water service was installed. The 500-year-old medieval aqueduct is undoubtedly Egypt’s greatest pipeline system. Source:

Rev The Hon. Dr Gordon Moyes, A.C., M.L.C.

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