The tali' (water system) of Damascus
Hegira mid-6th century / AD mid-12th century
The water-distribution system in Syria is important for the region's success as a centre of civilisation. The availability of running water nourishing both private houses and public buildings is tribute to the ancient Damascene heritage of irrigation and underwater canals that survives to this day. One of Damascus's most famous neighbourhoods is known as 'Hayy al-Qanawat' after the Roman water canals that supplied it, and which were well maintained under Islamic rule.
During the period of prolific construction begun by Nur al-Din Mahmud bin al-Zangi (d. AH 569 / AD 1174) Damascus was renowned for its luxurious bathhouses (hammams), its public drinking fountains(sabils), andthe accessibility of running water within its mosques, madrasas and hospitals (bimaristans).The water fountain and running stream attached to the courtyard basin at the Madrasa Nuriyya, built in AH 563 / AD 1167–8, is an example of the Nuri creativity in water provision, for this visible abundance of water was a mark of good governance.
The Barada River is the main water source, springing from the Anti-Lebanon Mountains near the Zabadani district at an altitude of 1100 m. Water reaches Damascus via six main channels, although the total tributaries are around 40. The underwater canals of Syria have been ingeniously used throughout history to transform a dry and desert-like region into a green one.
There is a system of water distribution in the city called a tali', which distributres a share of water to each neighbourhood based on a unit known as a qirat. The qirat is a unit of measurement equalling 1 out of 24. The total water supply in a tali'' is therefore 24 qirats and, as stated in the lease of any given property, each building has the right to a ratio of this water allocated by the tali system and measured as a number of qirats. This system of water distribution withan an urban setting was the hallmark of Atabeg and Ayyubid Damascus. Hammam Nur al-Din, for example, was constructed adjacent to its tali' and the Madrasa Adiliyya is located near Hayy al-Sabi' Tawali', a neighbourhood named after the seven tali's supplying it.
The official controller who oversees the distribution process is known as al-faradi, an aqua-specific counterpart to the muhtasib who ensures that water distribution is fair and legal. As a result of this tali' system, water from the Barada River reaches every home; the Demascene home, unlike any other, is known to this day for its central courtyard basin and sprinkling fountain, the sight and sound of water always symbolic of good living.
Similarly, in Aleppo, there is an important system of channelled water distribution known as al-qastal. The Madrasa al-Shu'aybiyya, built by Nur al-Din in AH 545 / AD 1150 was erected next to the Qastal al-Shuaybiyy which still carries his inscription and marks the extent of his work in water distribution. Also, the city of Hama is famous for its waterwheels or norias, a number of which were built during Nur al-Din's reign.
The supply of water for the city of Damascus relies on the River Barada, which springs from the Anti-Lebanon mountain range and reaches Damascus via six main channels and numerous minor ones. The expert manipulation of these precious waters to ensure water supply for every public institution and private house of the city was the hallmark of the rule of Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi (d. AH 569 / AD 1174). Each neigbourhood was equipped with a tali' through which water was measured and distributed to the surrounding properties.
The historian Ibn 'Asakir (d. 571 / 1176) describes a significant number of hammams, qanats (water channels) and sabils in Damascus during the mid-6th / 12th century.
Ibn 'Asakir, Tarikh madinat Dimashq [The History of the City of Damascus], Vol. I, Part II, (Ahmad Salah al-Din al-Munajjid, ed), Damascus, 1951–4.
Al-Attar al-Dimashqi, M. 'Ilm al-Miyah al-Jariya fi Madinat Dimashq [The Science of Running Water in the City of Damascus], The Series of Studies and Historical Documentation of Damascus and Greater Syria, Vol. 4 (A. G. Sabano, ed), Damascus, 1984.
Elisseeff, N., La Description de Damas d'Ibn Asakir, Damascus, 1959.
Tabbaa, Y., “Towards an Interpretation of the use of Water in Islamic Courtyards and Courtyard Gardens”, Journal of Garden History, Vol. 7, pp.197–220.
Tresse, R., “L'Irrigation dans la Gouta de Damas”, Revue des Etudes Islamique, 1929, pp.461–574.
Abd al-Razzaq Moaz, Zena Takieddine "The tali' (water system) of Damascus" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. 2019. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;12;en
Prepared by: Abd Al-Razzaq MoazAbd al-Razzaq Moaz
Abd al-Razzaq Moaz is Deputy Minister of Culture, in charge of Cultural Heritage and Head of EU projects, at the Ministry of Culture, Syria. He was born in Damascus in 1962. He received his BA in History at the University of Damascus in 1985, a DEA in Archaeology from the University of Provence, Aix-en-Provence in 1987, and his Doctorate in Archaeology from the same university in 1991. He was a Scholar at the Institut Francais d'Etudes Arabes de Damas, Damascus, 1991–3 and was a Visiting Scholar at the Aga Khan Progam for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University and MIT, USA in 1993/4, at Granada University, Spain in 1994, at Harvard University (Fulbright Scholar) in 1995 and at Harvard University Urban Planning Department in 1996. He was a lecturer at Damascus University, 1997–9 and Visiting Professor, Harvard University in spring 1999. He was Director General of Antiquities and Museums, Syria, from 2000 to 2002. He speaks Arabic, French and English., Zena TakieddineZena Takieddine
Zena Takieddine is a researcher of Arab history and Islamic art. She received her BA in history (with distinction) from the American University of Beirut, and her MA in art and archaeology (with distinction) from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She has a diploma in art and antique connoisseurship from Sotheby's, London. Her fields of interest include pre-Islamic Arabian epigraphy and the development of the Arabic script, early Islamic art and architecture, Arab miniature painting, the study of intercultural influences between Islamic civilisation and the Christian West during the medieval period, and post-colonial methodology in the study of history and identity.
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 16