The History of Plumbing - Babylonia

First published in July 1989, P & M magazine

Thanks to P & M magazine for allowing us to share the important history of plumbing

We have received written permission to reprint

"When you consider the contributions that plumbing and sanitation makes to the quality of our lives, then much of the other things that we do just seems so much less significant." - 1995, our founder

To the ancient traveler on foot or camelback, the massive-walled city of Babylon and its network of canals and verdant croplands must have loomed like a mirage in the simmering heat of the Near East sun. Adding to a disbelieving eye was a 300-ft. high ziggurat, or temple tower, in the city's center, surrounded on all sides by lush gardens and date palm trees that swayed upon the terraced city.

Located some 50 miles south of Baghdad in what is now Iraq, the flat land today is broken only by a series of desolate mounds and occasional patches of green cultivation and small villages. But beneath these mounds or "tells" are shattered remnants of past civilizations, crumbled foundations of clay cities literally layered one on top of the other.


What developed in this area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers from about 6000-3000 B.C. were the beginnings of western civilization. Here the warrior peoples of Assyria reigned with a fearsome hand over Sumerian and Babylonian culture. In their wake were produced systems of writing and communication, literature, a codified set of laws, a calendar and system for ascertaining time. Wheeled vehicles became common---and water management evolved into irrigation dams, drains and basins and personal bathrooms of their era's rich and famous.

In existence since 2900 B.C., the city of Babylon, under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar (Circa 605-562 B.C.), had spread on both sides of the Euphrates River. It covered 500 acres. Many of the houses were three stories high whose flat roofs were buttressed with timbers packed with mud. For the poor who couldn't afford the luxury of wood, there were circular mud-brick huts supported by a center post, the walls packed with reeds and mud.

Budding plumbers worked their ingenuity with the only available resource in unlimited supply---clay mixed with finely-chopped straw. Copper was known to some extent from the beginning, while bronze was introduced about 2500 B.C. from outlying trade routes; sometimes it was alloyed with tin, sometimes with antimony. Some working in lead (anakum) was developing too at this time, as natives began to rivet, solder, hammer and anneal.

Bitumen was especially important to the Mesopotamians. Produced in a liquid and a solid form, it corresponded to tar and pitch, essential for construction and for stopgap plugs in the irrigation systems.

Water was stored in large pottery jars, hand-carried from the river by household slaves. The jars were unglazed, which was an advantage in the intensely hot climate. Being slightly porous, the jars allowed slight evaporation that kept the water cool. Similar jars, often lined with a coating of bitumen, held barley, wheat and oil.

Most streets of Babylon ran parallel or at right angles to the river. They were very narrow in width, from 4-1/2 to 20 ft., and unpaved. They not only provided access to the houses, but served as depositories of rubbish, excrement and filth. Periodically the debris was covered with a layer of clay. In this fashion, as the level of the streets continually rose with the debris, it became necessary to build stairs to go down into the house until the houses were rebuilt at the new level.

These Old Houses: The rich households and the palaces had separate bath rooms, that is, rooms in which to "bathe" or refresh oneself with water or anointing of oil. The ordinary folk used the banks of the canals or the cisterns in the courtyards.

Typically a bathroom of the well-to-do was a good-sized room, about 15 feet square, and built at the south end of the house. The lower parts of the wall were lined with baked brick as was the floor. However, the floor was overlaid with a bitumen composition and powdered limestone. It sloped to the center of the room where the water drained off in small runnels by baked and glazed earthenware tiles.

Although clay tubs were supposedly reported 200 years earlier in the reign of Sargon the Great, an Assyrian king (721-705 B. C.), most sources agree that there were no bathtubs during this period of history, during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar's "bath" in all actuality was a shower, as slaves poured water over him as he washed with a soap made of ashes of certain plants and fats. Due to the texture of the concoction, his "shower" was probably like a detergent rinse.

There is some confusion over reports of privies at this period in history. Most likely a privy did develop which consisted of a hole in the floor with a cesspool underneath (a practice carried forward to modern times). But others report a more elaborate arrangement of six "toilets" in the palace of Sargon the Great. Those toilets had high seats which brought the latrine off the floor in the western style. Here, archaeologists say they have found connections to drains which discharged into a main sewer. According to their findings, the sewer was 3.28 feet high, and 164 feet long, vaulted over with baked bricks. It ran alongside the outer wall of the palace, beneath a pavement. The sewer sloped downward to allow the sewage to be washed down. Other bathrooms which could not be connected with the sewer system had individual cesspools.

Nebuchadnezzar's palace was built around five courtyards and included his private quarters and his harems. Two rooms behind the throne room contained circular wells. The space between the walls and the wells down to the water level were firmly packed with mud, asphalt and broken brick.

The king's well had three shafts close together---two were oblong, the center one square. Above the well was a wheel and an endless chain with pottery buckets attached, going up one oblong shaft and down the other. The center shaft was used as an inspection pit so a man could clear out the well or repair the machinery. The same type of well is still used today in the area, propelled by animals. In those ancient times, slaves were the primary source of power.

It is thought that men who sought an audience with their ruler performed a kind of ritual washing before entering his sacred presence. Drains have been found beneath the hard-tamped floor of an anteroom. They were made from pots whose bottoms had been knocked out, set against a row of bricks that had been set on edge to form the rim of a basin.

Archaeologists have found traces of still other drains, of a more grisly nature in those days when temple services called for the sacrifice of live animals and the liberal pouring of wine and beer for the gods. At Tell Asmar, a room was uncovered with two catch basins buried in the pavement. One was formed by a bottomless pot, standing upright, and perforated with rows of holes. Nearby was a smaller pot in which slanted a drain pipe of baked clay protected by terra cotta slabs. It is supposed the drains were made to absorb the sticky substances spilled in front of the god's statue, which otherwise would have formed puddles on the ground. That the fluids should disappear underground was probably a ritual requirement as well.

Hanging Gardens: Nebuchadnezzar boasted of his magnificent shrine to his city god Marduk, contained in the small temple he built on the summit of the ziggurat. He plated the gypsum walls and cedar roof of the building with gold, embellished with alabaster, lapis lazuli and precious stones. The altar was solid gold as were the throne, footstool and statue of the god. Archaeologists figure the room once contained about 18.5 tons of gold.

The king called the great seven-storied temple, Etemananki, "House of the Platform of Heaven & Earth." It had been started centuries before, its bricks crumbled, destroyed, rebuilt and rebuilt again so it soared 300 feet above the flat plain. (Babylonia was the trade center of the Near East whose population contained captured slaves and peoples from all parts of the conquered lands. The tower is thought to be the source of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.)

But what had his early plumbers scrambling around was his construction of the "Hanging Gardens of Babylon," destined to become one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It is said the King built the gardens for his queen to remind her of the mountains and trees of her Median homeland. (One archaeologist joked that it was probably the world's first roof garden!)

The city of Babylon had been sacked and leveled 100 years earlier by the Assyrian King Sennacherib. When Nebuchadnezzar became the head of the new Babylonian empire, he restored the beauty of the city, and then some.

The Hanging Gardens were built on a foundation of arched vaults, and rose to 75 feet. They were waterproofed with bitumen, baked brick and lead to keep the under vaults dry. He covered the terraced structure with dirt deep enough to support large trees and irrigation machines to keep them watered. Traces of wells have been discovered, which suggest that the wheel of buckets technique, or noria, was used here to raise the water to the highest point of the terrace.

The terraced construction, itself elevated by situating the gardens on the summit of a small hill, made the tops of the trees visible above the walls from a considerable distance. Undoubtedly it helped to perpetuate an illusive sense of wonder over such "hanging" gardens. The botanical gardens blossomed with fragrant flowers and decoration set among the irrigation ditches. Fruit trees accentuated the rectangular areas of cultivation, themselves overshadowed by palm trees. Water cascaded down from a reservoir-lake over the vegetation beneath.

Troughs and channels were built into the irrigation system, and lined with non-rusting metals such as lead and bronze. No iron was found in the system, leaving unclear whether iron was known to the Babylonians apart from what they may have found in meteorites.

The terraces contained an extremely advanced system of internal drainage, which ensured that all moisture was led off into large sewers of baked brick. The sewers were roofed with slightly ogival or pointed vaulting. They consisted of a series of slanting courses each resting on the one below, compensating for the lack of wood or scaffolding in the design.

Irrigation The Key: The civilization of Mesopotamia existed for 26 centuries. It was in a position to command by trade or plunder all the resources of the ancient world---provided it could keep the vast floodings of the Tigris and Euphrates under strict control. From their earliest writings, the Sumerians recounted the story of their most terrible flood, estimated by historians about 8000 B.C. (The tale perpetuates in the Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood.)

As irrigation was so vital to the empire, a whole network of canals was formed, and special officials appointed to supervise them. They made sure the canals were clear of rushes and water weeds, the courseways dredged of silt and the banks consolidated against floods.

King Hammurabi who belonged to the first dynasty of Babylonia lived around 1760 B.C. He personally directed provincial governors to dig and dredge the canals on a continuous basis. He also set in motion the world's first compilation of common laws, including special provision to prevent neglect of those canals. (Another clause deals with construction and should strike terror in the heart of unethical contractors. In Hammurabi's code of fair and equitable justice, woe to the builder whose house falls and kills someone. The builder would be sentenced to death too.)

The remains of the earliest aqueduct on record have been pinpointed to the works of the Assyrian king and master builder, Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.), who ruled with "a heart of wrath." He unleashed the power of water as a weapon to flood and destroy the burnt and vanquished city of Babylon. In peacetime, he harnessed it to build his own capital, Ninevah, and his palace at Khorsbad. He developed a 10-mile long canal in three stages, including 18 fresh water courses from the mountains, two dams and water diversion and a chain of canals.

Water ran along a strengthened conduit of hardened earth, waterproofed with bitumen, and lined with flagstones. The aqueduct spanned the valleys on arches, and was fed by a number of small streams to ensure a proper supply to the town.

There is practically no rainfall in Mesopotamia. But if the ground is sufficiently moistened, acres of virtual desert can be covered with vegetation and are amazingly fertile. From the earliest times, the rulers of Mesopotamia regarded it as both a duty and act of piety to improve the canal system. In fact, the digging of a canal was regarded equally in importance to a ruler as a victory in war. Both kinds of enterprises were inscribed on clay tablets as boasts of their accomplishments.

Ancient Mesopotamia declined under a line of weak kings who followed Nebuchadnezzar. The city of Babylon in 539 B.C. fell into the hands of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. (The late Shah of Iran claimed himself to be the last ruling descendent.) The Persian influence was itself overcome by the invasion by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C., and later rampages of Arabian nomadic hordes. As the land became sparsely populated, attention to the canals waned. The canals gradually silted up and the land returned to desert.

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