Waterways, usually artificial, for irrigation, flood control, navigation and water supply for towns and cities. Canals have been used from very early times.
In Palestine, irrigation was not so vital to the economy as in Egypt and Babylonia, where there was less rainfall, and where fewer springs, streams and wells existed. (Deut. 11:10, 11) There was little opportunity for irrigation in the wilderness of Judah or in southern Judah. Nevertheless, some irrigating of gardens was done in Palestine, and conduits were built to carry water into Jerusalem particularly.
Tradition ascribes to Solomon the construction of a conduit from the “Pools of Solomon,” beyond Bethlehem, to the temple enclosure at Jerusalem. At Ecclesiastes 2:6, Solomon says: “I made pools of water for myself, to irrigate with them the forest.” So large an undertaking of the building of the pools could well have included such a conduit for the larger supply of water needed at Jerusalem when the temple services were instituted. However, there is no evidence, other than tradition, to support the Solomonic origin of this conduit. At a later date a conduit was constructed to carry water from the springs in the modern-day Wadi el-’arrub in the plain of Berachah a little S of Tekoa. The conduit ran N, by Tekoa, to Jerusalem. It is called the “low-level aqueduct.” This conduit is apparently the one alluded to by Josephus, who says that it was constructed by Pontius Pilate. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, chap. III, par. 2; Wars of the Jews, Book II, chap. IX, par. 4) Part of this conduit has existed to modern times.
The “high-level aqueduct,” which probably entered Jerusalem at the Jaffa Gate, is thought by some to have been built by Herod the Great, beginning at the Wadi el-Biyar N of Tekoa. It may have been made to supply Herod’s citadel and palace and the canals in his palace gardens. (Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, Book V, chap. IV, par. 4) This aqueduct ran through a tunnel and passed over the valley in which were located the “Pools of Solomon.” The siphon principle was apparently employed at one point.
Other canals, aqueducts and conduits, cisterns, pools and reservoirs were built by the early inhabitants of Palestine, by the kings of Israel and Judah, and by the Romans.—2 Ki. 18:17; 20:20; 2 Chron. 32:30; Isa. 7:3; 22:9-11; 36:2, see GIHON No. 2; FORTIFICATIONS.
Egypt, being virtually without rain, depended on the overflow of the Nile River for water. Each year it spread over the flat land and deposited silt brought down from the Upper Nile watershed, giving the land a new layer of soil. Crops grew abundantly. To control the water and to preserve it between the Nile inundations, an irrigation system of dikes, canals, pools and ditches was constructed, controlled by the government. One method of raising the water to a higher level, in use until this day, was the shaduf. A container suspended on one end of a counterbalanced pole was lowered into the river or canal and raised by the operator, emptying the water into a basin or canal at the next height. The Bible speaks of the Israelites in Egypt as doing irrigating with the foot, which may have reference to the use of a foot-powered waterwheel or to the practice of turning the water into different channels by pushing the earth with the foot or opening the wall of a channel to divert the flow.—Deut. 11:10, NW, ftn., 1953 ed.
A canal that seems to have been in existence in the time of Seti I (latter half of the second millennium B.C.E.) is thought by some to have extended from the northern tip of the Red Sea to the eastern branch of the Nile Delta. This would enable Pharaoh’s ships to sail from the Mediterranean down the Nile branch into the Red Sea. Later, Pharaoh Necho, in the seventh century B.C.E., began to build another canal, but this was uncompleted. Later rulers did work on the channel. Finally, Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.) connected the canal with the Red Sea. In Cleopatra’s time (51-30 B.C.E.) it was in disuse. Later work on the canal is attributed by some to Trajan (98-117 C.E.) and by others to the Moslems.
The land between the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers receives very little rainfall, but during the rainy season the rivers rise menacingly and overflow the land, making the southern part of Mesopotamia a wilderness “sea.” To avoid catastrophic floods and to retain some of the water for later use, an elaborate system of dikes, sluices, canals and catch basins was built. In digging a canal the earth from it was thrown up on each side as an embankment. Large sluices regulated the water flow. Channels cut in the embankment could be quickly blocked or opened to control the flow into small trenches that watered the gardens. The shaduf and other means were used to raise the water to areas with an elevation higher than the canal. While the land between the rivers is desolate without water, it is exceedingly fertile when irrigated.
Traces of canals and embankments, long ago filled with silt, are faintly visible. In an effort to preserve a canal, from time to time the reeds choking the channel were cut, partial dredging was done and the embankments made higher. But it was a gradually losing battle. Finally, the fast flow of silt would raise the level of the canal bottom so high that it was necessary to abandon it and dig a new canal bed.
Documents unearthed in archaeological diggings reveal that the rulers of Mesopotamia regarded it as a duty and an act of piety to maintain and improve the canal system, and, indeed, it was essential to the economy. The digging of a canal was an event of outstanding importance, comparable to a victory in battle, the acquisition of territory or the building of a temple. Prisoners captured in warfare were used as forced labor to maintain the canal systems.
The canals also furnished Babylonia with a means of communication and transportation of goods. Shallow basketlike vessels and rafts carried merchandise to and from the sea. By means of these the products of the fertile land to the N of Babylon were brought down for sale. Ancient Babylon was a commercial depot between the Eastern and Western world, having many ships in the Persian Gulf. It is said to have had a fleet of 3,000 galleys in its heyday.—Isa. 43:14.
The canal system being the means of communication between towns, business offices were set up along the riverbanks in the cities. From these the conducting of business was controlled and rates of exchange, and so forth, were regulated. The river Chebar may have been a part of a canal system in the area of the Euphrates with the Tigris. (Ezek. 1:1) The river Ahava mentioned at Ezra 8:21 may also have been a canal.
The remains of an aqueduct built by King Sennacherib of Assyria demonstrates the concern of rulers for a water supply for their cities. This canal was part of Sennacherib’s great irrigation project for conveying water from the northern mountains to Nineveh, a distance of thirty miles (48 kilometers). In one place it was elevated like a bridge to cross a small river, the valley of which was about 1,000 feet (305 meters) wide.