Technology for eternity

How many achievements called “eternal” survive the civilization, or even the regime, under which they were created? Perhaps not many, but certain of the hydraulic works of Antiquity have survived their origins. The canal connecting the Nile River and the Red Sea – built by the Pharaoh Necho, finished by the Persian Darius, perfected by Ptolemy, the successor of Alexander, and renovated by the Emperor Trajan, then by the Umeyyade caliphs – functioned, though surely with a few interruptions, for an “eterni­ty” of thirteen centuries. We will have to come back a thousand years from now to see if our Suez Canal, descendent of the Necho canal, is still there………………………………………………………………………………………

The great irrigation systems and several water allocation plans of ancient China, as well as dams in the Armenian kingdom of Urartu, in Roman Spain, and in Arab Andalusia, are still in operation today. Others have disappeared even before seeing prac­tical use – like the Sadd el-Kafara dam project attempted by the Pharaohs of the Ancient Empire south of Memphis, reflecting missed opportunities for innovation and effective­ly stalling technical progress in Egyptian dams for several centuries. Other such dam projects were useful for a period, then fell into ruin, like the large Maryab dam in the land of the queen of Sheba, today reconstructed to be almost identical to the original by the modern state of Yemen. Other such dams that could have endured were abandoned, like the one built six thousand years ago by anonymous refugees, likely townspeople fleeing some unknown menace in the black basalt desert of Jordan. To survive in this desolate land they built, at Jawa, the first known dam in the history of humanity, before abandoning it to flee to some unknown destination.

Civilizations die. Often their works die with them. But their technologies survive. We are the inheritors of the hydraulic innovations of the millennia, whether they came to us through the work of some scholar who described them in writing that was subse­quently recopied and translated, or whether they came to us slowly through the random process of migration and commercial exchanges. Yes, these innovations have come down to us, who are depleting our groundwater resources, who are setting the stage for future water wars. The ancient water technologies are part of the patrimony that our children will so urgently need.

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