I have the not-so-pleasant start to the day when I walk into my kitchen and turn on the tap, and nothing comes out.
Of course. They’re servicing the water tanks and water supply has been suspended for the better part of the day. I vaguely remember seeing the memo now, nuisance value when I first read it, more of a pressing problem now. Luckily, there is water in the fridge and even more thankfully, they haven’t suspended supply to the bathrooms. Phew!
So as long as I am judicious with my consumption today for washing up and stuff, it’ll be fine. And yet, I can’t help but feel that little bit put out and inconvenienced, which I quickly bury under indignation, shamed at my profligate thoughts when I think of all the people who have to walk miles to access potable water.
It brings home how much we take for granted the idea of running water. It seems almost magical that we turn on a tap, and fresh clean water comes gushing out.
And yet, this very magic was available to our Roman counterparts two millennia ago, thanks to the ingenuity of aqueducts. This marvel of Roman engineering can best be seen in two places today – the Pont du Gard in southern France, and in the charming little town of Segovia in Spain.
Segovia, a short ride away from Madrid, is best known for its Alcazar, long believed to be the inspiration for the Disney Castle. Walk into Segovia today and you will be charmed by the Alcazar, no doubt, as we were, but prepare also to be blown away by its aqueduct, one of the most well preserved testaments of Roman engineering. As we were.
The exact date as to when the aqueduct was built has been lost to antiquity, but experts surmise it to be in the first century C.E. which would put it during the reign of the Roman Emperors Domitian and Trajan. At the time, Segovia, or the settlement that would become Segovia, was in the jurisdiction of the Roman provincial court located in Clunia.
The aqueduct was built to transport water from the Rio Frio, which was situated 17 kilometres away in the mountains. This colossus runs for 15 kilometres before it enters the city.
The planning for roman aqueducts were always made keeping local topography in mind. In the case of the Segovia aqueduct, the water was first gathered in a tank known as the El Caseron or Big House. A channel led from the tank to a tower called the Casa des Aguas or the Waterhouse. The water settled here, aiding a natural process of decantation, for sand and particles to settle to the bottom. After this, the water travelled 728 metres on a 1 percent gradient till it reached the Postigo, a rocky outcrop on which the the Alcazar was built. At Plaza de Diaz Sanz, the aqueduct makes a sudden turn and heads for the Plaza Azoguejo, which today provides the best viewpoint of the structure.
At its highest, the aqueduct reaches 28.5 metres over two stories, including nearly 6 metres of foundation. The lower arches alternate in height according to the structure’s adaptation to the local topography. Both single and double arches can be seen, supported by pillars. There are a total of 167 arches.
And now for the kicker – no mortar or cement was used in the construction of the aqueduct.
Yes, you read that right. The pillar and arches comprising the two story arcade are made up of solid blocks of stone which are fit closely together without mortar. Some estimates say that around 20500 blocks of granite have been used.
The top of the structure contains the water channel, a U-shaped hollow. Two niches are visible, one on either side of the aqueduct. One of them purportedly held the image of Hercules, who, according to legend, founded the city. The second niche now contains the image of St. Stephen, and the Virgin de la Fuencisia, the patroness of Segovia. Every year, on the 4th of December, which is the day of St. Barbara, the patron saint of artillery, the cadets of the local military academy drape the image of the Virgin in a flag.
The aqueduct is often called the “Puente de Diablo” or “Devil’s Bridge”, referencing a local legend that the Devil, madly in love with a local maiden, built the bridge himself in one night, in order to gain her soul. He failed to finish the bridge before dawn however, falling short by one stone. Tradition says that the holes visible on the stones are the marks of the devil’s fingers, made as he worked furiously to complete the structure before first light.
In 1985, the monument rightfully took its place on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and is also on the city’s coat of arms.
I remember walking into Segovia after we had checked into our lovely room overlooking the Alcazar. While the structure and its construction itself boggle the mind, I think the single most astonishing thing for me was the interaction with this towering engineering miracle from over 2000 years ago, right in the middle of a bustling, modern town.
We climbed the steps next to it and marvelled at the ingenuity that brought about the architecture, before retiring to one of the numerous cafes around, in a perfect confluence of past and present.
Segovia’s aqueduct continued supplying water to the citizens of Segovia till the 20th century. That is an astounding achievement for a structure put together with nothing but hand tools and a whole lot of imagination.