Water Management in Andalusian Spain

Al-Andalus is the name used to refer to Spain under the Muslim rule from 711 A.D. to 1492 A.D., which at its apogee encompassed — in addition to Spain — Portugal and a small part of southern France. For several hundred years, Al-Andalus was the most populous and most advanced community in Europe with its capital Cordoba having a population of 500,000 persons [1] at its peak rivaling Baghdad and Constantinople, the most important cities of the world at a time when Paris had only 30,000 inhabitants.

Map of Al-Andalus around the year 1,000

Al-Andalus played a pivotal role in European history, helping bridge the gap between the Roman times and the Renaissance. Upon arrival to Al-Andalus, the Muslims translated many of the Greek and Roman scientific and philosophical works. By almost the 12th century, a professional school of translators was established in Toledo (capital of Christian Spain at the time) where Muslim works were translated from Arabic to Latin and later Castilian Spanish, which allowed those works to spread to the rest of Europe during the Renaissance.

Over the 800 years of their rule, Muslims advanced and supplemented those translated works with new technologies and inventions during Europe’s Dark Age. One area where Muslims made particularly important advance was in water management including water transportation, storage, efficiency in use, and even dispute management.

Madrid, the current capital of Spain, was started as a fort in a suburb of the old capital Toledo and was initially called Magerit (from Magra in Arabic which is the waterway) because it was a “place of abundant water” due to the numbers of rivers and streams supplying the area [4]. By the 15th century, the water management system developed by the Muslims in Magerit was so advanced that it insured a more reliable source of water prompting King Philip to move his court from Toledo to Magerit (later Madrid) in 1561.

The Need for Water

Water in Al-Anadalus presented a unique challenge for Muslim for many reasons:

(1) Al-Andalus became the most populous community in Europe in almost two centuries so Muslims had to provide enough drinking water and enough irrigation to cultivate food in sufficient quantities for the growing population.

(2) Except for the first century of Muslim rule, Al-Andalus was politically disconnected and even at rivalry with the central Muslim rule in Baghdad because of the animosity of the ruling dynasties. Muslims in Al-Andalus had to develop a self-sufficient community. Accordingly, the land that was available for them to extract water and grow food was limited to Al-Andalus itself. This configuration was different from previous populous communities in history, like the Roman empire, which controlled vast lands that were used to grow crops and import back to Rome.

(3) In Islamic culture, water plays both a physical and metaphysical role. Muslims are required to make wudu’ (ablution) during which the different parts of the body are washed in a prescribed manner multiple times per day (e.g. before prayer or reading Quran). This has historically resulted in increased water demand for Muslim societies. As an example, Cordoba had 900 public baths [2] while Rome had 11 public baths.


Water is naturally available aboveground (lakes and river) or underground (groundwater below the water table). Historically, human populations thrived around water and grew to a point that could be sustained by the available water in that region. Up to the Roman times, people moved to get to water. With Rome being the first city in human history to reach 1 million inhabitants in the first century A.D., Romans perfected the art of aboveground water transportation to meet Rome’s needs. For the first time in history, water was moved on a large scale to feed human populations.

The Romans also built numerous aqueducts throughout Spain hundreds of year before Muslims arrived. But these aqueducts were largely ignored in post Roman times. Upon their arrival, Muslims subsequently maintained and improved those aqueducts building even more to carry water from mountain streams to the cities and fields where it was needed.

One noticeable Muslim improvement to the Roman aqueduct was the use of waterwheels, which allowed water to be transported to higher elevations whereas Roman aqueducts were all gravity based. The ability to transport water to higher elevation allowed the Muslims to explore much larger lands for human settlements and agriculture.

In Cordona, Spain, a Roman aqueduct and Muslim water wheel

Muslims were the first ones to introduce the art of underground water transportation to Spain by introducing what is known as a “qanat”, a subterranean channel that tapped into the water table and collected water through a filtration system. To build a qanat, a well is first dug to reach the water table. Then workers would dig horizontally at a slope that would allow water to be moved by gravity. As the workers dug horizontally, vertical shafts would be excavated at intervals to provide air to the workers and to insure future maintenance of the qanat.

Qanat (Courtesy [3])

Agriculture and Irrigation

S.P. Scott describes the Muslim Andalusian agriculture system as “the most complex, the most scientific, the most perfect, ever devised by the ingenuity of man” [5]. Before Muslims arrived, this dry region could only grow winter crops because of the intense summer heat.

Perfected in desert lifestyle, the Muslims introduced an advanced irrigation system, farming methods and crops that still play an important role in Spain’s current economy. Fruits and vegetable production expanded, and, due to advancement in irrigation, rice became a viable crop. The Muslims brought in citrus trees from India, and dry-farming crops that needed little water, such as sugarcane.

Today, the orange is Spain’s iconic fruit, and towns throughout southern Spain are filled with orange and lemon trees. Muslim also introduced the notion of water rationing for farmers by using water clocks or clepsydra which “regulates with precision, night and day, the amount going to each farmer, timed by the minute, throughout the year and taking into account seasonal variations” [6].

Rainwater Harvesting and Water Savings

Despite the advancement in water transportation, the water demand in many cities in Al-Andalus still exceeded supply. Muslims in al-Andalsus were pioneers in rainwater harvesting not only at an individual scale, but also at a community scale where several underground cisterns called “aljibe” (jubb in Arabic) were provided in a city to collect water in the winter and save it for use in the summer.

“Aljibe” is still the word for underground cistern in modern day Spanish. This aljibe usually had numerous openings above ground for the collection of water, which falls into a grand and beautiful room below. The walls were coated in copper, which provides a way to preserve and purify the water that falls into the aljibe.

Aljibbe - JPEG
Aljibe in Caceres, Spain

The Great Mosque in Cordova, Spain, originally built in 786, provides another method of water-use efficiency. Its main courtyard was originally planted on a grid lining up with the mosque’s interior posts. “A system of tunnels directed water from cisterns and rainwater captured by gables on the roof to each tree with minimal evaporation and water loss” [7].

Dispute Management

With scarce water and abundant agriculture, water disputes were inevitable. The Muslims put together a quasi-tribunal system dedicated to resolve water disputes that is still in effect till today.

For example, in Valencia, a body of eight “peasant” judges called the Tribunal of the Waters (Tribunal de las Aguas) was responsible for solving water disputes. Complaints from famers were submitted to the Tribunal which has met continuously every Thursday at noon since the 10th century under the Door of the Apostles of Valencia’s cathedral. Cases are presented on the spot while decisions are taken swiftly and are final.

A similar body exists in Murcia, called the Council of the Wise (Consejo de los Buenos). Both are recognized by UNESCO as historically important to the cultural heritage of mankind and both are recognized in the Spanish law.

Tribunal of the Waters meeting in 2006

North American Impact

The year the Muslim rule in Spain completely ended was coincidently the same year America was discovered (1492). Over the next centuries, Spanish conquistadors and missionaries brought to the Americas many of the technologies they inherited from the Muslims.

In particular, they found that the irrigation ideas widely used throughout Al Andalus worked particularly well in the hot and dry U.S. southwest climate. Intermittent rainfall and the need for a reliable water source made the design and installation of aqueducts and qanat system a high priority. An example is the construction of dams, gravity-flow ditches and aqueducts paralleling the San Antonio River in Texas which is one of the earliest recorded engineered water projects in North America.


[1] Bradford De Long and Andrei Shleifer (October 1993), “Princes and Merchants: European City Growth before the Industrial Revolution”, The Journal of Law and Economics (University of Chicago Press) 36 (2): 671–702 [678]

[2] B. Trend, “Spain and Portugal, in The Legacy of Islam”, edition T. Arnold and A. Guillaume, first edition, Oxford University Press, 1931, pp. 1-39, at page 9.

[3] Harvesting Water and Harnessing Cooperation: Qanat Systems in the Middle East and Asia http://www.mei.edu/content/harvesting-water-and-harnessing-cooperation-qanat-systems-middle-east-and-asia Retrieved October 2015

[4]  “Madrid History – Museums – Suggested Itineraries Madrid”. http://www.indigoguide.com/spain/madrid-history.htm Retrieved October 2015.

[5] Scott, S.P. (1904). “History of the Moorish Empire in Europe”. London: J.B. Lippincott Company, vol. 3, p. 598.

[6] http://www.bt.com.bn/islamia/2011/10/28/agriculture-muslim-civilisation Retrieved October 2015.

[7] http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/moorish-to-modern-ancient-lessons-for-contemporary-gardens/ Retrieved October 2015.

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About the Author

A nature enthusiast and an avid history lover, Abdel K. Darwich is also a licensed professional mechanical engineer in the State of California. He is a leading innovator in the field of designing highly sustainable buildings with focus on energy efficient mechanical systems. His projects including one net zero energy building has won multiple awards over the last few years. Abdel has published one book and more than a dozen technical papers on sustainable buildings. He advocates for sustainability and healthy living in and out of work as he enjoys early-morning bike rides to the local farmers’ markets.