The development of elaborate drainage systems is an important landmark in the cultural process. Although procedures for evacuating water can be found in the Near East at Byblos as early as the sixth-fifth millennia and in other settlements in the fourth millennium (Tepe Gawra in northern Assyria, Habuba Kabira in northern Mesopotamia, Uruk in southern Babylonia), the initial impetus for constructing sewers was the emergence of urbanism and the development of monumental buildings. The elaboration of an organized drainage system with a main channel, tributary conduits, and a large variety of evacuation devices implies both a complex and hierarchical social organization and centralized power. The complexity of the society is to be seen in the various levels of concern for domestic hygiene (the development of bathrooms and toilets in third-millennium Egypt and Mesopotamia) and/or in the concern for cleanliness in public life (e.g., channels under streets, sealed sinkholes). A central government was needed to create a hierarchized network in which private owners and state properties had to be connected and, probably, had to provide construction costs.


SEWERS. Figure 1. Ras Shamra/Ugarit. The main collector in the palace area, from the south. (Courtesy Mission Archéologique Française de Ras Shamra-Ougarit)

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It should not be surprising, therefore, that the most spectacular drainage systems were built in palaces and temples. Examples of the latter include the temple quarters at the Assyrian capital of Aššur (covered channels on the edges of rooms running under ground and sewers tall enough to stand in, all made of brick, in the early third millennium), the Oval temple at Khafajeh in Babylonia, and the Ishtar temple at Mari in Syria (also in the early third millennium). Most sacred places in the ancient Near East show remains of evacuation devices, which are largely related to such cultic activities as ablutions, libations, the washing of the deity's statue, and animal sacrifices. Among Mesopotamian and Syrian palaces, the drainage systems at Aššur and Mari (out of brick, third millennium), Tell Ḥalaf, Til Barsip, and Arslan Tash (stone, third and second millennia) are noteworthy; some were found in Anatolia as well, at Alaca Höyük, for example. A complex and coherent system, exclusively connected to the palace, was discovered at Ugarit in Syria (second millennium BCE): an underground sewer made of stone and connected by gutters, stone pipes, and other means of evacuating waste materials from the rooms (see figure 1). The necessity of sewage probably came about as a result of a more hygienic life in the palace, from public receptions and celebrations, and also from cult performances in the royal place (Kingship, funerary, and domestic rituals).

In the second and first millennia BCE, these systems became widespread in most large cities (e.g., Boğazköy in Anatolia, Fara in Mesopotamia, Gibeon in Palestine, among many others), draining residential quarters as well as public buildings. During the Hellensistic and Roman periods, the construction of urban sewer systems was widespread; monumental remains can be found at Kition on Cyprus, Apamea in Syria, Jerusalem, and in many other places.

It is not always easy to determine outlets for sewers. In most cases, they emptied into deep sinkholes (such as the wells built of pottery rings at several Mesopotamian sites). Most houses in the Near East poured their waste water into sinkholes dug in the streets or in the houses themselves. At Mari, Ugarit, and some other cities, the sewer system may have emptied into a stream outside the city walls. A major function of sewer systems was not only to evacuate waste water from temples, palaces, and houses, but also to collect runoff from rainwater into cisterns.


See also Cisterns; Hydraulics; Hydrology; and Water Tunnels. In addition, many of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries



  • Calvet, Yves. “La maîtrise de l'eau à Ougarit.” Comptes rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1989): 308–326.
    Important supplement to Hemker (below), covering Syria
  • Crouch, Dora P. Water Management in Ancient Greek Cities. New York, 1993.
    Although limited to Greek archaeology, this volume includes interesting developments on the management of water
  • Hemker, Christiane. Altorientalische Kanalisation. Münster, 1993.
    Detailed catalog with pertinent analysis of most of the finds in the Near East (excluding Egypt, Palestine, and Iran) to the Hellenistic period. Basic reference
  • Shiloh, Yigal. “Underground Water Systems in the Land of Israel in the Iron Age.” In The Architecture of Ancient Israel from the Prehistoric to the Persian Periods: In Memory of Immanuel (Munya) Dunayevsky, edited by Aharon Kempinski and Ronny Reich, pp. 275–293. Jerusalem, 1992.
    Covers Palestine

Jean-François Salles