Designed to collect and store rainwater for drinking, washing, livestock, irrigation, and agricultural installations, a cistern was normally cut out of rock and its interior coated with a thick layer of impermeable plaster. When the rock itself was impermeable, only fissures were coated. Where no solid rock stratum was available, a cistern could be built in an excavated pit in the ground, or partially constructed, incorporating whatever natural rock was available. For built cisterns large stones, sometimes with layers of smaller stones above, were used and then coated with a final layer of plaster.
A cistern's depth would not normally exceed 6 m, so that water could be drawn with relative ease and the cistern could be cleaned by someone upright in it. Neither its width, length, or diameter, would exceed 6–10 m; consequently, a cistern's maximum capacity is a few dozen cubic meters at the most, and no more than 100 cu m. If its dimensions are greater it is properly designated a reservoir. The opening of the cistern was usually narrow in order to prevent falling into it, to prevent evaporation, and to enable convenient pumping.
Canals carved into the earth channeled runoff to a small depression or basin at the side of the cistern, where the soil settled or was filtered. The water was drawn from the cistern by lowering a pail on a rope from the surface through a vertical opening shaped like the neck of a bottle. Sometimes, a pulleylike device made of wood was built above the opening to facilitate drawing water. Pails were also of wood. Although perishable, some have been found in the excavations of the Agora in Athens.
Bell-shaped cisterns are first evidenced at the end of the Chalcolithic period or the beginning of the Early Bronze Age at Meṣar in Israel. Their form prevents the collapse of the ceiling, which could result if the top of the cistern were too broad. These cisterns are hewn in chalky rock, which allows them to store water without the use of plaster. Cisterns dating from the Middle Bronze Age, such as those discovered at Hazor, are bottle shaped. [See Hazor.] Although they are cut into chalky rock, these cisterns show evidence of plaster used to block up fissures. The Hazor remains, which are the earliest evidence of plaster in water cisterns, invalidate William Foxwell Albright's suggestion (1940, p. 212) that the Israelites invented plastered water cisterns after the Exodus and conquest. Bell-shaped cisterns from the Late Bronze period have been found at Tel Beth-Shemesh. [See Beth-Shemesh.]
During the tenth century BCE, “open” cisterns were in use in the Negev mountains, whose construction also makes them pools by definition. Hewn from the soft rock, they were designed and constructed to store runoff. The region's inhabitants lacked sufficient technical expertise to enable them to create underground cisterns. The depth of the cisterns is not great, and the high rate of evaporation in the region's dry climate suggests that the cisterns were covered with hides to reduce evaporation.
Water cisterns are mentioned often in the Hebrew Bible, and indeed, in the Iron Age II period an increase in the number of cisterns is seen. Excavations at Tell en-Naṣbeh, near Ramallah, have revealed fifty cisterns dating to this period. [See Naṣbeh, Tell en-.] At the Urartian fortress Çavuştepe in eastern Anatolia, square royal water cisterns from the eighth century BCE were discovered hewn into the rock, their fissures filled with plaster.
In the Hellenistic period there appears to have been a great increase in the private use of cisterns, to the extent that each household had one. Many cisterns were found cut into the chalky rock at Mareshah in Israel. They are unplastered, except for the use made of clay to block cracks, and bell shaped, with a volume close to 100 cu m. [See Mareshah.]
The private use of cisterns increased again in the Roman period, reaching its apex during the Byzantine period. Quarried bell cisterns, constructed cisterns with barrel-shaped arches, and cisterns of indeterminate form all existed side by side. Every household had a cistern, with an average volume of 30–50 cu m, that supplied the family with water throughout the year. In the Negev mountain region, underground cisterns (Ar., ḥaraba) were used in the Nabatean-Byzantine period. They are square, with supporting pillars that allow for increased volume. Water cisterns continue to be used throughout the Near East, in areas where a traditional way of life is preserved.
- Albright, William Foxwell. From Stone Age to Christianity. Baltimore, 1940.
- Brinker, Werner. “Antike Zisternen: Stationen ihrer Entwicklungsgeschichte.” Mitteilungen: Leichtweiss-Institut für Wasserbau der Technischen Universität Braunschweig 103 (1989): 247–279.
- Moran, Uri, and David Palmach. Cisterns in the Negev Mountains (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 1985.
- Tsuk, Tsvika. “Survey and Research of Cisterns in the Village of Zikrin (Israel).” Mitteilungen: Leichtweiss-Institut für Wasserbau der Technischen Universität Braunschweig 103 (1989): 337–356.
Translated from Hebrew by Ilana Goldberg