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The Water Supply of the Desert Fortresses in the Jordan Valley

By Günter Garbrecht and Yehuda Peleg

One of the prerequisites for the existence of towns, settlements, and even military installations such as fortresses is the guarantee of a secure water supply. It is essential for the survival of the inhabitants. The water for daily consumption must be supplied mostly from the surrounding geographical area. Difficulties arise most frequently from the fact that supply and demand are regulated by completely different factors and so only rarely coincide. The demand for water is influenced by the prevailing customs of the inhabitants, while available water supply is ruled by climate, precipitation, and the topographic conditions of the site.

The conditions at fortresses in arid areas are extremely unfavorable. Precipitation is minimal and very unevenly distributed throughout the year; and fortresses are situated on isolated hills or rocky peaks for strategic purposes. Securing the water supply under these circumstances calls for much ingenuity and technical expertise on the part of the engineer. Nevertheless, the second-first century BCE Hasmonean builders were able to solve these problems in the desert fortresses around the Jordan Valley.

Local Conditions

The watershed between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley runs in an approximately north-south direction at approximately 800 to 900 m above sea level, through Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. The Hasmoneans and Herod the Great built a number of fortresses in the rugged mountain area which descends steeply to the east of this watershed, in the rain shadow of the mountains. This arid area east of Jerusalem, called the Judaean Desert, was only sparsely populated by nomadic herders