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Ayn Zubaydah flows down memory lane

Ayn Zubaydah has remained a source of supplying water to Makkah and nearby holy sites for the last 1,200 years.

By : Khalid Khurshid | Arab News | 29 Jun 2012

Ayn Zubaydah has remained a source of supplying water to Makkah and nearby holy sites for the last 1,200 years. It is a masterpiece of engineering and an enduring symbol of the golden era of Arab culture.

There are very few references about Ayn Zubaydah in history books. That was because there was no practice of maintaining records. But one important record survives and it dates from the year 1928. At that time the supply of water to Makkah was blocked. A major flood had filled parts of the qanats (aqueduct) with sand and gravel blocked the flow of water.

King Abdul Aziz invited Egyptian experts for the renovation of Ayn Zubaydah. The report of the renovation is an important source of information on the aqueduct. The report mentions the Waqf Ayn Zubaydah, a trust formed to maintain the aqueduct and water supply to Makkah.

By the 1950s, the level of ground water dropped so low that the wells supplying Ayn Zubaydah became dry.

Saleem Bukhari, a Pakistani architect and planner, started work in Saudi Arabia as a member of the Madinah Master Plan team almost 30 years ago. After that he worked in the Haj Research Center, a unit formed to carry out research on the issues facing pilgrims and to provide planning solutions.

He has also been part of the design and construction team for the sliding domes and umbrellas in the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah as well as that of the fireproof tents in Mina. Recently, on behalf of the governorate, he made a short documentary on Ayn Zubaydah. At present he is working on editing a book on the city of Makkah. It is a common belief that Queen Zubaydah had laid down an artificial stream from the Tigris River near Baghdad to Makkah. The story confuses the two major works of the queen. She improved the pilgrim track from Kufah to Makkah and Madinah. On this track, which is more than 1,500 km long, water and safe camping places were provided. This track became known as Darb Zubaydah.

For the water supply to Makkah, Queen Zubaydah commissioned two aqueducts. One was from Wadi Hunayn and the other from Wadi Numan, east of Arafat. The latter, as it was close to Arafat, is sometimes known as Ayn Arafat while it is more commonly as Ayn Zubaydah. Bukhari shared his historical facts about Ayn Zubaydah with Arab News.

Protection of cultural heritage

Hijaz has been occupied for thousands of years and the numerous historical buildings and places confirm this fact. Among these historical places is Ayn Zubaydah, an important example of Islamic Heritage and a masterpiece of engineering. The construction of the 'qanat' (aqueduct) began in the eighth century and completed in exactly 801 AD, to provide a permanent water supply for the pilgrims and residents of Makkah.

It is named Ayn Zubaydah (Spring of Zubaydah), after the wife of Caliph Haroun Al-Rasheed. It was Zubaydah who commissioned and paid for its construction. The project required ten years to complete and was 38 km in length, from Wadi Numan to the present-day Al-Aziziyah neighborhood of Makkah. Only estimates remain as to the cost, variously being in the region of 1.7 million dinars, At that time one dinar was equal to ten grams of gold (24ct).

Ayn Zubaydah remained in use until 1950. The qanat has thus stood as a testament and remarkable legacy of the Abbasid period. Modern pumping and increased consumption eventually depleted the well at the source, as the level of the ground water fell too low to sustain the flow of water through the qanat. Ayn Zubaydah is now dry. Today, one of its biggest portions, is a protected site and is maintained in its original condition.

Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) President Prince Sultan bin Salman and Makkah Mayor Osama Al-Bar have signed a memorandum to enhance cooperation with regard to the protection and preservation of Ayn Zubaydah, Jabal Noor, Jabal Thowr, and many other historical sites and historical wells close to and within Makkah. The commission has developed links with universities to provide technical support to scholars conducting research into these historical sites.

In future, the commission plans to make expert documentaries on the basis of this research. The Makkah Municipality has already started work of protecting the area's cultural heritage and routinely monitors building sites and real estate development near these historical sites.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah had previously nominated professor Omar Siraj Abu Ruzaiza as the head of the project for the restoration of Ayn Zubaydah. Abu Ruzaiza is an established researcher in the field of water resources at King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah. This significant landmark is of interest to many engineers who work and live around the city of Makkah. Pakistani architect Bukhari has also done some work on Ayn Zubaydah and made a short documentary called "Memories of a Golden Age."

History of Ayn Zubaydah

After the death of Caliph Haroun Al-Rasheed, Queen Zubaydah traveled to Makkah to perform Haj. It became apparent to her that Makkah was facing a water shortage and when she returned to Baghdad, she called on expert architects and engineers of the time to address this problem. After surveying the area, the initial report concluded that construction of a qanat would prove quite difficult.

History relates the queen's reply as: "Construct a qanat at any cost, even if I have to give a dinar in exchange for every single stroke of spade."

The engineers then conducted a more detailed survey of the same area and decided to bring water to Makkah from both Wadi Hunayn and Wadi Numan. In both the wadis, the groundwater-level (the water-table) was higher due to more frequent rains and the subsequent run-off from the mountains. At first, water was brought from Wadi Hunayn by digging wells. Huge tanks were made to store water, which was brought via the qanat from Wadi Hunayn. The remains of these tanks still exist today.

There are some records that a small dam was also built "by cutting trees in that area." This dam was used to collect rainwater and that it was sufficient to grow crops. After a period, the groundwater became depleted at Wadi Hunayn, but by this time the supply of water could be met from Wadi Numan. This wadi is situated at the bottom of Jabal Kara, 10 km southeast of Arafat, toward Taif. This area often gets rain and the groundwater level is quite high. Four to five wells were dug in Wadi Numan for the construction of the qanat.

These historical wells go as deep as 34 meters and they mark the beginning of Ayn Zubaydah. Tunnels were made to collect the water from all the wells at one place. This central well is known as a Mother well or "Ummiyah." To make it possible to transport water from Arafat to Makkah, a stone-and-mortar channel (the qanat) was constructed at a light incline, to make water flow naturally. To maintain the uniform level of the water, the qanat is above-ground at some places and below-ground at others.

For example, the qanat is above ground along the hills of Muzdalifah for many kilometers, and buttressed against flash flooding. To maintain cleanliness of the qanat, access-wells were dug at a distance of every 50 meters, known as "Kharazah." This successful Kharazaat system can be found today in Balochistan Province of Pakistan which is also known as "khareez."

The Kharazah's benefit is that it permits regular maintenance of the qanat, although the cleaning of Ayn Zubaydah was not an easy job. In those days, slim men of a particular height were the only ones who could be sent inside. The Kharazah and qanat were solidified with a mortar made of lime and stones which prevented water-absorption. The whole structure of Ayn Zubaydah, both above-ground and underground, was joined by this mortar. However, the source of this lime is still unknown as there was little available close to Makkah. The qanat was built near Makkah, from Wadi Numan, passing through the plain of Arafat and along the hills of Muzdalifah, at a slope of less than 1 in 3,000. Even with today's technology of laser-accurate surveying and robot-controlled bulldozing, achieving a grading this delicate would be considered a major feat.

This is more evident when one considers that Ayn Zubaydah does not travel along a straight path toward its destination, but meanders between hills, along contours and over rock, or underground; that its height, shape and way has been designed so correctly that water flows at a uniform level.

The qanat leaves Wadi Numan and first comes toward Arafat. At Jabal Al-Rahmah the qanat stands 10 feet above the ground. Alongside the main qanat, an additional channel was made forming a water tank for a sabil, drinking fountain, the remains of which still exist at the foot of Jabal Al-Rahamah. Three tanks were built at Jabal Al-Rahmah and could be filled with fresh water during the Haj season so that the pilgrims could use water from it.

The simplicity and elegance of the finished engineering is that the channel was graded with sufficient accuracy so that the channel fills and maintains the water-level on its own and that it could quietly provide fresh water to people and pilgrims.

From Arafat, Ayn Zubaydah does not flow straight toward Muzdalifah as it has to cross Wadi Urayna, which is situated between Arafat and Muzdalifah. To avoid crossing the wadi as a bridge, the qanat heads north and begins to travel underground, according to its own grade. It passes beneath a corner of Wadi Urayna and then reaches Muzdalifah.
On reaching Muzdalifah, near Masjid Mash'ar Al-Haram, the qanat briefly takes the shape of a well. Water was also supplied to Mina from this well. Ayn Zubaydah was a key infrastructure in providing hospitality to the pilgrims during Haj. It is from a previous renovation of the qanat, when the then engineers calculated the water-ration per pilgrim, that we have our first estimates — about 600 to 800 cubic meters of water daily — of the flow arriving in Makkah. This compares to about 160 tankers daily.

For the population of that period, the water was sufficient as well as fresh and sweet. Ayn Zubaydah continued to flow till 1950. By this time, tube-wells and pumps had been installed in various parts of the qanat and at the Kharazahs' to meet the water demand for a growing population. Eventually, the population outgrew the water availability, resulting in a considerable drop in the groundwater level at Wadi Numan and finally leading up to the water drying up in Ayn Zubaydah.

Ayn Zubaydah was such a robust and reliable water system that it survived and supplied water to the city's people and pilgrims for about 1,200 years.

The Renovation Project

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has assigned the renovation project of the qanat to professor Omar Siraj Abu Ruzaiza. Research and surveys were conducted and a detailed report was prepared in which the current level of groundwater in Wadi Numan was discussed before arriving at an estimate for the area's total water-budget, while factoring in future expectations of rainfall. Ayn Zubaydah may also be considered, in the future, as part of an irrigation project, but report on this project has not yet been released.

In 2009, Pakistani architect Bukhari, in collaboration with NESPAK, drafted and prepared various designs and models for the restoration of Ayn Zubaydah, under the sponsorship of Makkah Municipality. NESPAK worked on a voluntary basis. Under the sponsorship of Makkah municipality a documentary film and various models of a visitor center were made. These were later presented to Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal for approval.

The falling groundwater level in this area means that a full renovation of the Ayn Zubaydah is unlikely. Also, primarily due to lack of constant attention, some sections of the qanat have been neglected or even washed-away. But near Muzdalifah, a part of this qanat is secure and protected and it was recommended that this portion of the qanat should be renovated.

Construction at this point stands many times taller than a man and resembles a fortress wall. There is a plan to construct a visitor center here where people can see a working portion of Ayn Zubaydah and be informed as to its historical relevance and practical application.

The visitor center will also contain old photographs, books and drawings of other water sources, which supplied Makkah city. The center is proposed to be located within a shoulder off a wadi and to comprise an auditorium, a museum and a park. In the auditorium, people will be able to watch a documentary film on Ayn Zubaydah. In the museum and the park, visitors will be able to see and appreciate its traditional construction, the centuries of repairs undertaken and to discover how the water flows and also how much water flowed. The center will impart correct knowledge of Islamic heritage and the quality and level of advancement in that era's engineering.

Other era renovations:

• The Abbasid Caliph Jafar ibn Al-Mo'tasim ordered the renovation of Ayn Zubaydah after a huge portion of it was destroyed in an earthquake in 341 Hijra. Jafar ibn Al-Mo'tasim repaired it spending 100,000 dinars.
• In 633 Hijra, the channel stopped working again. Emir Shouban, the Tatar ruler ordered repairs to some of its damaged walls and revived it at a cost of 50,000 dinars.
• In 728 Hijra, the king of Egypt, Al-Nasir Muhammad bin Qalawoun, looking at the channel's condition, ordered some repairs of the channel.
• In 813 Hijra, Egyptian King Al-Mouaid mended the channel and that was followed by Egyptian King Al-Ashraf Qayetby and then in 916 Hijra, Sultan Qanosh Al-Gouri gave directions to renovate the qanat.
• The Ottoman Caliph Sultan Sulaiman Qanuni sent some of his experts to Makkah to make a survey of the qanat. The walls of the qanat were completely destroyed by then.

Again, he sent some experts to Makkah to study the condition of the water. When his experts inspected the Zubaydah spring water course, they estimated the cost of its repair at 50,000 dinar all of which was donated by Fatimah, the daughter of the sultan. Qanuni ordered to bring the qanat to Makkah.

Historical references reveal that Queen Zubaydah started to build the channel but was able to bring the channel to the edge of Makkah. Aziziyah District was the finishing point of the qanat. A large birkah (communal water-tank) was built there which was known as Hoz Zubaydah (today, in the place of the birkah, stands Masjid Sheikh Bin Baz) and from this birkah, water was carried into Makkah.

Historical references tell us that when the Ottoman caliph ordered the repairs, the qanat was brought to the Masjid Al-Haram and on to Misfilah, by cutting the hills and mountains that were situated near the Sheesha Area. A large birkah was built in Misfilah which was known as Birkah Al-Majid. It remained full of water all year round and was also used for the purpose of growing vegetables. Even today we find people in Makkah who recall that they had taken a swim in Barakta Al-Majid or had played around it.

There were renovations in 1020, 1060, 1080, 1090 and 1105 Hijra of the channel which were done by the Ottomans. In 1243 Hijra, it was repaired by the head of the Egyptian ruling family Mohammad Ali.

In 1295 Hijra, a wealthy Indian citizen, Wahdana, also a resident of Makkah, was able to collect donations from Egypt and India with which he was able to carry out the necessary repairs. He also built numerous reservoirs in Makkah itself. At the time of leaving office he handed over a sum of 57,000 dinars.

The Ottoman government spent 10,000 pounds on Ayn Zubaydah in 1324 Hijra. In 1327 Hijra, the "Ain Zubaydah Commission" was named to collect donations, manage accounts and to supervise maintenance of repairs. This commission is still supervising the necessary works and repairs. The commission is composed of 32 members.

In 1926, corresponding to 19 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1344 Hijra, a flood in Wadi Numan destroyed a large portion of the Ayn Zubaydah. Much of the qanat that remained standing began to fill with sand. For six days, the supply of water to Makkah was suspended. King Abdul Aziz focused on the issue and sent experts to overcome this problem. Due to sand and mud, the water route of the channel had become congested. The cleaning work could still only be done by men of short height and slim build. After 4 months, the flow of water was restored along the Ayn Zubaydah.

After 1950, the groundwater level at Wadi Numan dropped and Ayn Zubaydah finally became dry. By this time, modern drilling techniques permitted aquifer-pumping to meet the demand for water at Makkah. Fortunately, the SCTA and the Municipality of Makkah have shown keen interest in preserving this historical site of Ayn Zubaydah and other historical places in Makkah.

Maintenance System of Qanat

According to the research conducted by King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, there was a separate system to ensure a clean flow of water inside the qanat, and a separate system for the maintenance of Ayn Zubaydah structure. To provide for both, a trust fund was opened. Its purpose was to collect donations and then allocate money for whichever purpose. A sizable work force was employed to keep the qanat clear and in good condition. Any damaged portion of the qanat could be discovered and referred to experts in plenty of time, so that no problem could occur. Records indicate that there were 500 salaried workers and this consisted of a number of experts, full-time duty officers, part-time officers and hundreds of workers who lived in Makkah and on the outskirts of the city. In times of natural disaster, men could be called to work on emergency repairs, and they would work voluntarily. The Ayn Zubaydah was inspected weekly. A standard maintenance run was carried out in which the damaged portions of the channel were repaired between every six to 12 months. Due to heavy floods and other natural disasters, a special-post maintenance work was carried out in which different portions of the channel were cleaned and repaired, and this happened nearly every 10 years on average.

Queen Zubaydah's achievements

Queen Zubaydah was born in 762 CE in Mosul in present-day Iraq. She was the daughter of Jafar, brother of Kalifah Al-Mahdi. Her father died when she was only one year old and she grew up with her grandfather, Khalifah Mansoor. Zubaydah in her youth studied the Qur’an and Hadith, and took special interest in religion, poetry, art, history, literature and science. After her grandfather's death, one of her paternal uncles looked after her.

Zubaydah married the fifth Abbasid caliph, Haroun Al-Rashid. She lived for another 32 years after the death of her husband, and died in 831 AD. Queen Zubaydah was greatly remembered for her achievements in the history of Islam and is regarded as talented, intelligent, serious and dedicated. She invited scholars and poets to Baghdad and allocated a fund for this purpose. It is said that she employed 100 women who would recite the Qur’an day and night even if she was not at home.

Apart from Ayn Zubaydah, Queen Zubaydah and Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid completed a number of projects in their reign.

The queen and her husband gave much importance to the construction of Bayt Al-Hikmah Library in Baghdad, as well as other research, educational and translation centers.

Translations of literature from Latin, Persian, Chinese and many other languages into Arabic is considered one of her life’s lasting achievements. Books and manuscripts were brought from different parts of the world to Bayt Al-Hikmah Library. After all these centuries this library still exists in Baghdad.

Queen Zubaydah engaged renowned scientists and scholars to come on generous salaries to Baghdad and opened more translation and research centers. Comfortable living was provided to these scholars and their research and teachings were available for free for students.

When the construction of Ayn Zubaydah was completed, Queen Zubaydah addressed the people from the balcony of her palace, and said: "Today I close the accounts register of Ayn Zubaydah. There is no need to ask back the amount spent on it. I am certain that I will receive the reward immediately and double."

It is said that all of the queen's contributions were marked by historians except for the accounts register, which was left behind on the river. Even today no one knows about the problems which occurred during the construction of this engineering masterpiece, how the experts managed to construct it without the modern survey technology, and how much work force was used, and the amount of money spent on the construction of Ayn Zubaydah.

26 wells in Makkah

Underground water has been a major source for supplying water in Makkah. History tells us that in the days of "Jahiliyah" there were about 26 wells in Makkah. Al-Azraqi, the first historian of Makkah, even mentioned the names of over 20 wells in his book "The History of Makkah". Zam Zam has also been a great source of water for centuries in Makkah.

The ancient well of Zam Zam had completely disappeared for centuries in the days of Jahiliyah. Abdul Muttalib (RA), the grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), had a dream after which the Zam Zam's original place was located and the well dug and restored. After this, the well of Zam Zam never stopped supplying water and water is still gushing forth today.

Many other wells were also dug after the reopening of the well of Zam Zam. As the population increased in Makkah, more water was required. Rainwater run off was collected by making channels along the bottom of granite hills of Makkah. This water was collected in ponds known as 'Birkah'. This work was carried during the reign of Bani Umayyah during the first century of Hijra.

But water was still insufficient especially during the Haj season. The shortage of water was always severe. For instance in the early part of the last century, with Ayn Zubaydah in operation, the water ration of a pilgrim in Mina was about 3.75 liters of water per day.

The quantity of water was not sufficient for humans. In the old days society was much more dependent on animals and there was little water for them too. In Mina there were animals for sacrifice on the day of Eid Al-Adha, and camels and horses used for traveling. Water was not only required for drinking but also for cooking food and other purposes. For these purposes, brackish water from some of the wells was used.

Baghdad to Makkah:

One of Queen Zubaydah's major achievements is the construction of facilities along the way from Baghdad to Makkah, known as Darb Zubaydah. In those days pilgrims used to travel on foot, camels and horses to perform Haj. Many pilgrims or travelers would lose their way in the desert due to dust storms and some would even die because of thirst. Queen Zubaydah improved the track from Baghdad to Makkah. A large number of wells were dug at regular distance, camping areas were identified. It was the practice to deploy soldiers to accompany the caravans to ensure safety of the pilgrims. Fire beacons were built on hilltops and these were lit to guide the pilgrims during night.

On the orders of Queen Zubaydah, the engineers of that time prepared a map after taking a survey of the 1,200-km Baghdad-Makkah track. The engineers established the direction of Qibla along the way so that the pilgrims could perform their prayers correctly.

The infrastructure of the way made by Queen Zubaydah lasted for centuries and traces of this route can still be found today. The way started from Baghdad and passed through Kufah, Najf, Qadsia and Asmaara and then reached Makkah.

The construction of Darb Zubaydah had made travel easier for pilgrims by providing all the facilities of that time and it also caused an increase in the cultural and economic activities of this region. Darb Zubaydah remained inhabited for six months in a year.


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