The Dahlak cisterns

About Eritrea - History & Culture

When you set foot on the Dahlak Islands, the first thing that strikes your mind is how people manage to survive there.

The Dahlak Islands are an archipelago or composed of many small islands. They are located around 50kms away from the east of Massawa. Dahlak Kebir is the largest island of the Red Sea. It is a coral reef island which is almost a plane area and barely possesses large geological features such as mountains, valleys, gorges…etc. Besides, there is a very little annual rainfall  and  throughout  the year Dahlak  has  harsh  tropical climate, as a result a limited number of species  of  shrubs  and  grass  grow in this area. It is used as a pastureland for camels, goats and also to a few gazelles. Maybe, all this is the reason why they call it ‘Dahlak’.  Based on preliminary information, the name ‘Dahlak’ is derived from ‘Dar Halak’ an Arabic word, meaning ‘The horrible Land ‘. There is no doubt the name suits the island very well.

However, when you further explore around, you simply notice various settlements, ruins, graves, cisterns and so many other traces of civilization. These traces belong to different periods of  time  in history,  which  extend from the  ancient  Adulite  period  until the  recent  historical  sites  such  as Nakura.  But  one  can  only  wonder as how such civilizations flourished throughout  history  despite  the harsh  and  waterless  environment. It was known that, almost all of the civilizations and traces of humankind were based alongside water resources such. So how can societies live in such environment for more than two thousand years? The answer lays on the view; some may suggest that trade was based on the geographical strategy and some say it was the tortoise shells and pearl fishing, which Dahlak is best known for. But the basic thing is the water preservation mechanisms which enables the people to survive and those are the cisterns.

The cisterns in the Dahlak Island are found in a great number and people throughout history depended on these cisterns for their prosperous civilizations. The locals are attributes to the tradition of construction of wells and cisterns, which once belonged to the Farsi or Persians. The Persians had control and influence in the southern part of the Red Sea coasts and Islands in different periods of time. Therefore, the historical accounts regarding the Farsi tradition still remain.

According to the oral tradition of the locals, there were 365 cisterns in Dahlak, meant to provide water everyday throughout the whole year. In the 17th C. AD a Turkish traveler Evliya Celebi wrote about Dahlak and mentioned that there were 600 households each one of them having their own cisterns in the village. However, a century later the British James Bruce stated that he had seen 360 cisterns at the village. Later on at the second half of 20th C.

Puglisi recorded 70 cisterns at the same village. Today the ruined  settlements  and  the surviving  villages  have  minimally  ten cisterns and wells around, and in many  cases  the  number  of  cisterns exceeds the number of households. It is difficult to identify the number of cisterns, as many of them are buried with silt and almost covered by the vegetation, so it is not possible to estimate the total number of cisterns. Either way Dahlak was well known for the abundance of cisterns and availability of fresh water. According to historical accounts,  Dahlak  was the  source  of fresh  water  for  coastal  settlements such  as  Massawa  until  1870’s  and also  for  merchants  and  travelers  of the Red Sea.

As the numbers of the cisterns differ from place to place, so does their structure and construction techniques. The most common are the wells that are  carved  in  the  compact  rocky limestone  or  coral  reefs  of  Dahlak with a cylindrical shape, with a diameter of 1 meter and depth of 4 – 20 meters. The depth varies upon the surface  elevation,  in  which  on  the higher  elevations  it  reaches  to  20 meters and on the lower elevations below sea level.

This depth allows the wells to reach the table water. During the rainy seasons, the wells are filled with rain water through flooding. The salty water retreats and fresh water occupies the space, as it’s denser than the fresh water.

However, during the dry seasons, the salty table water conquers the wells again.  These  kinds  of  wells are locally known as Sari and they are found  abundantly  everywhere  in the  current  villages  and  ruined settlements. Though, they are functioning and serving the people, many of them are also either deposited or filled with silt or they are out of water. The water from these kinds of wells are too salty, except during the few rainy seasons. So the  locals  used  it  for  their  animals and  for  washing  their  house  hold utensils.

Other kinds of water reservoirs are the cisterns, found in a great number in most of the current villages and ruined settlements of the Dahlak Island. These cisterns were usually constructed along the small rifts and channels of the Island for the purpose of being filled with rain water. The rainwater  flows  naturally  from the  area  around,  sometimes  from canals carved  in  the  rocks  to  facilitate  the passage of the water.

Basically, there are three types of cisterns in regard to their construction techniques.  The most common cisterns have a circle opening; most of them are enclosed by a ring shaped wall not more than 30 long, and usually with a diameter of 1m. The inner parts of the cisterns have a pot-like oval shape. Most of  the  time,  it  measures  up  to  8m in diameter  and  has a  depth  of 2 - 4ms.  They are carved in a compact  rocky  limestone and some have a wall  constructed  with  coral  stones, which are heavily plastered with strong grey  mortar  inside  in  order to  prevent  leakage.  In many cases, there are canals as long as 40 m, carved to make a passage to the cisterns. Such cisterns are also locally called Sari and they provide drinking water. Most of these cisterns are found in the village of Dahlak Kebir and they are still in use.

The  second  types of  cisterns,  are found  in  a  few  villages  and  ruined settlements, locally known as Sanda.  These  types of  cisterns  are  located  alongside the  little  gorges  in  order  to  get  the flowing  rain  water.  They  have a  square  opening  without  any  enclosure;  in  addition,  they  are carved through the rocky limestone, for a depth of 2 - 4m. They have a diameter of 1m and are plastered with grey mortar.

The  third  type  are  only  found  at the  village  of  Dahlak  Kebir,  and they are very few in number. These cisterns  are  also  the  largest  ones; they  have  a  rectangular  plan  with an approximate width  of 15 x 5m, and they have a depth not more than  4  meters.  Some of  them  have pillars  inside  to  support  the  ceiling above which is built by coral stones and  tampered  with  locally  made grey mortar.  One  of  the  well-known  cisterns  among  these,  is  the Sultan  cistern. It has  a  rectangular plan  of  8m  x  4m  and  has  an  arc designed ceiling. It is plastered very well with grey mortar and also has a 10m canal towards it. Locals believe that it was built by the sultanates and was used exclusively by the sultan’s household.

As mentioned above, the Dahlak cisterns are marvelous and reflect outstanding structures, which show how people can survive by harnessing their environment. They also have a great potential for being selected in the world heritage list, as they represent a master piece for human creative genius and exceptional testimony of different past civilizations in Dahlak and Eritrea.