• Adrian J. Boas

On the Use and Abuse of Rivers and the Transmutation of Sewage

Updated: May 30, 2019

Jordan River, photograph by Jean Housen from Wikimedia Commons

Rivers slash a path through history, forge political divisions, create disputes, even wars. Rivers can defeat campaigns - a river terminated the participation of the largest contingent of the Third Crusade when the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, made the rash decision to swim across the surging Saleph or Calycadmus River (today the Göksu). He may have been attempting to cool off in the summer heat, or maybe he had intended to demonstrate to his men that the river was fordable (crossing there would enable the army to shorten the passage and avoid a steep climb). Perhaps he simply thought himself invincible. In one version, he tried to ride across on his horse, in another he plunged into a whirlpool. According to the Muslim chronicler, Ibn al-Athir, he was weighed down by his armour and, somewhat embarrassingly, drowned in water that was barely hip-deep. Whatever the reason, and however it happened, his death led to the scattering of his great army.

Rivers can make it possible for an inland city like Antioch to flourish through maritime commerce. They enable the development of agriculture and industry. Beyond their more prosaic uses, rivers can play a crucial role in the formation and form of states, occasionally serving as political demarcations. The Orontes became the boundary between the principality of Antioch and the territory of Aleppo. But in this use, there was not always a consensus. The Latins saw the upper Jordan River as indicating the eastern extent of their territory in the region of the eastern Galilee. Saladin disagreed, and in August 1179 he attacked and destroyed the Templar castle of Vadum Iacob that was under construction at Jacob’s Ford.

Rivers vary in their nature. Some thunder and roar, some churn in wild knots, others flow mild and pastoral, and still others are dry for months on end, sometimes for years. What goes by the name "river" in the Middle East would sometimes hardly earn the title "creek" in the West. The Jordan River, built up by Biblical promotion, is inevitably a disappointment to those who first see it. Through the centre of the modern Israeli town of Nahariya, the name of which derives from the Hebrew word for a broad river – "nahar" (נהר), runs the Gaʻaton. Although the town is named for it, and a broad boulevard lines it on either side, for most of the year the Gaʻaton is a pitiable oozing trickle at the base of a concrete channel that can easily be crossed in a single stride. The Ayalon that runs adjacent to a highway by Tel Aviv is not much more, nor is the slender and anything but formidable Beirut River.

Indeed, many of the so-called rivers in the East would more realistically be referred to as "wadis"; ephemeral riverbeds, dry except following flash floods. Not that we should belittle these. In the brief periods when they come alive they can become raging mud torrents, as broad and powerful as any large Western river. I recollect witnessing nearly five decades ago, a flash flood at the Wādī El-Arish. It was one of the most powerful spectacles I have seen.

The wadi that sometimes runs down the deep gorge below the eastern city walls of Jerusalem and appears on medieval maps as the broad and majestic Torrens Cedron (Kidron) is rarely a torrent. It hardly flows at all most years, and when it does it mainly carries sewage. But every so often a sudden winter storm will turn it from a trickle into a deluge. I witnessed this in December 1999 when rainwater (and sewage) poured in raging waterfalls to fill the courtyard and then flood the subterranean chapel of the Tomb of the Virgin at the base of the valley, where it rose to the height of sixteen metres. The Crusaders dealt with this problem by constructing an impressive underground vault to divert storm-water to the west of the church, but it ceased to function when the upper church was dismantled in 1187. Since then the chapel is again occasionally flooded. Oddly enough, this flooding has not always been regarded as entirely a bad thing. Indeed, in the past it has been a source of revenue for the priests who are recorded as collecting and selling the floodwater to pilgrims as "Holy Water", it having flowed through one of the holiest sites of Christendom.