Mitigating Water Scarcity in the Medieval and Islamic Periods

The Example of Safed, Israel


  • Yinon Shivtiel Zefat Academic College
  • Amos Frumkin The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Miriam Bar-Matthews Geological Survey of Israel



Mamluk, Safed/Zefat, Crusader, Baybars, water/water system, aqueduct


During the intermediate Islamic period, the settlement of Safed was transformed from a small unknown village in Upper Galilee to an important stronghold and administrative center, aggravating the problem of the town’s water supply. Lacking natural springs, Safed depended on cisterns fed by gutters that channeled seasonal rainwater from the roofs and on distant springs in the Nahal Amud ravine. As the town’s population grew, its rulers were required to install public water systems. Our field study of the region reveals several Mamluk water systems whose outstanding features are an aqueduct that channeled water by force of gravity from 'Ayn Biriyya to the Crusader/Mamluk citadel in Safed, and a spring tunnel flowing beneath the town that was accessible via shafts in the houses. The composition of the water in the tunnel is similar to that of a famous ritual bath in one of these houses, indicating a probable connection. The water systems were dated using Uranium-Thorium analysis and by radiocarbon dating. An ancient spring tunnel at the nearby site of 'Ayn al-Zaytun that may have inspired the construction of Safed’s water systems is also discussed. The archaeological finds and dating are consistent with several historical sources describing the construction of water systems in Safed.

Author Biographies

Yinon Shivtiel, Zefat Academic College

Prof. Yinon Shivtiel teaches at Zefat Academic Colleage and is a senior researcher at the Israel Cave Research Center (ICRC). He has published two books and numerous articles and delivered many lectures on the subject of caves in Israel and abroad. Currently he is exploring subterranean spaces found under the rubble caused by the earthquake that hit the Galilee area, and in particular the town of Zafed in 1837.

Amos Frumkin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Amos Frumkin’s interests include karst and cave morphology, cave sediments as indicators of paleoclimate, paleohydrology, the development of karst aquifers, ancient water systems and geoarchaeology. The research is mostly associated with underground features studied using earth-sciences methods, such as geomorphology, modern dating, and stable isotopes. He has authored and co-authored ~200 articles and seven books and founded the Cave Research Center of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Miriam Bar-Matthews, Geological Survey of Israel

Dr. Miriam Bar-Matthews is currently an emeritus research geologist at the Geological Survey of Israel and is a pioneering scientist in the use of speleothems to resolve continental palaeoclimate records. Her benchmark work on the Soreq Cave redefined our understanding of Eastern Mediterranean hydrology and climate history. In recognition of her work, she was awarded the Hans Oeschger Medal in 2013 and made a Fellow of the Geochemical Society in 2018.


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How to Cite

Shivtiel, Y. ., Frumkin, A. ., & Bar-Matthews, M. . (2022). Mitigating Water Scarcity in the Medieval and Islamic Periods: The Example of Safed, Israel. Journal of Islamic Archaeology, 8(2), 167–186.