The low water availability in several regions of southeastern Hellas and particularly in several islands, such as Crete, has resulted in the construction of various types of water reservoir for collection and storage of rainwater, since their very early habitation. Since then, technologies for the construction and use of several types of cisterns have been developed. In Crete during the Minoan era, water cisterns were very well practiced as a basic means for water supply in several settlements. The Minoan water cistern technologies were further developed, mainly by enlargement of the scale of water systems, at subsequent stages of the Hellenic civilizations. Furthermore, more advanced water cistern technologies were invented, with a peak during the Hellenistic period which followed Alexander the Great, during which time they spread over a geographical area from Hellas to the west and to the east. The Romans inherited the cistern technologies and further developed them mainly by changing their application scale from small to large. Characteristic paradigms of Cretan cisterns are considered which justify the significance of that technology for water supply in areas with low water availability during the whole Cretan history. Herein, nowadays climatic conditions and water resources management in Crete are presented and discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Every human settlement basically depends on sufficient water supply. Rainwater harvesting and reuse for supplying drinking water in urban areas has a long history in semi-arid areas (Okhravi et al. 2014; Haut et al. 2015). Building dams to tap stream water and storing in reservoirs was done by Minoans, Mesopotamians, and Indus valley civilizations, about 5,000 years ago, to provide drinking water to the urban areas (Abdelkhaleq & Ahmed 2007). Roof catchment is an old practice that has widely been used to provide urban dwellers with potable water supply in many parts of the developing world (Handia et al. 2003; Kumar 2004). Rainwater harvesting is a non-conventional technology, used to overcome the increasing demand of water due to climate change and/or variability (Amin et al. 2014). This applies especially for arid and semi-arid climate conditions, such as the regions around the Mediterranean basin and especially in southeastern Hellas, where water resource availability is extremely limited mainly during the summer (Angelakis & Koutsoyiannis 2003; Diamanti & Kalavrouzioti 2013; Mays et al. 2013; Angelakis et al. 2014).

Aristotle (384–322 BC), the Greek philosopher and teacher of Alexander the Great, gave the first lessons of rainwater harvesting and sustainability. He wrote: τῶν δὲ λοιπῶν πρὸς τὸ τὰς πολιτικὰς πράξɛις… ταῖς ɛὖ φρονούσαις δɛῖ διωρίσθαι πόλɛσιν, ἐὰν μὴ πάνθ᾽ ὅμοια μηδ᾽ἀφθονία τοιούτων ᾖ ναμάτων, χωρὶς τά τɛ ɛἰς τροφὴν ὕδατα καὶ τὰ πρὸς τὴν ἄλλην χρɛίαν (Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, Section 1330b); which is translated as ‘cities should have plenty of natural sources of water, otherwise large reservoirs should be used for the collection of rainwater’. He went one step further saying that in wise cities, the water sources intended for drinking purposes should be kept separate from those for other requirements (Sazakli et al. 2015).

The island of Crete is located in the eastern Mediterranean area and characterized by low water availability due to the intense spatial and temporal variation of precipitation. Thus, the use of alternative and/or non-conventional water resources (e.g. harvesting and reuse of rainwater) has been a challenge since the early inhabitation (Mays et al. 2013). Such a challenge could provide not only additional water, but also could significantly contribute to water availability, public health protection, flood risk reduction, and to coastal pollution protection (Tsagarakis et al. 2004).

In this paper, rainwater is defined as atmospheric precipitation originating from impermeable surfaces, usually collected and stored in artificial reservoirs, known as cisterns. This water is used for household purposes, such as bathing or washing, dishwashing, laundering, irrigation or other uses. Appropriately treated rainwater has the potential for use in dwellings, offices, housing estates, industry, horticulture, gardens, etc. (Gould & Nissen-Petersen 2000). However, the level of treatment depends on the final use of the rainwater, so appropriate safeguards are taken to prevent cross contamination of potable water supplies, damage to internal fixtures and fittings or harm to the environment (Gould & Nissen-Petersen 2000; Angelakis et al. 2012). The design and development of cisterns is an emerging technology encouraged by the need for water conservation and water taxes. It can be of great value where water is scarce but in many circumstances it is still expensive and not necessarily beneficial to the environment. In addition, any applications should be properly controlled to prevent risks to public health (Angelakis et al. 2012; Mays et al. 2013).

Obviously, there are many conceivable reasons, as well as historical coincidences, which led to the advanced cultural and technological developments in Hellas. Arguably, one of them is the limited natural sources which triggered invention and innovation in an attempt to find ways to satisfy human needs under safe and hygienic conditions. Earlier civilizations bloomed in large river valleys, which had water and soil resources in abundance (Mesopotamia near the Tigris and Euphrates, Egypt near the Nile, India near the Indus). However, in Hellas it is most interesting that the significant cultural centers since the Minoan era grew not in naturally richer places (e.g. in the western and central and northern country) but in poorer ones characterized by scarcity of water and soil resources (e.g. Athens, Crete and Aegean islands) (Koutsoyiannis & Patrikiou 2013). The exegeses for the establishment of ancient Hellenic civilizations in poor regions with high water availability were safe and hygienic lifestyle reasons and efforts to avoid use of fertile lands; thus, settlements were constructed on the top of hills or on rocky areas. This is the case in both the continental and the insular country, since the Bronze Age (Zarkadoulas et al. 2008).

Rainwater harvesting systems are well constructed and have operated in several regions of the world for centuries. In Minoan Crete (ca. 3200–1100 BC), water cisterns were used for both harvesting rainwater and as reservoirs for storing spring water. In the Minoan villages, cities, and palaces of Phaistos, Zakros, Chamaizi, and Myrtos-Pyrgos, in contrary to cities in the Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus valleys and other establishments in ancient Egypt and Iraq (Table 1), the water supply systems were dependent directly on precipitation; rainwater in these areas was collected in cisterns from the roofs and yards of buildings (Angelakis & Spyridakis 2013; Mays et al. 2013). At Phaistos palace in southern Crete, no wells or springs have been found (Graham 1987). Special care was given to securing clean surfaces in order to maintain the purity and the hygienic of collecting water by: (a) cleaning the surfaces used for collecting the runoff water, and (b) filtering the water through coarse sandy filters before it flows into the cistern (Angelakis & Spyridakis 1996).

Table 1

Summary of sources of water for cities, settlements, and palaces in Mesopotamia and ancient Crete during the Bronze Age (adapted from Viollet 2007; Tamburrino 2010)

Source of water Cities, settlements or palaces 
Short canal connected to permanent river Several cities in the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, and Indus valleys 
Canals and reservoirs storing flood water of non-permanent river, rainfall Khirbet el Umbashi (Syria) 
Rainwater harvesting (gutters and cisterns) Aghia Triada, Chamaizi, Knossos, Myrtos Pygros, Phaistos, and Zakros (Crete) 
Wells Ugarit (Syria) 
Aqueducts from source at altitude Knossos, Mallia, and Tylissos (Crete), Chogha Zanbil (Iran) 
Underground cisterns Zakros and Tylissos (Crete) 
Springs Knossos and Tylissos (Crete) 
Source of water Cities, settlements or palaces 
Short canal connected to permanent river Several cities in the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, and Indus valleys 
Canals and reservoirs storing flood water of non-permanent river, rainfall Khirbet el Umbashi (Syria) 
Rainwater harvesting (gutters and cisterns) Aghia Triada, Chamaizi, Knossos, Myrtos Pygros, Phaistos, and Zakros (Crete) 
Wells Ugarit (Syria) 
Aqueducts from source at altitude Knossos, Mallia, and Tylissos (Crete), Chogha Zanbil (Iran) 
Underground cisterns Zakros and Tylissos (Crete) 
Springs Knossos and Tylissos (Crete) 

The scope of this paper is to present the main diachronic achievements in rainwater harvesting and use in Crete, Hellas, from the earliest times to the present. Emphasis is given to the periods of great achievements. In addition, the importance of this hydrotechnology to the present and future times is considered.

WATER RESOURCES MANAGEMENT AND USE IN CRETE AND IN EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN

Crete, a mountainous island located in the eastern Mediterranean, located in the southern part of the Aegean sea, separating the Aegean from the Libyan sea. Crete has a strategic location, positioned between Asia, Africa and Europe and forming a natural and vital bridge between the three continents. This unique geographical position has determined its historical course throughout both ancient and modern times. The total population of Crete is 623,065 inhabitants or 5.8% of the total population of the country. In addition, more than 4.5 million tourists visited Crete in 2013. A further increase is expected in the coming years (http://www.imerisia.gr/article.asp?catid=26527&subid=2&pubid=113314855). The major archaeological sites considered in this paper are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1

Major archaeological sites in Crete.

Figure 1

Major archaeological sites in Crete.

Climate

In the eastern Mediterranean, and especially in eastern Crete, climatic fluctuations during the last 10,000 years have been recorded (Markonis et al. 2016). These fluctuations show increasing and decreasing cycles of climatic conditions alternating chronologically, lasting from a few decades to several centuries. Tsonis et al. (2010) indicates that wetter conditions during the middle Holocene were warm and wet periods followed by cool and arid conditions. The climatic conditions that prevailed during the period ca. 4500–3500 BC, are rather unclear as there is contradicting information in the literature (Finné et al. 2011 and references therein). Some indications suggest moist conditions for the next millennium (ca. 3500–2500 BC), which coincide with early the Minoan era (Angelakis & Spyridakis 1996; Finné et al. 2011 and references therein). Flood (2012) indicates that the Mediterranean dry season became more pronounced on Crete during the early Neopalatial period (ca. 1700–1500 BC). He reported that the late Neopalatial period (ca. 1500–1430 BC) was perhaps a particularly dry period with more pronounced summer temperatures or perhaps less winter precipitation. Thereafter, a mild acidification of the region followed and around 1450 BC a long stretch of drier conditions commenced ending around 1200 BC (Angelakis et al. 2005). Tsonis et al. (2010) have presented a synthesis of historical, climatic, and geological evidence which supports the suggestion climatic changes instigated by an intense El Nino activity contributed to the demise and eventual disappearance of the Minoan civilization. Thereafter, during the Iron period (ca. 1300–600 BC) there was another cold and humid period. Then, during the Classical and Hellenistic periods (ca. 500–67 BC), the climate was rather warm and dry. During the Roman period (ca. 67 BC–AD 330) a colder and more humid period prevailed. Finally, a warm and dry climate prevailed during the Arab period (ca. AD 800–1000) reaching peak high temperatures and drought (Büntgen et al. 2011).

At present the climate on Crete is primarily temperate. The island lies between the Mediterranean and the north African climatic zone. The western and northern parts of the island are generally more humid than the eastern and southern parts, and the two parts are separated by a central mountainous region, where snowfall is common in the winter. In the lowlands the winters are milder, while during the summer temperature averages at 30 °C, with maxima reaching 40 °C. The average and maximum temperatures are higher throughout the year on the southern coast of Crete, a region where climate, vegetation and landscape resemble the Mediterranean Africa.

Water resources status

Today the atmospheric precipitation in Crete shows intense spatial and temporal variation. Generally the precipitation decreases from west to east and from north to south, and also it increases with altitude. In particular, the average precipitation ranges from 440 mm/yr on the plain of Ierapetra, in southeastern Crete to 2,000 mm/yr in the Askifou highlands, in western Crete. The mean annual precipitation in eastern Crete measures 816 mm/yr while in western Crete 927 mm/yr (Hellenic Central Water Agency 2008). Potential evapotranspiration (ET), as estimated using the Penman-Monteith method, a system which provides the most accurate estimates, varies from 1,240 mm/yr to 1,570 mm/yr. Within the annual circle, the monthly ET rate changes from about 25 mm in winter to 225 mm in summer. The mean annual actual ET has been estimated to represent 75 to 85% of the mean annual precipitation at low elevation areas (less than 300 m above sea-level) whilst it drops to 50 to 70% at high elevation areas (Decentralized Region of Crete 2015).

The island of Crete is characterized by a significant increase in urban and tourist activities, especially in the past 20 years. As a result, the majority of the population is concentrated in coastal areas. In many cases the infrastructure required to support this type of economical development are inadequate. However, agricultural water demand continues to be the major water consumer in the island, accounting for over 86% of the total usage based on both surface and underground water resources. Although underground water resources are estimated to be sufficient to satisfy all water needs, the lack of proper management and infrastructure has led to serious problems, particularly during the dry periods when water demand is high (Paranychianakis et al. 2015).

Water consumption and use in Crete is less than 7% and 18% of the annual precipitation and total water potential, respectively (Table 2). However, in many cases there is a severe water imbalance due to temporal and regional distribution of precipitation. This worsens during the summer months when water demand rises due to the needs of agriculture and tourism. Furthermore, high percentage of the annual precipitation occurs in the mountainous areas of western Crete and transport of water to the rest of the island suffers from technical, social, and economical limitations. An alternative plan should include integrated water resources management as well as the integration of rainwater harvesting, treated wastewater and other non-conventional sources, into the water resources management. Such a plan not only would provide additional water, but also could contribute significantly to reduce flood risks and coastal pollution.

Table 2

Available water resources and water uses in Crete

Area (km2Precipitation
 
ET in volume (Mm3Water potential (Mm3/yr)
 
Water use in 2010 (Mm3/yr)
 
Consumption index (%) 
Height (mm/yr) Volume (Mm3/yr) Surface Ground Total Agricult. Domestic Industr. Total 
8,335 927 7,740 4,799 774 2167 2,941 340 77 421 14.31 
Area (km2Precipitation
 
ET in volume (Mm3Water potential (Mm3/yr)
 
Water use in 2010 (Mm3/yr)
 
Consumption index (%) 
Height (mm/yr) Volume (Mm3/yr) Surface Ground Total Agricult. Domestic Industr. Total 
8,335 927 7,740 4,799 774 2167 2,941 340 77 421 14.31 

The available water resources and water uses for Crete are shown in Table 2 (Hellenic Central Water Agency 2008, 2013). The real water use in 2010 was 421 Mm3/yr, and the total water potential 2,941 Mm3/yr, resulting in a consumption index of 14.31%. Note that the desirable water demand in 2010 was 515 Mm3/yr (Decentralized Region of Crete 2015). Thus, rainfall volumes are more than adequate to meet the current and future needs of the islands several times over by reconsidering the management plan, which should include rainwater harvesting.

MINOAN ERA (ca. 3200–1100 BC)

Rainwater collection (harvesting) systems

From the early civilizations, people in arid and semi-arid regions have relied on collecting (harvesting) surface water from rainfall and storing it in cisterns. Cisterns were also used to store spring water transported by aqueducts. During ancient times, cisterns ranged from irregular shaped holes (tanks) dug-out of sand and loose rock and then lined with plaster (stucco) to waterproof them, to rather sophisticated structures (Gorokhovich et al. 2011).

Minoans developed remarkable technologies for collecting and transporting water to settlements (De Feo et al. 2013; Mays et al. 2013). Due to very dry summers, rainfall collection was accomplished from both the roofs of buildings and large court areas. Hydraulic structures associated with the rainfall collection were found in Knossos, Phaistos, Tylissos, Aghia Triadha, Chamaizi, Myrtos Pyrgos, and Zakros. These hydraulic structures include large stone conduits with branches that were used to supply collected water to cisterns. Terracotta pipes were also used to convey rainwater to cisterns. In Myrtos Pyrgos, a terracotta pipe of rectangular cross section supplied the nearby cistern system with stormwater collected from the rooftops and this is shown in Figure 2 (Cadogan 1977–1978). Also, alongside a stairway in Knossos is a small stepped channel consisting of a series of parabolic-shaped step chutes used to convey rainwater from terraces down to a sedimentation (desalting) basin. The same components of rainfall harvesting systems, e.g. cistern, channel and sedimentation tank, also existed in other settlements (Angelakis & Spyridakis 1996; Gorokhovich et al. 2011).
Figure 2

Minoan rain water collection system in eastern Crete: (a) cistern at the house complex in the vicinity of the village Chamaizi, near the town of Sitia; and (b) used terracotta pipes from Myrtos Pyrgos near the city of Ierapetra (Source: Author's own).

Figure 2

Minoan rain water collection system in eastern Crete: (a) cistern at the house complex in the vicinity of the village Chamaizi, near the town of Sitia; and (b) used terracotta pipes from Myrtos Pyrgos near the city of Ierapetra (Source: Author's own).

Storage facilities

In Minoan Crete, the technology of surface and stormwater storage was highly developed. Water was conveyed into cisterns, a technique still practiced today in rural areas of the island. In fact, this practice has been widely used throughout the history of Crete. The technology of surface and rainwater storage for water supply was very well developed and was continuously used up to modern times (Mays et al. 2013). The Minoan water cisterns were of cylindrical shape, constructed with stones under the soil surface, with diameters ranging from 1.5 to 7.0 m and depths from 2.5 to 5.0 m. At least one layer of hydraulic plaster prevented water losses through the bottom and the walls. One of the earliest Minoan cisterns was found at the center of a house complex at Chamaizi dated from the third to the second millennium BC (Davaras 1972). Four of the earliest structures which may be considered as large-scale cisterns in Minoan Crete, were built in the first half of the second millennium BC (the time of the first Minoan palaces) at Myrtos Pyrgos (west of ancient Hierapytna), Archanes, Tylissos, and Zakros (Cadogan 2007). Similar technologies were used in the Phaistos and Malia palaces. Several cisterns were discovered at Phaistos, but not wells or springs, owing to the nature of the ground (Graham 1987). Those cisterns were associated with small canals collecting surface water from rainfall and from mountain streams (Angelakis & Spyridakis 2010).

In more details, the cistern at Chamaize, a pre-palatial house complex, referred to the early-middle Minoan period, in the closing years of the third and the dawning of the second millennium BC (Figure 2(a)). It is a small-scale cistern; its rooms were clustered around a small open court with a deep circular rock-cut cistern 3.5 m deep and 1.5 m in diameter, lined with masonry in its upper part (Davaras 1972). From the period of the Minoan palaces (middle-late Minoan period) four cisterns have been identified at Myrtos Pyrgos, Archanes, Zakro. At Myrtos Pyrgos, two cisterns have been found, one on the top of the hill, where the settlement lies and the other on its slope (Cadogan 2007). The latter is the larger, with a diameter of 5.3 m and a depth of more than 3 m. Both cisterns have a capacity of more than 80 m3 and date to the middle Minoan period (ca. 1700 BC), a chronology which corresponds with the last phase of the existence of the First Minoan palaces which are also dated ca. 1900–1700 BC. Minoans have also developed special network systems for collecting the rainwater. These systems were mainly constructed from terracotta pipes, such as those shown in Figure 2(b).

In the Zakros palace on the side of the central Court, a circular cistern below the ground level was found (Platon 1994). The cistern is 7 m in diameter and has steps constructed for cleaning and drawing purposes. The cistern belongs to the late period (ca. 1500 BC). A screen or parapet projected from the floor supports a row of at least five columns set in a circle. The area above the cistern was uncovered. This installation is unique in Minoan architecture (Angelakis & Spyridakis 2013). Their use as swimming pools or aquaria has also been proposed (Alexiou 1994). Since the room must have had a ceremonial/administrative character as suggested by its layout, the cistern most likely performed a central role in this context as it constitutes the core feature of this particular space. Finally, it has been argued that it was used as a means of estimating the precipitation required for calculating the adequate share of agricultural products provided to the storage areas of the palace, in the manner of the Egyptian nilometers (Lyrintzis & Angelakis 2006). Most likely, however, the cistern served multiple purposes, including recreational ones. Major Minoan cisterns are shown in Table 3. Public cisterns of cylindrical shape dominated during the Minoan era.

Table 3

Major Minoan cisterns (adapted from Mays et al. 2013)

Cistern name Construction Type (water collecting) Volume (m3Catchment area (ha) 
Knossos (several) Early Minoan Spring water na na 
Archanes ca. 1500 BC Rainwater 50 na 
Phaistos (several) Middle Minoan Rainwater na na 
Tylissos ca. 1330–1200 BC Spring water approx. 100 na 
Aghia Triadha Middle Minoan Control drainage water 20  
Myrtos Pyrgos 1 ca. 1700 BC Rainwater 66 0.50a 
Myrtos Pyrgos 2 ca. 1700 BC Rainwater 22 0.50a 
Zakros ca. 1500 BC Rainwater 50  
Chamaizi Middle-late Minoan Rainwater 6.50 0.05 
Cistern name Construction Type (water collecting) Volume (m3Catchment area (ha) 
Knossos (several) Early Minoan Spring water na na 
Archanes ca. 1500 BC Rainwater 50 na 
Phaistos (several) Middle Minoan Rainwater na na 
Tylissos ca. 1330–1200 BC Spring water approx. 100 na 
Aghia Triadha Middle Minoan Control drainage water 20  
Myrtos Pyrgos 1 ca. 1700 BC Rainwater 66 0.50a 
Myrtos Pyrgos 2 ca. 1700 BC Rainwater 22 0.50a 
Zakros ca. 1500 BC Rainwater 50  
Chamaizi Middle-late Minoan Rainwater 6.50 0.05 

aFor both of two cisterns.

na: not available.

Two similar cisterns have also been found at Archanes-Tourkoyeitonia (Sakellarakis & Sapouna-Sakellaraki 1997) and Zakros (Platon 1994). Unlike the cisterns of Myrtos Pyrgos, they belong to a later period, that of the second palaces which were built after the catastrophic earthquakes of ca. 1700 BC, which ruined the first palaces. Both are of the middle late period (ca. 1500 BC) and of similar cylindrical shape, each with a diameter of about 5 m and depth of 2.5 m. They were built in limestone ashlar masonry and were probably roofed. Both have steps that facilitated their water supply. Another feature shared by them is the enclosure of the spring as the water came from the lower levels in a similar manner to the traditional Majahir cisterns found in Syria (Angelakis et al. 2012).

The rainwater was collected on rooftops and open courts and flowed in the cisterns by various methods. Special care must have been given to secure clean surfaces in order to maintain the purity and quality of collected water by: (a) cleaning the surfaces used for collecting the runoff water and (b) the use of other filtering devices or coarse sandy filters. The water collected in the cistern was primarily used in crafts (e.g. pottery, metallurgy), in domestic activities and in irrigation of gardens (Angelakis & Spyridakis 1996). It could be used for drinking only in case of drought or siege.

Water pretreatment systems

One of the salient characteristics of the Minoan era in Crete was the treatment devices used for water supply in palaces, cities, and villages from the beginning of the Bronze Age. It is truly amazing that the most common water quality modification technique for providing suitable domestic water supplies was known to Minoan engineers. A strange, oblong device with an opening in one of its ends, was used to treat domestic water according to Defner (Sakellarakis & Sapouna-Sakellaraki 1997). The device was constructed in a similar manner and with the same material as the terracotta water pipes (Figure 3). Spanakis (1981) theorized this device as a hydraulic filter which was probably connected to a water supply reservoir by a rope passing through its outside holds. Its operation relied on local, high speed, turbulent conditions in order to continuously clean the porous surface thus allowing the continuous flow of filtered water to the jar. For cleaning purposes after extensive solids accumulation, it was possible to release it from the pipe end by loosening the rope in the holes.
Figure 3

Minoan water ceramic filter (adapted from Mays et al. 2013).

Figure 3

Minoan water ceramic filter (adapted from Mays et al. 2013).

In addition to the terracotta filters, in some cases cisterns were associated with small canals collecting water from rainfall and from mountain streams (Viollet 2003, 2007). It is therefore possible that cisterns in the Phaistos palace were connected to the sandy filters.

HISTORICAL PERIODS

The classical and Hellenistic period (ca. 500–67 BC)

In the castle areas of Classical and Hellenistic Crete on the top of the hills, there was neither springs nor deep wells. In order to guarantee the water supply for the inhabitants, especially in the case of a siege, cisterns were constructed to collect rainwater during the rainy winter season. Cisterns technology was further improved during the Hellenistic period by building not only circular cross section shaped cisterns, but also rectangular shaped cisterns. Also, in rooky castle areas, cisterns were hewn into rocks. Good examples were found in the cities of Eleutherna and Polyrrhenia in central and western Crete, respectively. Polyrrhenia was built on top of a high hill (more than 400 m elevation); a location which offers excellent views to surrounding areas (from Crete to the Libyan sea) and which flourished during the Classical period. It was a powerful political center and had two excellent harbors, Kissamos and Falasarna. They were mostly pear shaped. At least one layer of hydraulic plaster prevented water losses through the bottom and the walls. The estimated volume of those cisterns is 10 m3.

In addition to the carved cistern, Myers et al. (1992) have reported built cisterns. One such cistern in Classical Crete is that in the agora (town center) of the town of Lato. Its walls are coated internally with impervious plaster and a built stairway on one side leads down to the bottom of the cistern. From the condition and the size of the cistern, we can only conclude that it was the public cistern of the town (Figure 4(a)). The area of the cistern is 27.56 m2 and its depth is about 6 m. It was originally covered above two Dorian colons. A similar cistern of dimensions 13.0 × 5.5 × 6.0 m3 exists in the agora of ancient Dreros, as well as in other cities of Crete. There are 15 smaller cisterns in Lato.
Figure 4

Cisterns of historical times: (a) at the Classical town of Lato and (b) at the Roman town of Aptera (Source: Author's own).

Figure 4

Cisterns of historical times: (a) at the Classical town of Lato and (b) at the Roman town of Aptera (Source: Author's own).

The Roman period (ca. 67 BC–AD 330)

The Romans built ‘mega water supply systems’ including many magnificent structures. The advanced water and wastewater technologies developed during Minoan and Hellenistic Crete were expanded and improved during the Roman domination of the Hellenic world (Angelakis et al. 2012). The achievements of this era, which met the hygienic and functional requirements of ancient cities, were so advanced that they could only be compared with the modern urban water systems which developed in Europe and North America in the second half of the nineteenth century (Mays 2007). However, it should be noted that hydraulic technologies, including water cisterns, which were developed by Hellenes and Romans were in principle similar to those developed earlier by the Minoans and Meceaneans (De Feo et al. 2012).

During the Roman period, a number of major hydraulic projects were undertaken in order to ensure fresh water and hygienic living conditions. In addition to aqueducts, several cisterns have been found in Dictynna, Lappa, Rhizenia, Elyro, and Aptera (Figure 4(b)). The town of Aptera, located south of Souda bay in Chania, is regarded as one of the most significant townships on the island during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The most prominent constructions in terms of hydraulic and architecture are two marvellous cisterns, the public baths, and the thermae. There are two cisterns in the town; an L-shape cistern (3,050 m3) and a rectangular tri-aisle one (2,890 m3), both functionally connected to the nearby bath-thermae of the town (Gorokhovich et al. 2012). The roofed-cisterns with a total water storage capacity of about 6,000 m3 were mainly used to supply water to the baths and thermae (Gikas et al. 2009; Gorokhovich et al. 2012)). Thermae also have been found in other Roman towns, e.g. Kissamos, Lefki island and Hierapytna.

Major cisterns in historical times are shown in Table 4. During these times the scale of the those hydraulic works was highly increased and the rectangular geometry of the cisterns was dominant. In Roman period one of the major domestic uses were baths and thermae (e.g. Aptera town in western Crete).

Table 4

Major cisterns in historical times

Cistern name Construction Type (water collecting) Volume (m3Catchment area (ha) 
Lato ca. 5th–4th century BC Rainwater 165  
Eleutherna Archaic period Spring water 1008 na 
Dreros I ca. 2nd century BC Rainwater 429 11.50a 
Dreros II ca. 2nd century BC Rainwater 594 11.50a 
Aptera, L-shape ca. AD 100–200 Rainwater 3050 10.57a 
Aptera, tri-aisle ca. AD 100–200 Rainwater 2890 10.57a 
Cistern name Construction Type (water collecting) Volume (m3Catchment area (ha) 
Lato ca. 5th–4th century BC Rainwater 165  
Eleutherna Archaic period Spring water 1008 na 
Dreros I ca. 2nd century BC Rainwater 429 11.50a 
Dreros II ca. 2nd century BC Rainwater 594 11.50a 
Aptera, L-shape ca. AD 100–200 Rainwater 3050 10.57a 
Aptera, tri-aisle ca. AD 100–200 Rainwater 2890 10.57a 

aFor both of two cisterns.

na: not applicable.

BYZANTINE PERIOD AND VENETIAN RULE (ca. AD 330–1600)

After the fall of the Roman Empire, water supply and sewage systems experienced fundamental changes in Europe. Medieval cities, castles and monasteries had their own wells, fountains or cisterns (Juuti & Vuorinen 2006).

From AD 961 to 1204, Crete was part of the Byzantine Empire. In ‘Chandax’ (present-day Iraklion) were the headquarters of the Duke of Crete. During this period, the water supply technologies of the cities were more or less the same as those during the Arab period. Water cisterns were the major water technologies developed in Crete during that period (Figure 5(a)). At the end of the Byzantine period Crete fell into the hands of the Venetians.
Figure 5

Medieval water cisterns: (a) cistern (of rectangular geometry) in the Byzantine Monastery Areti in eastern Crete, and (b) Venetian water cisterns at Gramvoussa in northwestern Crete (Source: Author's own).

Figure 5

Medieval water cisterns: (a) cistern (of rectangular geometry) in the Byzantine Monastery Areti in eastern Crete, and (b) Venetian water cisterns at Gramvoussa in northwestern Crete (Source: Author's own).

In Crete during the Venetian period many water cisterns and fountain houses were constructed in both the towns and the countryside. In several Venetian cities and villages (e.g. in the Pediada region), which were densely populated and rich in water, significant water supply systems, including water cisterns and fountain houses were constructed (Panagiotakis 2006). In general, Venetians’ accomplishments in hydraulics are worth noting, such as the construction and operation of aqueducts, cisterns, wells, fountains, baths, toilets, and harbors. Many of these technologies were developed and used in the famous castles constructed during that period. Thus, several cisterns have been found in Venetian Rethymnon, on the island of Gramvoussa (Figure 5(b)). In Gramvoussa three cisterns are known of surface area 283, 136, and 158 m2, respectively, and an average depth of 4.9 m (Table 5). Also, small cisterns have been located in several villages such as in the Vigla castle in Viannos and in the area of Vamos, in the villages of Gavalochori at the locations of wells and Agios Pavlos and Paleloni, in western Crete. Later evidence from the Venetian period suggest the existence of more than 500 cisterns, mostly private, in the city of Iraklion after ca. AD 1500. All those cisterns were collecting surface water from rainfall.

Table 5

Major cisterns in Venetian times

Cistern name Construction Type (water collecting) Volume (m3Catchment area (ha) 
Gramboussa (3) AD 1579 Rainwater 2827a 28.10b 
Venetian Iraklion (numerous)c Venetian times Rainwater na na 
Venetian Rethymnon (numerous)c Venetian times Rainwater na na 
Cistern name Construction Type (water collecting) Volume (m3Catchment area (ha) 
Gramboussa (3) AD 1579 Rainwater 2827a 28.10b 
Venetian Iraklion (numerous)c Venetian times Rainwater na na 
Venetian Rethymnon (numerous)c Venetian times Rainwater na na 

aTotal volume for three cisterns.

bTotal area for the three cisterns.

cMostly private.

na: not applicable.

MODERN TIMES

The Ottoman period (ca. AD 1669–1898)

Water was connected to Islam, so that during the Ottoman period there was a water tap in all mosques. Hammam is a very old Ottoman institution and was established in all the regions of the Ottoman Empire. Following the very old Moslem tradition, water supply to hammams and fountains was the major hydraulic works developed during the Ottoman period. The most remarkable water systems of the Ottoman period served Constantinople (Istanbul). There are also cisterns from this period that were circular-shaped, domed or other located in several Mediterranean countries (Mays et al. 2012). These cisterns were constructed primarily in the sixteenth century in various places occupied by Ottomans including Crete. Some of these are still in use for livestock water supply. They originally served the Ottoman army at military logistic points.

Present times

By the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the independent Hellenic-state was established and the modern water technologies started to be developed, as in other parts of the world. They were based on past technologies, as well as on new ones such as deep wells, pumps, pipes, and so on. At that time the growth of populations required an increase in agriculture production. In addition, the steep terrain of the island highly increased the scale and the cost of the required hydraulic projects (Marsalek et al. 2000). Meanwhile, water supply of the urban areas was facing similar problems due to the population increase. Thus, collection, storage, and use of rainwater in several urban and rural areas in Crete and especially in eastern Crete were still in practice during the middle of the last century. The fundamental principles of those systems were similar to those developed in ancient times (Figure 6).
Figure 6

Modern water cisterns in eastern Crete: (a) private cistern outside a house and (b) public cistern which was used for water supply of the village of Lakonia (Source: Author's own).

Figure 6

Modern water cisterns in eastern Crete: (a) private cistern outside a house and (b) public cistern which was used for water supply of the village of Lakonia (Source: Author's own).

In addition, during floods, one of the basic ideas is to increase water storage in order to achieve the maximum possible water retention effect together with minimum investment, which could be achieved by construction of water cisterns. It is well known that full protection against high water levels and extreme discharges during floods is actually impossible, because a 100% flood protection is far from being economically acceptable and technically feasible (Koutsoyiannis & Angelakis 2004). Thus it should be considered possible to achieve the maximum water retention effect together with minimum investment (e.g. increasing water storage by individual cisterns).

Finally, one important factor which influenced the quality of the rainwater harvesting was the storage conditions. Better water quality was observed when the water was collected in dry seasons than in wet seasons. The rainwater harvested only from concrete roofs was of better quality than that collected from green roof and terrace catchment areas (Amin et al. 2014).

FUTURE TRENDS

Crete is highly affected by urbanization. In 2011, more than 73% of the total population was living in five major cities (i.e. Iraklion, Chania, Rethymnon, Agios Nikolaos, and Sitia) located on the north coastal area of the island. Of this number, 225,000 or 36.11% of Crete's permanent population is living in three coterminous municipalities (Iraklion, Gazi, and Chersonissos) located in an area of 809.4 km2 (or 9.7% of the total area of Crete) on the north central regions. Today, that percentage is approaching 40% and is estimated to be near 50% by 2030 (Hellenic Statistical Authority 2011).

Urbanization will have a drastic impact on the Cretan natural process of stormwater runoff in the future. It will increase both the peak and the volume of runoff, will reduce infiltration, and will cause water pollution. Structural stormwater control measures should be designed to reduce the volume and pollution of stormwater by harvesting and reuse, infiltration into porous surfaces, and facilitation of its evaporation. Also acceptable strategies by which flood risks will eliminate and conservation and reuse will increase including the use of nonimpervious surfaces, such as green roofs, pervious pavements, grid pavers, and nonstructural techniques such as rain gardens, vegetated swales, disconnection of impervious surfaces, and of course harvesting and reuse of rainwater. In conclusion, a cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution is the harvesting and reuse of stormwater runoff, in general, and particularly from roofs (Pazwash 2016). Rainwater harvesting is one of the best alternative water resources that can be exploited using conventional approaches because it can be used for public consumption and contributes to sustainable management of water resources (Okhravi et al. 2016).

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

The climatic and hydrologic conditions in the eastern Mediterranean and especially in Crete have been characterized by high variability both spatially and temporally through the long history of the island. This had a clear impact on the water availability and thus on the human responses. The rainwater harvesting systems, which increase water use efficiency and preserve the environment for sustainable development through the Cretan civilizations, are presented and discussed in this paper. The early Minoan rainwater harvesting systems, in Crete and other Mediterranean regions were based on collecting runoff from hillsides and open yards and roofs mainly in urban areas and were used for domestic needs. These unique hydraulic structures have allowed humans to live in arid and semi-arid regions of the island for over 5,000 years. These technologies were mostly developed in Crete in the middle and late Minoan periods (Table 3) when warm and arid conditions were reveling and were influenced by the social, political, and economic conditions of the various periods of human history of Crete. The development of the hydrotechnologies, whenever the social conditions allowed, can be considered as one of these responses. Looking back at the long history of human inhabitance in the island one can clearly outline some principles on which past water technologies were based; notably they are the very same that are used in many present-day applications.

From the early civilizations, people in arid and semi-arid regions have relied on harvesting rainwater rainfalls and storing the water in reservoirs known as cisterns. The storage of rainwater runoff was used in the entire region around the Mediterranean and the Near East since the third millennium BC. Cisterns were used not only to store rainfall runoff but also to store aqueduct water for seasonal variations. During ancient times cisterns ranged from irregular shaped holes (tanks) dug out of sand and loose rocks and lined with plaster (stucco) for waterproofing, to rather sophisticated structures such as those first built by the Minoans (Mays 2007). Cisterns were mainly used for water supply in urban areas. In rural areas dams and embankments were constructed since prehistoric times, in order to protect urban areas and cultivated land from floods, as well as to create cultivated land and to collect and store water for agricultural and domestic uses.

It should be noticed that ancient Cretans lived in harmony with nature and their environment; those that did not, failed. ‘The multicolored wall-paintings in Minoan Palaces depict a life full of creativity, good taste and in complete harmony with the natural environment’ (Evans 1921–1935). Local water supply sources were first used by the ancient Cretans of the Minoan era. When these were exhausted, local and temporal transfers were instituted and the necessary hydraulic structures were built such as water cisterns. In this context it is noteworthy that the Minoans knew all the necessary basic principles and physical parameters.

Rainwater harvesting systems were further improved and magnified during historical times, mainly during the Classical and Hellenistic periods (Koutsoyiannis & Angelakis 2004). The Romans and Venetians did not add much to the water cistern fundamental knowledge, however, the scale of application and of the apparatus used were highly affected during the Roman period. These achievements and functional requirements of water collection and distribution systems could only be compared to modern water systems, re-established in Europe and North America from the second half of the nineteenth century until the present day (Panagiotakis 2006). Thus, with few exceptions, the basis for present day progress in technological development of water cisterns is clearly not a recent development, but an extension and refinement of the past. Traditional knowledge incorporates innovation in a dynamic fashion, subject to the long-term test, achieving local and environmental sustainability (Mays 2007).

Rainwater harvesting systems continue to be practiced globally, and there is renewed interest in its revival. Climate policy and water policy would require to be streamlined to promote that technology in the water-stressed regions of the world. Pandey et al. (2003) reported that neither the water policy nor the climate policy discussions appear to notice the worth of the rainwater harvesting, especially in urban areas where water resources are fast depleting due to rapid increase in population and unrestricted use of water. In the future cistern-technology should be also used to reduce the flood risks in highly populated urban areas (Haut et al. 2015). The expected increase in urbanization will have impacts on the future stormwater management in urban areas (Reiter 2012). Thus, rainwater harvesting systems will play a vital role in future urban planning and should be reconsidered. Historical studies on rainwater harvesting, collection, and storage technologies provide insights into possible responses of modern societies to the future sustainable management of water resources.

The legacies and lessons on rainwater harvesting evolution in Crete since the Minoan era are summarized as follows:

  • (a) In water-short areas, development of a cost-effective decentralized water supply management program based on harvesting and storage rainwater is a sustainable technology. Thus development of effective water supply management projects, in short-water areas could be based on historical knowledge.

  • (b) Ancient Cretan knowledge on water cisterns could play an important role for sustainable water supply and decrease of flood risks in the cities of the future. Thus, such hydrotechnologies should be considered not just as historical artefacts but as potential models for sustainable water technologies.

  • (c) Additionally, rainwater harvesting was considered since the Minoan times, to increase not only water availability but, more importantly, to treat it in order to improve water quality, especially of potable water.

  • (d) In Crete, the water resources management plan should be re-examined to seriously consider rainwater harvesting.

  • (e) Today, more than one billion people have limited access to drinking water. Thus, there is an urgent need for sustainable and cost-effective water supply facilities, particularly in cities of the developing world (Bond et al. 2013). Lessons from ancient water management must be examined and the applicability of selected ancient Cretan systems (e.g. rainwater harvesting) to the contemporary world must be considered.

  • (f) Based on this, the physical interventions involve, among other, measures constructing water harvesting reservoirs in several regions of Africa for facing water scarcity and quality (Bahri 2011).

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