30 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: The Roman Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain

Segovia’s aqueduct marks a period in Spain when most of the country was a Roman province, one of many examples of the fusion of cultures in the country. Emperor Domitian ordered the aqueduct’s construction during his reign of AD 81-96. That the two tiers of arches numbering 166 and the pillars of the monument still stand today, some twenty centuries later, makes the aqueduct one of the country’s true marvels. This feat of Roman civil engineering is 2,950 feet long and is made of rough-hewn granite blocks totaling just over 24,000, held together without mortar. Its use as a conduit for water to Segovia up through the early 19th century is even more remarkable.

I’ll never forget the first breathtaking sight of the aqueduct when I visited Segovia in 2012. Just an hour north of Madrid, Segovia boasts beautiful vistas throughout its rolling landscape of valleys and hills. The city incorporates many elements of Spain’s history, including its Alcazar, which had stood from the early medieval period in defense against the Moors, and the 16th century Gothic cathedral built upon the highest point in the city. The aqueduct is the city’s most distinctive feature as it rises above the old streets; apparently, many other tourists agreed with me judging from the gathering in the plaza at the best spot to see the arches. No wonder it remains Segovia’s heraldic symbol, featured on the city’s coat of arms.

The construction of the aqueduct began as a means to bring water from the river Frio nestled in the shadows of the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains to Roman Segovia. Engineers first set granite blocks at an oblique angle to direct the water, which collected in a reservoir before it flowed through buried channels, covering a distance of more than nine miles to reach the city. Along the route, sand traps worked as cleaning basins to filter out impurities in the water and control its flow. After a steep descent, the channels directed the flow through a valley 30 miles deep before reaching the visible portion of the site. Single and double arches at an average width of 16 feet are interspersed to rest on pillars within the aqueduct. The difficult terrain of the region must have necessitated the use of the best and most brilliant minds among Rome’s engineers. At its highest point, the water traveled 100 feet above ground in its viaduct and reached as far as the northwestern portion of the city, where Segovia’s Alcazar is located. A cleaning basin still exists in the Plaza Mayor.

The aqueduct has withstood time, attacks on the city, and late conservation efforts. In 1072, the army of the Moorish king Al-Mamun from Toledo besieged Segovia and destroyed or damaged 36 of the arches. In the 15th century during the reign of the Catholic monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón, Don Pedro Mesa and Fray Juan de Escobedo of the Jeronimos del Parral monastery raised funds for repairs to the aqueduct. A century later, Segovia’s people added statues of Saint Stephen and the city’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Fuencisla, to niches of the aqueduct. In 1929, concrete pipes replaced the Roman channel, but such efforts could not halt the damage caused by centuries of water seepage through the cracked granite. Car traffic is also banned near the aqueduct for fear the vibrations will cause further damage to the centuries-old stone. All efforts to ensure the aqueduct remained one of the best-preserved monuments in Spain.

Sources(2009). Roman Aqueduct at Segovia, Spain. Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 7(3), 2. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved September 30, 2014, from Project MUSE database.

UNESCO; Old Town of Segovia and Its Aqueduct, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/311

The picture is mine from my 2012 visit to Segovia.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.