Water  Lifting Devices


Transferring water to a particular level or over long distances, for a diversity of purposes, such as irrigation, supplying water to private and public places, or pumping water out of flooded mines, has relied on a variety of water raising machines. These machines have constituted matters of focus for Islamic engineers. In relation to the latter cited problem, Al-Qazwini, the 13th century geographer, speaks of a mine where water was found at a depth of 20 cubits.[1] To clear the water from the mine shaft a wheel was set on it and it served to force it up to a tank placed at a higher level. Here, the process was repeated and the water was pumped to a second tank, from which by means of another wheel it was raised to the surface.[2]


A number of water lifting devices were either improved or developed by Muslim engineers, craftsmen, and users. These include the shaduf or swape, the saqiya or chain of pots, and the noria (a wheel driven by water) and pumps. There is no room here to dwell on the description of these devices beyond a couple of lines on their most central features. The saqiya, for instance, is a chain of pots driven through a pair of gear wheels by one or two animals harnessed to a draw bar and walking around a circular track.[3] The chain of pots could also be driven by a treadmill, mounted on the same axle as the wheel carrying the chain of pots. The crux of this machine is the gear, which has the function of altering the motion from horizontal to vertical.[4] There are plenty of references to the machine in the 10th century works of Islamic geographers,[5] and there is a full description of the machine in the 17 volume encyclopaedia written by Ibn Sida who died in 1066.[6] In the farming manual by Ibn al-Awwam, there is another description, which includes the interesting comment that the pot-garland wheel should be made heavier than is usual in order to make the machine operate more smoothly. This is a clear indication that Ibn al-Awwam understood the principle of the fly-wheel.[7] The use of the saqiya was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Muslims, where it was massively exploited. Such diffusions continued, not only did Christian Spanish engineers take it to the New World, but it was also in use in the rest of Europe and in many places remained in use well into this century.[8]


The noria is perhaps the most significant of the traditional water raising machines, being driven by water, it is self acting and requires the presence of neither man nor animal for its operation. There are excellent, detailed descriptions of this device, available in many works, such as Schioler’s, for instance.[9] Briefly, here, the noria is a large wheel driven by water. It is mounted on a horizontal axle over a flowing stream so that the water strikes the paddles that are set around its perimeter, and the water is raised in pots attached to its rim or in bucket like compartments set into the rim.[10] The norias were widespread in the land of Islam, the water wheels of Hama, according to Sarton, being some of its great glories,[11] and their descriptions by medieval contemporaries abound. The first such mention of them is in the work of Ahmad B. al-Tayyib in H 271/884-5.[12] Nearly two centuries later, in 1047, the traveller Nasir Khusraw spoke of the numerous water wheels on the banks of the Orontes River.[13] Al-Dimashqi, in 1300, also referred to the huge water wheels called Naurah, ‘such as you see nowhere else,’ and which raise the water from the river to irrigate the gardens.[14] There were thirty two such wheels of various sizes, the tallest of which was 22 meters high, raising water to aqueducts which supplied both sections of the town and irrigating the surrounding gardens.[15] When they arrived in the East, the crusaders were impressed by these wheels, and eventually they brought them to Germany where they are still used in a little valley in Franken near Bayreuth.[16]

Norias were widely used in Muslim Spain, too, at Cordoba  a noria at one end raised and deposited water into an aqueduct which transported water into the city.[17] The same in Toledo , where a wheel discharges into one end of an aqueduct that carries the water to the town and the fields, and whilst the largest Hama wheels had a diameter of 20 metres, and are an impressive sight, al-Idrisi informs us that that lift of the water wheel at Toledo was 90 cubits or about 50 metres.[18] 


Some Muslim engineers who designed or built such machines are known to us. Al-Jazari was amongst them. His designs contradict the generally established view amongst Western historians who assert that his devices, like those of other Islamic engineers, were mere fanciful creations with no practical purpose. His treatise contradicts such widespread distortions.[19] Not only, it is almost certain that he was involved in the design and construction of public works, but his designs have also incorporated techniques and components that are of importance for the development of machine technology.[20] One of his machines, a miniature water driven saqiya (category V; ch 3), was provided with a model cow to give the impression that this was the source of motive power, whilst the actual power is provided in a lower, concealed chamber and consists of a scoop wheel and two gear wheels.[21] This system drives the vertical axle that passes up into the main chamber, where two further gear wheels transmit the power to the chain of pots wheel.[22] Such devices, without the model cow, were in every day use, al-Jazari’s model being a smaller version of a larger one, used on the River Yazid in Damascus , that was built not later than 1254 to serve the needs of  a hospital and that has remained in constant use throughout the centuries until it fell into disrepair in 1960.[23]

Islamic history has also retained the name of a water wheel constructer: Qaysar (fl 12th-13th centuries) who is credited for building some gigantic wheels adorning the Syrian landscape,[24] especially on the Orontos river.


Water  raising devices are not just important, as outlined so far, for their economic and social roles, but are also important for another crucial reason. Indeed, as Hill points out, they are of considerable significance in the history of machine technology, since many of the ideas and components incorporated in such water lifting devices were to enter the vocabulary of European engineering at a later date.[25] In one of  Al-Jazari’s devices, for instance, we have the crank as part of a machine, although manually operated cranks have been in use for centuries.[26] In another of his machines, listed as al-Jazari’s First Water Raising Machine, the segmental gear plays an interesting part.[27] A similar wheel first appeared in Europe in Giovani De’Dondi’s astronomical clock, completed about 1365;[28] but this type of gear was already known in the Islamic world before the time of Al-Jazari, through al-Muradi (fl. 11th century) of Spain who used it in some of his devices.[29] One of al-Jazari’s devices, listed as his fifth machine, is a piston pump with two alternative means of propulsion.[30] This piston pump played a leading role in the development of technology, and it is more advanced than the suction pumps that appeared in Europe in the 15th century, since it is self acting, and incorporates both a suction and a delivery lift, and the double action principle.[31]


Another type of wheel was also widely used in Islam, but to provide power; water and wind playing a central role in activating machinery in Islam.

[1] Qazwini: Athar al-Bilad, in M.C. Lyons: Popular Science; op cit; p. 52.

[2] Ibid.

[3] D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p. 135.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Such as Al-Muqaddasi: Ahsan al-Taqassim; op cit; p. 208; Ibn Hawqal: Kitab Surat al-Ard; vol 2; p. 324.

[6] E. Wiedemann and F. Hauser: Uber Vorrischtungen zum Heben von Wasser in der islamischen Welt; Jahrbuch des Vereins Deutscher Ingenieure; vol 8 (1918), pp. 121-54; p. 129.

[7] Ibn Al-Awwam Libro; op cit; in T. Schioler: Roman and Islamic Water  Lifting Wheels  (Odense University Press; 1973), p. 30ff.

[8] N. Smith: Man and Water ; op cit; p. 20.

[9] T. Schioler; op cit; pp. 37-8.

[10] D.R. Hill: Hydraulic machines; in Encyclopaedia of Islam; op cit; vol 5; under ma’a; p. 861.

[11] G. Sarton: Introduction;  op cit; vol 2; p. 623.

[12] H. Suter: Die Mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber und ihre Werke (APA, Oriental  Press, Amsterdam, 1982). p. 33.

[13] Nasir Khusraw; p. 5. in G. Le Strange: Palestine  Under the Moslems (Alexander P. Watt; London; 1890), p.357.

[14] Al-Dimashqi: Kitab nukhbat al-dahr fi ajaib al-barr wal bahr, edited by A.F. Mehren; quarto, 375 p.  (St Petersburg; 1866).

[15] D. Sourdel: Hama; in Encyclopaedia of Islam; New Series; vol 3; pp. 119-21. p. 120.

[16] M. Sobernheim: Hama; in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1st series, 1915; vol 2; pp. 240-1. p. 240. 

[17] N. Smith: A History of Dams ; op cit; pp 90-1.

[18] Al-Idrisi: Description de l’Afrique du Nord et de l’Espagne; Arabic text ed. With French Tr by R. Dozy and M.J. de Goeje (Brill; Leiden; 1866), p. 187 in Arabic, and 228 in French.

[19] D.R. Hill: The Book of Knowledge, op cit.

[20] D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p. 146.

[21] D.R. Hill: Hydraulic machines; in Encyclopaedia of Islam; op cit; vol 5; p. 861.

[22] Ibid.

[23] D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p. 148.

[24] R.J. Forbes: Studies in Ancient Technology ; vol II, second revised edition (Leiden, E.J Brill, 1965), p. 114.

[25] D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p. 129.

[26] Ibid; p. 149.

[27] Ibid; pp. 147-8.

[28] S. A.Bedini and F.R. Maddison: Mechanical Universe, the Astrarium of Giovanni de Dondi, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society; New Series; vol 56 (1966).

[29] D.R. Hill: A History of Engineering; op cit; p. 148.

[30] Ibid; p. 149-52.

[31] Ibid; p. 152.