What Was a Cistern in Ancient Times?

Cisterns have been a part of human civilization for centuries. In ancient times, they were essential structures that stored water for various purposes. A cistern was essentially a large container that held rainwater or groundwater, which was used for drinking, irrigation, and other household needs.

The Origin of Cisterns

The history of cisterns can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa. The earliest known cisterns were built by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC. These early cisterns were made from clay and lined with bitumen to prevent water from seeping out.

The Purpose of Cisterns

Cisterns were primarily used to store water during times of drought or when there was a shortage of rainfall. They were also used to collect rainwater from rooftops and other surfaces, which was then directed into the cistern through a system of gutters and downspouts.

In addition to providing a reliable source of drinking water, cisterns were also used for irrigation purposes. Farmers would use the stored water to irrigate their crops during dry spells or when there was no access to natural sources of water.

The Design of Cisterns

Cisterns came in many different shapes and sizes depending on their purpose and location. In some cases, they were built underground to protect them from the elements and keep the water cool. Other cisterns were built above ground using materials such as stone, brick, or concrete.

One common design feature of many ancient cisterns was the presence of filters or screens that prevented debris such as leaves and twigs from entering the tank. This helped keep the water clean and free from contaminants.

The Legacy of Cisterns

Although cisterns are no longer as common as they once were, their legacy can still be seen in many parts of the world. In some areas, ancient cisterns have been preserved and turned into tourist attractions or historical landmarks.

Moreover, the concept of collecting and storing rainwater is still relevant today. With the growing concern over water scarcity and climate change, many people are turning to rainwater harvesting as a way to conserve water and reduce their dependence on traditional sources.


In conclusion, cisterns played a vital role in the survival of ancient civilizations by providing a reliable source of water during times of drought or shortage. Their design and purpose varied depending on location and need, but they all served the same essential function. Today, while they may not be as prevalent, their legacy lives on through modern-day rainwater harvesting.