Control of water is fundamental for all civilizations. It has been acquired through different techniques where knowledge was constantly improved and diffused over the millennia.
In ancient Egypt, the only method used by farmers to lift water from the Nile or a canal and to discharge it to a higher level for the irrigation of fields, was the shaduf. Consisting of a pendulum to be handled by one person, it drew water with the help of a long pole attached to the gallows, a counterweight provided at one end and a container at the other. This practice was attested from the New Kingdom.
The introduction of the water wheel, or “saqia”, in the Nile Valley, was in general set to Greek times; it definitely brought about a revolutionary shift in irrigation and as a consequence, agriculture.
One of the earliest known examples in Egypt was represented in a Hellenistic painting housed in the Museum of Alexandria, where one sees two oxen pushing this hydraulic machine operated not only by human power but also by animal traction (ox, buffalo, ass or dromedary) which allowed for the increase and multiplication of yield.
The animal was connected by a pole to the axis of a horizontal wheel which allowed, turning in circles, to lead by a system of gearing a vertical wheel, itself activating another big wheel to which vases (qadus) were attached with ropes: such means allowed water to be drawn, brought up and then led by the wheel and poured in a gully.
The origin of this machine is to be found in the Mesopotamian world. In Hama, Syria, large waterwheels using energy of the stream are still visible on the banks of the Orontes River.
The saqia was employed until very recently and some abandoned vestiges still exist on the edges of canals. In the last decades of its use, wooden wheels and earthenware vessels were replaced by a metallic wheel with buckets. It was the motor-pumps which eventually replaced saqias.
In its time, the saqia was a considerable contribution; it facilitated the work of people and helped to expand irrigated areas.
This progress was particularly noticeable in Nubia where cultivable land was limited to the banks of the Nile in ancient times; so as a consequence they were able to grow crops and cultivate well beyond the banks of the Nile into deserts.