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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Just What is a Cistern Anyway?

In 1997, I had the privilege of traveling to the countries of Jordan and Israel. I was asked to make a video about the historical significance of scores of sites in that region. Part of that documentary tells the story of the ancient mountain fortress just east of the southern end of the Dead Sea called Masada.

In this otherwise dessert region, it was the many cavernous cisterns built in the northwest side of the cliff that held the secret of why the fortress was virtually (and secretly) self-sufficient during one of the most heart-breaking sieges in history. It was also in one of these then water-filled cisterns that two Jewish mothers (and 3 children) hid during the siege and lived to tell what happened there.

We don’t use the word “cistern” much anymore, but it is a holding reservoir for water--large or small. In fact, each of our homes probably has at least one or two cisterns in daily use. I’m referring to that modern marvel, the cistern toilet. There was a time when the cistern (now called "the tank") was mounted high on the wall to create more water pressure for the flush.

Some cisterns have no pressure at all. On the way to Masada back in 1997, we stopped at some public restrooms that had open cisterns for "flushing." You’ll notice in the picture there is no stool, just a porcelain hole in the ground with molded “foot prints” to tell you where to put your feet. These "facilities"are common in the Middle and Far East (We also encountered them in Northern Thailand.) When you’re ready to flush, you scoop the water from the cistern and--vwella--you can “flush” as often as you like. (No need to wait for the tank to refill.)

Okay. That was perhaps too much information. The remainder of the post will focus on the less personal uses of cisterns.

Cistern beside Farm House

In the previous post, Professor Harold Hill, warned listeners that the presence of a pool hall in their town would leave "parents caught with a cistern empty on a Saturday night." Farm houses often had underground cement cisterns beside the house that gathered rain water from the house gutter system.
Sometimes cisterns were connected to the farm well and water had to be pumped by hand to fill the closer source. Sometimes they were elevated beside the house like a small version of the wooden water towers from the same time period. (Seen in photo at right.) Elevated cisterns were "pumped" full to provide "water pressure" to all plumbing in the house.

These elevated wooden cisterns were, of course, the precursor to the various styles of steel "water towers" that sprang up across America through the 20th Century.
They come in all shapes and sizes. The larger designs commonly hold a million gallons of clean fresh water supplied to thousands of homes within several square miles.
Not all city water towers look like the ones we see most often. A few blocks from where my daughter goes to college (and just down the street from her favorite chocolate shop) is the famous Chicago Water Tower built in 1869. This giant "Sand Castle" is said to be the only building to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It's an ornate cistern that still serves its original purpose 140 years later.
In preparing this post, I learned that my father's desire to dig a "cistern well" was actually both an old concept and a new, very "green" idea three decades ahead of its time. It was a 35 feet deep well and 6,000+ gallon cistern all in one, but it was nothing like the cisterns in the following videos
Here is a link to a brief video about modern above-ground galvanized cisterns. And the screen below is a report about somewhat smaller cisterns similar to what used to be called "rain barrels."

If you found that informative, and have a little more time, here is a much bigger version of the same concept for the truly "green" home of the 21st Century.
There is nothing new under the sun. Man's need for convenient, clean water is a sub-plot of recorded time. Today most of us take this luxury for granted, but depending on where you wish to build a house, it becomes one of the first problems to solve. In our case, back in 1970, the land we owned did not have access to city water, and my dad equated an ample water supply with the self-sufficiency behind his desire to move to the country in the first place.
The next chapter is about digging wells in general, but the chapter after that is the long-awaited story of Dad's unique idea (that I have not seen anywhere else in all my research). It was an idea that Dad thought would take us four or five weeks, but as usual he misjudged the downright toil involved, and the project took nearly twice that long, taking every Saturday of that summer, from May through August . Ah, what memories!


Blogger JR's Thumbprints said...

Always interesting. Always educational. We have a watertower next door to the prison; one of my students actually thought they kept goldfish in it. When I asked him why he would believe such a thing, he said, "To keep it clean, of course."

20/11/08 7:23 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Can you imagine what those tanks would smell like after a few years with goldfish in them?

As far as I know the only stuff they put in the tanks when we were kids in the Detroit area was floride.

20/11/08 7:36 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Very informative Tom, I always learn something when I visit here and I love the background information that you include. Your dad's idea of being "self-sufficient" is a philosophy from my dad's playbook too. I think it's another one of those learned traits, that I've taken for granted, as I have utilized it in so many areas of my life. Very interesting, as I sit here and reflect on "self-sufficiency", it is a core belief that I never really put a name to... does that make sense? Now you've given me some food for thought. I think our dad's invented the idea of going green, they just called it "self-sufficiency".

Oh well, I look forward to the next chapter, but I also look forward to all of the interesting reflections created in my mind by your "tangled tangents". ; )

21/11/08 10:24 AM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

On the farm we had a well but no cistern. A pump provided pressure. I can still remember my dad going down into the well to fix something. For a little kid it seemed like a long way down.
Loved your explanation and am looking forward to the next part of your story.

21/11/08 5:49 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thank you. I don't know that I always found this sort of thing interesting, but the older I get the more I think I would be a much more curious student if I went back in time.

We are living in times when all the hard work of being "self sufficient" for one generation gives way first to convenience (e.g. Mom used to can fruits--but it became cheaper to buy canned, and we kids liked "store bought" better, etc.). Then if we aren't careful, the next generations convenience gives way to an avoidance of hard work, which leads to a generation that cannot function "from scratch" and segments of society (and industry) are helpless without government intervention. Then the cycle begins again and self-sufficient individuals, industries, and nations, rise to the top and take the lead.

21/11/08 5:55 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Dr. John,
The well we dug was 35 feet deep. I'm looking forward to telling how we did it with nothing but hand tools.

21/11/08 5:57 PM  
Blogger Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Great post. Very interesting too. Would have liked to read more about Masada too.

22/11/08 3:48 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...


The links in the opening paragraph summarize the story. A movie has been made about it. It's sad.

With all the current attention that world events are putting on Israel as a nation, it's a story worth studying that takes place just before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some Bible scholars contend that the prophecy in Ezekial 36-38 foretells this fall of Jerusalem; others contend that it is clearly an event to happen after Isreal becomes a nation for the second time (1948), meaning the events in those three chapters have happened in the past 60 years with Chapter 38 yet to happen--hence all the attention being paid to the escalation of events around Israel in our time, but back to Masada...

The Jews were trying to defend their small nation from the much greater "nation" around them--the Romans. The group of militant Jews most responsible for the defense against the Romans used Masada as their "home base." It was an impenetrable fortress with a couple YEARS of water supply that the Romans did not know about. They were safe and sound even though they were surrounded and vastly outnumbered, but the siege took so long that the Romans had time to build a huge earthen ramp up to the wall of Masada. Now the Jews were sitting ducks, but rather than lose a battle (in fashion of that prophesied in Ezekiel 26:7-14) they started everything on fire and drew lots to select men to kill each of them and then each other (since they did not believe in committing suicide)--it was sort of a "Jim Jones" approach to war. When the Romans entered the quiet fortress all they found were the burning buildings and nearly 1,000 dead. (We know the story through Josephus who heard it from two women who hid in the cisterns with their three kids, but the Roman records also confirm the story as factual).

I saw the movie when I was a kid so seeing the place in real life as an adult was like walking at Gettysburg or someplace like that, but it takes far less imagination because the ruins have been maintained very well.

I may write a post about Masada when I finish the "unsettled" stuff. If so, I'll borrow from this comment. =).

22/11/08 11:49 AM  
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15/3/13 1:54 AM  
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3/4/17 4:13 AM  

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