Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

When you look at the biggest cities in the world, they all tend to be built on a major body of water, either a coast, a large lake, or a major river. This made sense in ancient times, as abundant water fills two essential needs for civilization, (abundant water for drinking and abundant water for agriculture,) but even in modern times, when one would think that irrigation and pipelines would mitigate the necessity for local access to abundant water, we still see major cities showing up on the waterfront.

I can only think of one example, modern or historical, of a major city without local access to abundant water, and that's Jerusalem. (And it took some pretty impressive feats of ancient engineering to get water to it.) But it seems strange to think that that would be the only one. Are there any other examples of major cities, either historical or modern, without local access to abundant water? How common was it?

share|improve this question
I seem to recall some documentaries referring to Jerusalem and natural springs long ago, so while they may not have had abundant water they did have a source at the time. I'll have to look and see if I can find some references to those shows though. –  MichaelF Oct 31 '12 at 11:44
Mexico City and Mecca come to mind. –  American Luke Oct 31 '12 at 12:57
@Luke Mexico City was an outgrowth of Teotihuacan, which was abundant with water at the time of its inception. –  New Alexandria Oct 31 '12 at 18:40
True, but the lake no longer remains. –  American Luke Oct 31 '12 at 22:08

3 Answers 3

To some extent, the answer depends on your definitions of "abundant" and "major city." Generally, the supply of water needs merely be adequate to support a population, not "abundant," so I would argue that the situation you describe is rather common, with perhaps hundreds of important cities present and past thriving despite their distance from a major river or freshwater lake. The presence of "abundant" water does contribute to a city's growth, however, because historically, water enables trade, and trade in aggregate brings prosperity, and prosperous cities will grow.

Human settlements number perhaps in the millions, but not every camp becomes a village, not every village a town, and not every town a great metropolis. Cities grow because cities prosper, and while access to water was historically important, it was not for the reasons you propose.

Do not conflate cities and their civilizations. Civilizations depend on agriculture, and agriculture depends on water, but almost by definition little agriculture takes place in cities. But even in the case of agriculture, many pre-industrial civilizations were able to divert springs, store floodwaters and runoff in reservoirs, and supply agriculture through canals.

To be sure, water is necessary. Mesopotamian civilizations shriveled when the Tigris or Euphrates shifted course, and parched Dodoma is Tanzania's capital largely on paper partly for its unstable water supply. But "abundant" water is not sufficient for a major city to arise, either. None of the fifteen largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. is situated on any of its fifteen largest rivers by discharge (in fairness, #16 Minneapolis-St. Paul is on the Mississippi). The Nile Valley has not been the richest part of Africa for some time, and the great cities of Brazil are not situated on the banks of the Amazon.

Even in ancient times, urban drinking water needs could be met by transportation (i.e. canals and aqueducts), collection/storage (i.e. reservoirs, cisterns), and groundwater (wells and springs). Jerusalem, which you say lacked an "abundant water supply," used an extensive system of cisterns and reservoirs supplemented by aqueducts to support its population. The same goes for Athens, Byblos, Carthage, Constantinople, and on down the line to Pompeii, Syracuse, and Tyre— given the dry climate and unlacustrine geography of the Mediterranean and Levant, quite a few of its settlements would have relied in groundwater and cisterns, with increasingly longer and more sophisticated aqueducts built, especially starting in the Roman era.

For a more modern example, Dallas, Texas is situated on the Trinity River, but that is a minor waterway that is not navigable. It was founded there for its lack of water— that is to say, a trading post was established at one of the river's few natural fords to service the many wagon trains crossing there. From the trading post grew a metropolitan area of over 6 million residents.

What this illustrates is that a more important driver of growth is trade, and trade is what access to a major river or lake (or the sea or ocean) facilitates. Prior to the invention of the steam engine, transporting goods over land was slow, subject to loss by banditry, and limited by the speed of pack animals. Water was the only feasible medium for shipping cargo in large quantities or over long distances, whether by barge or boat. Communications, too, would have been faster by water, particularly in a mountainous country like Greece, and the presence of a port implies contact with outsiders, contributing to the sharing of ideas. Countries and empires undertook huge canal projects to facilitate water transportation; thousands of miles of them in the United States alone.

Of course, trade is not the sole force behind a city's growth, either. Other population centers became established for political reasons, such as Madrid, or for military reasons, such as Moscow. But in such cases, the availability of water is again secondary. Madrid has a tenuous water supply for a city its size, but had an ideal location for Philip II to establish his court.

The invention of the steam engine, telegraph, and railroad have of course torn all the above considerations apart. Sending a package from New York to San Francisco by clipper ship would have taken three months, half the time to ship it by stagecoach over land. But the transcontinental railroad made it possible to ship it in a week. Such things would have rendered Pheidippides and Andrew Jackson largely invisible to history, but they also made possible cities that would scarcely have thrived otherwise: Los Angeles, watered from hundreds of miles away, is a trade hub because it connects the American railroad network— improbably, over mountains and across deserts— to its busiest port— an artificial harbor dug by steam shovel— and busiest O/D international airport.

share|improve this answer
Sure, the largest cities in the US aren't on the largest rivers, but most of them are either coastal or on the Great Lakes. And even if you can't drink seawater, living on the coast generally brings abundant rainfall and a high water table, meaning you can get all the water your civilization needs from wells. Good points about trade being a significant motivating factor, though. –  Mason Wheeler Oct 31 '12 at 14:50
I remember reading in Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1997) also an argument to the effect that in colonial times the continental rivers had similar importance (to the military, hunters, traders, etc.) as the highway system has gained in modern times. –  Drux Nov 1 '12 at 22:46

City where I live, Bangalore (in southern India) would be an example. It has a population of about 8.5 million (which is slightly more than that of New York city), so it definitely can be considered a major city. It is not built on the shores of any significant water body. It has been around since at least 1537, if not earlier.

I am guessing that there would be many more such examples.

share|improve this answer
Tehran immediately comes to mind. –  canadiancreed Oct 31 '12 at 12:11

Moscow was build on a small river. It is in the 20th Cent. when through a channel Volga waters poured into Moskva river and it became... hmmm... a medium river.

Rome was built on Tiber - even smaller river.

Maya cities were built on marshes.

Really, old capital cities, especially in Europe, were rather small towns in nowadays terms and even a small river was enough at start. And later they simply transported the fresh water, if needed. Often by water, as in old Moscow or Venice.

A city needed rather a strong agricultural area around - the food was more serious problem.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.