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Volume 14, Number 9November/December 1963

In This Issue

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The Earliest Engineers

They created magnificent structures with nothing but simple tools and unbounded imagination.

When was the Suez Canal first completed? The world's first system of public street lighting installed? The first no parking sign put up? The answers are respectively: 525 B.C., 350 A.D., and 630 B.C.

Uncanny as it seems, a ship canal to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea was begun 2,600 years ago by the engineers who served Egypt's ruler, Nikau II. The unwieldy yet workable waterway was actually finished 74 years after Nikau's death by the armies of Darius I, who had conquered Egypt. In time, the canal was allowed to fill up with sand and it became unnavigable. However, in 640 A.D. another conqueror of Egypt—the Arab soldier, 'Amr ibn-al-'As—had the canal dredged. By 800 A.D., it had again fallen into disrepair, and until the present canal's completion in 1869 communication between the two great seas was closed.

The city of Antioch, in what is now Turkey, was the site of the first municipal street lighting, and the inauguration of restricted parking occurred at Nineveh, ancient capital of Assyria. There, at intervals along a wide paved street, King Sennacherib had posts placed which read royal road, let no man lessen it. An offender caught parking a chariot or other vehicle along this boulevard didn't get a traffic ticket. The penalty for breaking the law was stiff—death.

While a thoroughfare paved with flat bricks set in lime mortar, sand and asphalt seemed a wonderful innovation to the Assyrian king, the idea was not new even in his time. Engineers in neighboring Mesopotamia had learned how to construct such paving several centuries earlier. And 2,000 years before them, still other engineers had invented the bricks necessary to road-building.

Who were these ancient engineers, these men who could undertake projects too large for a single craftsman, projects calling for hundreds, or thousands, of men organized and led toward a common goal? History gives pages, even chapters, to kings, philosophers and artists but very little space to the men who built the stages on which these others performed. Yet the story of the rise of civilization belongs equally to the tiny group whose genius lay in building.

The first engineers lived in the Middle East, probably around 3,500 B.C. No one knows their names, but they conceived and built the elevated irrigation canal. As irrigation systems spread, farmers were able to raise more food with less labor. Thus, an increasing number of people were relieved of agricultural chores and able to gather in cities to practice specialties. Today's city is essentially still a place where specialists live and work.

Eventually, the kings who ruled these primitive, early cities desired houses larger and more comfortable than the huts of reeds and clay they'd been living in. They hired gifted men to build them palaces. Priests, feeling the gods would be offended if their statues weren't housed as splendidly as the kings, insisted on the construction of elaborate temples. Thus, a new class arose, technicians who could discuss with monarchs or priesthood the planning and construction of public works.

To protect the wealth of gods and kings, the early engineers designed military walls and moats to surround the cities. Soon the jewels, fine raiment and food in the temples and palaces required men and means to keep track of them. Arithmetic and writing were invented. By 1,000 B.C., this and other technology had created a high level of civilization which stretched in a broad belt from the Middle East to India, southeast Asia and China. Any new invention originated at one end of this cultural highway eventually traveled to the other end.

Imhotep, the Egyptian who built the world's first pyramid in 2,700 B.C., is the earliest engineer known by name. He is credited with inventing the art of building with hewn stone, and from him a long line of architects descended. One such descendant was Khnumabra, who, a tablet relates, "was Minister of Public Works under King Darius I," (490 B.C.).

Imhotep's king, Joser, believed that an afterlife could exist only so long as the body was kept intact. Accordingly, he ordered Imhotep to design a burial structure which would befuddle tomb robbers forever. After a lifetime of experiment, Imhotep produced a stone pyramid. It had many corridors branching out to hold the wealth Joser counted on taking with him, and even living quarters for the priests who would perform rites for Joser's welfare in the afterlife.

Imhotep's design inspired many later burial tombs. One of these required 2,300,000 blocks of stone weighing two and a half tons apiece. It was second only to the Wall of China among the largest human constructions of antiquity. This colossus was the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, so large the cathedrals of Milan, Florence, St. Peter's of Rome, St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey of London all could be placed at the same time in an area the size of its base.

After centuries of speculation, current archaeological research has given a new opinion on how the Great Pyramid was built. About 4,000 workmen (soldiers and well-paid civilians, not slaves) were probably involved. These workers, according to recent translations, were organized into high-spirited gangs, such as "Enduring Gang," "Vigorous Gang," etc. With the exception of the simple lever, no machinery—not even wooden rollers—was available to them. They quarried the granite and limestone building blocks with crude copper wedges and chunks of stone for hammers, then drew them to the site on sleds. A tomb painting shows 172 men sledding one of the 50-ton slabs used in roofing the pyramid's chambers. While workers quarried the stones, others were clearing and leveling the building site. The sides of the base were measured off with cords to form a square, and leveling was accomplished with a long, narrow clay trough filled with water. The trough worked just as well as a modern spirit level!

As the pyramid grew, the builders raised an earthen mound on all sides of it. Remains of such mounds have been found around many pyramids. Wooden ramps were placed against the mounds, and with sapling levers the mammoth blocks were hauled upwards. As each course was laid, mound and ramp were raised to another level. When the job was done, the thousands of tons of earth were hauled away in buckets and carts.

When Egyptians were just beginning to learn the fundamentals of stone-construction, the Mesopotamians were already seasoned professionals at building with brick. These ancient Middle East peoples were second to none in engineering. And from them and adjoining cultures, the rest of the world would draw much of its technology of building.

A relief from 3,000 B.C. shows a Mesopotamian king, Ur-Nanshe of Lagash, delivering the first basket of bricks for some public work and is remindful of the ground-breaking ceremonies often conducted by political dignitaries today. In this same period, engineers on Crete were building imposing palaces, complete with ceramic drain pipes to carry water away from the baths, and a gigantic mile-long dam—the first of its scope in history—was being completed by kings of the Arabian Peninsula. The dam, said to have been started by a legendary sheikh, Luqman ibn-'Ad, furnished irrigation to a valley near Ma'rib, in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, for a thousand years before it broke down.

Other imposing accomplishments of early Arab engineers included the raising of 20-story granite and brick apartment houses and the digging of elaborate underground aqueducts called qandt, which brought water from foothills to dry plains. The first practical use of the windmill took place in the great age of the Middle East a thousand years ago. Prior to then, millwrights had exploited waterpower by floating barges on the Tigris on which they mounted mills of various kinds, driven by undershot wheels. Arab advances in fortification were numerous, and all were eventually copied by European kings. One of the simpler but most effective of these was the making of a fortress entrance in the shape of a dog-leg. He who would enter had to make a right-angled turn or two, and could not from' the outer gateway see or shoot into the inner courtyard.

A Persian relief dating' to 500 B.C. portrays King Darius sitting on a throne, the legs and rungs of which reveal that someone had already invented the lathe. In the same century, engineers in the Hittite capital of Hattusas built what might be called the first railroad. Along the city's paved processional way was a pair of grooves tooled to fit the wheels of sacred wagons. Legend had it that it would not do for a god's wagon to get stuck or his statue be jostled, as there was no telling what an angry god might not do!

The rebuilding of Babylon was ordered in 500 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar, and architects, designers and contractors from all over the known world were called in to take part. The finished capital featured neatly laid-out and ornately decorated avenues with names such as Shamash Street, Marduk Street, The Street on Which May No Enemy Ever Tread, etc.

The city's famous Hanging Gardens (actually a large garden atop a princely palace) was planted on a roof waterproofed by layers of asphalt and sheet lead. A windlass bar arrangement, involving buckets attached to a chain-work on a wheel, kept water flowing up to the roof night and day from a well in the basement of the building. Nebuchad- nezzar's father, Nabopolassar, one of the best-trained builders of his day, had put a bridge across the Euphrates at Babylon which for centuries stood as one of the wonders of the world. Built when most bridges were flimsy affairs of tree trunks, reeds or inflated goatskins, Nabopolassar's marvel had streamlined piers of baked bricked and stone and a timber superstructure 390 feet long!

One of the secrets behind the success of these ancient bridges—as well as dams, pyramids, and public structures—was simply that the builders and their employers had no need of haste. A second secret was the inborn consistency of technology. Great men have built great empires, but these have declined. Tastes and styles constantly soar—and sink—in the arts, in philosophy, in politics. But through all history the technology of building has plodded ahead. While empires blossomed and fell, forms of government went through erratic cycles, science flared up and fizzled out, the engineers went ahead raising walls, edifices, paving, digging, tinkering, improving tools and then building better than ever. Though their names are mostly unknown, their accomplishments often outspanned the reigns of dozens of kings. Some of their structures still stand as testimony to their extraordinary craftsmanship.

This article appeared on pages 22-24 of the November/December 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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