Transforming the landscape of Southern Iberia, the waterwheel was the single most important item of technology to be introduced in the 8th century, shortly after Arab forces invaded from Morocco, as Carolyn Kain discovered
At the time, the waterwheel was unknown in Iberia but it became the best device for accessing underground water supplies. In Portugal known as ‘nora’ (in English ‘noria,’ from the Arab word ‘na’urah’), it is the subject of Roma Markov’s latest painting. The artist is based in Faro and the original painting is currently exhibited at Galeria CôrteReal in Paderne.
Throughout the Algarve countryside, many noras can still be seen but most are no longer in working order. They once drew water from a well passing it through a series of dug-out channels to irrigate the fields. A donkey or a mule walking in circles was used to turn the large wheel which dipped down into a well, filling pottery or metal containers attached around its rim. At the surface, gravity tipped the water into a trough or aqueduct and the empty containers returned to the bottom of the well in a continuous process.
Both Portugal and Spain benefitted from the nora so that for centuries the Iberian fields were far better developed than those in the rest of Europe. Groves of almonds, apricots, carob, pomegranate and citrus trees flourished.
Numerous crops and vegetables could now be grown on what had previously been arid land.
The 12th-century Moroccan scholar, Al Idrisi, described the Algarve as a land of beautiful cities, surrounded by irrigated gardens and orchards.
Going back in time
The origin of the waterwheel is something of a puzzle although there is evidence that a similar invention existed in Egypt around 700BCE.
It collected water from a river, the flow filled the containers by immersion and, as the wheel rotated, the upper containers were emptied out into a trough. At around the same time – developed independently in China – the ‘bucketwagon’ was an almost identical device.
Five hundred years later the nora’– able to draw water from a well rather than a river – was in common use across Iberia. Arab engineers made significant improvements to the design developing the flywheel and crankshaft to deliver power more smoothly. Once a well was sunk and a ‘nora’ installed, agriculture could be made to thrive.
Other irrigation methods have superseded the waterwheel so that the land around each nora has returned to its natural state; parched in summer but at other times of year surrounded by wild plants and grasses. One such scene inspired Roma Markov’s painting.
“An iconic image of the Algarve’s agricultural past,” he says.
In parts of Morocco such as Tagmoute, the ‘nora’ continues to be used. Nowadays wells are hygienically lined and the water treated with chemicals but the method of bringing it to the surface exactly replicates the system that was once used here.
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