Water: a powerful Source and a Source to Power

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Water: A Powerful Source and a Source to Power

In the Greek world, nymphs were divinities venerated for their protection of precious water sources. Votives were offered to the nymphs to express the appreciation of Greeks for the vital resource they provided. These votives and prayers of thanks were given at rural shrines dedicated to the nymphs. The shrines were set up mostly at rural caves, the source of water and a place where nymphs were thought to inhabit. Referred to as nymphaea, these cave shrines were completely natural. Not only is their ample archaeological evidence of these shrines, but they are also mentioned by ancient sources, such as Pausanias and Homer. In the Roman period, however, nymphaea began to evolve into man-made structures. In Greece, nymphaea were built under Hadrian which were partially natural and partially superficial. The caves were manipulated to make them appear more extravagant and eye-catching. Nymphaea also began to be built in more urban settings. They were incorporated into the gardens of luxurious villas in Tivoli and Pompeii and also appear in the city of Rome itself. The nymphaea of Roman villas still kept their original connection with nature, but the nymphaea built in Rome became completely disconnected from it. These structures were now fountains at heart, unique architectural forms created by man. It is in Near Eastern cities, especially those in Syria and Jordan, that nymphaea make their final and most dramatic changes. The sites of Palmyra, Jerash, Beth-Sean, and Petra preserve for us some of those most elaborate nymphaea. In these caravan cities, nymphaea appear at the center of urban life, often built on the main colonnaded street of the city. They would have been used to provide refreshment to the numerous travelers coming through the city from the harsh elements of the desert from which they came. The nymphaea in these cities were quite extravagant, consisting of numerous levels, niches filled with statues, and a hydraulic system to marvel at. These Near Easter cities could show off their wealth, power, and mastery over nature with nymphaea. The changes made to nymphaea here seem to alter their function dramatically. Instead of a rural cave shrine meant for private worship, we now see civic architectural structures meant to cater to the public. The religious essence of these fountains may have not been completely lost, but power and wealth appeared to be venerated before the sacred divinities with which nymphaea were originally associated.


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