Qanat – A Nighttime Tour of Palermo’s Ancient Canals
The Arab rule of Palermo lasted little more than a century, but constituted a true golden age for the city. Gardens and glorious buildings sprouted up, and Palermo replaced Syracuse as the island’s capital. It became the second largest city in Europe, renowned across the continent as a center of learning and for its privileged way of life. Among the many improvements introduced by the Moors was a system of underground canals, or Qanat, that provided the whole city with fresh water from natural springs in the Monreale area.
The canals were forgotten underneath the city for centuries, only rediscovered in 1979, while the groundwork for a new building was being done. They were preserved and, today, you can take a short tour through the water with the group Cooperativa Solidarietà.
The tour starts with a descent of twenty meters, down a ladder into the darkness. We went on a rainy evening, when the water flowing through the canals was at its strongest. Our group of about fifteen marched single-file through the current, getting soaked, ducking under low ceilings and squeezing past narrow passages. The limestone walls had been worn smooth over the course of the centuries and the water flowing underfoot looked clean enough to drink.
We were underground for about an hour. Though the tour was no longer than half a kilometer, the water and low ceilings made for slow going. At one point, we had to climb through a hole in the ground, to a lower level. It was kind of like spelunking, but in man-made caves, and I found it hard to imagine that people were down here, digging out these tunnels, way back in the 10th century.
You’ll want to bring a full change of clothes. We were completely soaked by the end of the tour. They provided knee-high rubber boots, but these were no match for the knee-high water. It would also help to know some Italian; we understood very little of what the guide was saying. But if you’re looking for an interesting adventure or want to see a little-known side of Palermo’s history, definitely make the effort to join one of the tours.