The water seller is one of Egypt's oldest professions, especially in the ancient district of Old Cairo.
With his bent posture and water sack dangling behind his back, he is the star of many old photographs of the ‘city victorious.’
At a time when most people did not have running water in their homes, the water seller was often seen roaming the streets, distributing water to residents and passersby. Using his water sack, the water seller delivered door-to-door drinking water from the Nile River to Cairenes. He would write the number of water sacks each house needed on a small board hanging on the door.
Water sellers flourished during the Islamic era, when the profession was headed by a sheikh of water sellers in Kafr Sheikh Rihan district, which became known as Haret Al-Saqqayen (‘water sellers alley’).
Gihan Maamoun in her book, ‘Hamasat Masreya’ (Egyptian Whispers), discusses the water sellers, writing that they were licenced and monitored by the government, and citizens relied on them to extinguish fires. The water selling regulations included using clean cups, not filling water sacks at night, and closing all water sacks with corks to avoid any water contamination. Moreover, mint, floral water and mastic gum were added to give a fresh flavour to the water.
On a parallel note, the water seller was expected to be honest, pious and to respect the privacy of the homes he visited.
The line of work started to decline in Egypt during the reign of Saladin in the twelfth century, after he constructed Cairo’s first water system, magra al oyoun, a channel that carried water from the Nile to the Citadel.