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Keeping Cool


Continued from Keeping Cool Part I


For some, like the Roman Horace, who in Epistles I.7 1-7, pleads health reasons for his prolonged vacation, an extended heat-avoiding trip to the country was an option. Since there wasn't enough naturally occurring shade in what is now the general area of Baghdad, the Akkadian monarch Sargon had an attendant hold a sunshade over him, as depicted on a victory monument. The idea spread westward where it was particularly popular in Egypt, and eastward to India.

In Rome the idea became democratized. Many urban women soon sported parasols or what they called umbracula -- light cloth stretched over a wooden frame.


For the ancients, bathing was an important, enjoyable daily activity. After strenuous exercise, a Greek athlete could expect to wash up and cool down in a shower with piped-in water emerging from an artistic animal's mouth.

While there were ample natural bodies of waters, baths were popular. Besides the well-known Roman baths, a 4500 year old one has been uncovered in Mohenjo-Daro, 39' x 23' and ten feet deep. It was lined with bricks and bitumen.

Water Cooling

  • In the second century, Athenaeus described an Indian practice of putting water on the roofs at night so it would be cooled.
  • Tomb paintings depict Egyptian slaves fanning large storage jars made of porous clay. Through evaporation, what remained inside was chilled.
  • Also in Egypt, according to Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, women placed shallow clay trays of water on straw-beds. Evaporation from top and sides combined with the drop in night temperatures froze the water.

      The salient feature of the phenomenon lay in the air's low humidity, permitting evaporation, or sweating, which leads to cooling.
  • An unnamed wealthy Babylonian of 2000 B.C. caused water to be sprayed on the walls and floor of his room. Because of the same principles as above, the evaporation provided an escape from the heat.
  • And, again in India, wet grass mats were suspended over openings of the house that faced the wind. The mats were kept wet throughout the night and could cool down the interior by as much as 30 degrees.

Housing Construction

According to Moustafa (members.aol.com/USHorus/forum.htm), the Egyptians
... built their houses from mud brick, which keeps the house cool. Windows were small, and were arranged opposite doors to allow for a cross-draft. Ancient and modern Egyptians have an air shaft in the middle of the buildings. The cool air circulates from the air shaft inside the house.

Main Sources

  • Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati.
  • Ancient Inventions, by Peter James, Nick Thorpe.

Some Online References to Sunshades

  • Tell El-Amarna
    A flat field by the Nile River containing the remains of more than 25 tombs. In one is depicted a sunshade for the queen.
  • Didaskalia Back Issues: Theatre Reviews
    Hans Croiset, in his Persians, attempted to recreate the world depicted in the play. He signified the queen by putting a sunshade over her.
  • Ecclesiazusae, by Aristophanes
      Where is the sunshade carrier? Ah! this stew-pot shall take his place.
  • Knights, by Aristophanes

    What! they would treat me so, and I never saw it?
    You knew only how to open and close your ears like a sunshade.
    Was I then so stupid and such a dotard?
    • Isaiah
      Passages from Isaiah contain a simile about a sunshade.

    Today we can't force slaves to stand behind us carrying sunshades, nor can we forbid others to enter the sanctuary of our shade, but we still hold hand fans, jump in the lake, drink refreshing iced beverages, and anoint ourselves with fragrances in the tradition of the heat activated Egyptian scent cones that dripped down from their heads to perfume their bodies.

    Many of us live in areas too humid to permit the water evaporation method of cooling. For us the advantages of electricity make it hard to imagine unrelenting heat. But for those of us without air conditioners, there's always the time honored tradition of the afternoon siesta.

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