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The Ancient World was pretty "cool," but how did it stay this way?

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

By Zoe Huang


It is quite difficult to imagine life before air conditioners. Have you ever woken up one day and wondered how people in ancient times managed the warm days that come with summer? Essentially, people of the Ancient World used their creativity to find methods to stay cool in summer therefore improving their quality of life. People alive during Ancient Times were forced to utilise existing natural resources in a clever way. This took the form of tasty cold beverages, specifically designed clothing, as well as the invention of aqueducts and windcatchers. Through the effective use of resources, members of ancient civilisations were capable of coping with warm weather. These methods were ultimately passed down and have evolved through the tunnel of time!

What clothing choices did they make because of the warm weather?

Although the world has changed quite a bit since Ancient Times, some things stayed the same. An example of this is dressing according to the weather. In Ancient China, conservative fashion was the norm. However, some areas in China had warm summers which drove the people of Ancient China to alter their clothing choices to adapt to their climate. To stay cool, people would wear translucent clothing made of silk. On the topic of staying cool in summer, clothing made of bamboo was popular for those living along the lower and middle reaches of the Huanghe River (Yellow River) as it allowed the wearer to evade perspiration.

In Ancient Egypt, people needed to adapt to the hot, dry summer. This caused Egyptians to utilise clothing made of light fabrics such as linen. Initially, white clothes were abundant in Ancient Egypt but colours such as blue, red, and gold paired with white were included as well. Furthermore, Ancient Greeks wore light, loose tunics such as a Chiton to manage hot summers. The Chiton was a type of tunic that consisted of a rectangular piece of cloth worn along the shoulders and upper arms and secured by a series of fasteners.


What did people in Ancient China drink to keep cool in summer?

Individuals who lived in intense heat frequently consumed water, however, some ancient civilisations such as Ancient China made other cold beverages in summer. How did they manage to do this without electricity? Unsurprisingly, natural ice was the lifeline in terms of making cold drinks without the assistance of freezers or refrigerators. However, this raises a new question. Where and how did they keep ice from melting during the warmer months? In the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), ice was kept cool using a “冰鉴 (bīng hàn)” which can be seen in the image above. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) cold drinks were abundant in summer. People enjoyed cold wine, shaved ice, and icy lychee juice. It is believed that Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) in China had a liking for milk and would add ice to it making it last longer in summer. Additional jam and preserves were added to this icy drink, consequently creating the oldest ancestor of modern ice cream! Herbal drinks became popular in Beijing throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Additionally, lotus seed soup and liquorice were consumed as it was believed to clear internal heat and toxins. Furthermore, Empress Dowager Cixi favoured an icy plum syrup drink during the summer. This was made of sweet osmanthus, plum juice, and hawthorn fruit.



Exploring the role of windcatchers and aqueducts

During Ancient Times, windcatchers were an important traditional architectural feature used to create natural ventilation and cooling in buildings. Windcatchers came in various designs including unidirectional, multidirectional, and bidirectional. Additionally, they are widely used in West Asia and North Africa. Windcatchers are structures that rise above a building, with an opening that faces the prevailing wind. It captures the wind from above the building as it is cooler and stronger, then channels it down into the building's interior. Some scholars credit the invention to Persia, however, there is significant historical evidence of windcatchers being used in Ancient Egypt and existing around the 12th century BCE. This was revealed in a wall painting of Neb Amoun's house, located at Tel El-Amarna tombs in Luxor, now in the British Museum.

The Ancient Romans were skilled architects with one of their projects being aqueducts. It was a method to transport water from one location to another to gain a regular and controlled water supply to satisfy the needs of the people. This may exist in the form of underground tunnels, covered clay pipes, monumental bridges, as well as networks of canals or surface channels. The Romans kept the heat out of their homes during the summer months by applying a variety of architectural strategies that provided methods of air-conditioning. Cold water was pumped using aqueducts through walls of homes that belonged to elite individuals which freshened and cooled their dwellings during summer months. Numerous fountains were constructed to cool the weather for members of the public. Even though aqueducts are often associated with the Romans, they were designed much earlier and existed in Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, the Indian subcontinent, and the Near East as an irrigation system. Consequently, the Romans were the first people recorded to use aqueducts as a natural cooling system.


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