The Pont du Gard is the most visited Roman site in the country

France has one of the most important architectural structures dating back to antiquity – the Pont du Gard.

It is unique in its construction, in addition to being the highest aqueduct built in the Roman Empire. Located 20 km from Avignon and 23 km from Nîmes, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and is the most visited Roman site in the country.

The Roman architectural marvel

The bridge was built by the Romans around 50 AD and was the centerpiece of an amazing aqueduct that brought running water to present-day Nîmes for around three centuries.

It supplied the fountains installed in each street, the thermal baths, the gardens and the private residences.

Nemausus, as Nîmes was called at the time, was one of the main Roman cities in France, with an estimated population of 20,000. It had all the characteristics of a modern city, with a forum and a temple, but although water was available from wells and rainwater, it was not plentiful and the population grew.

To give real status to the city, it needed gushing fountains in its gardens and the possibility of frequently changing the water in its public baths.

There is no record of who came up with the idea for an aqueduct, or who financed it, and no one knows who the architects and engineers of this extraordinary structure were, but the Pont du Gard guide Laurent Charrière says it is likely that the experts came from Rome, where they already knew how to build aqueducts.

However, this posed new challenges.

“The nearest suitable source was the source of the Eure, at Uzès. The direct route between cities is 23 km, but there is a hill in the way, so the aqueduct had to be 50 km long to bypass it.

“The difference in height between the source and its destination is only 12 m, so the slope had to be very low.

“This meant that the only way to cross the Gardon valley was to build a very high bridge, 48m high, so as not to lose too much height.”

He says these constraints are why the bridge is unique: it is made up of three decks, one above the other. The first has six arches, the second 11, and the upper level, which carries the canal, 35.

“This is the design they came up with to make such a high bridge strong. Not only did it have to be very high, but it also had to withstand the waters of the river, which can rise suddenly with enormous force during rainstorms. autumn and winter. Having three bridges made it very heavy, strong and difficult to destroy. It is estimated to weigh 50,400 tons, the equivalent of five Eiffel Towers.

Each deck level is narrower than the one below, to add to the strength of the construction. The arches on the first and second tiers are about the same size, although the arch spanning the river on the lower tier is the tallest at 24.5m and one of the widest built by the Romans.

Fortunately there was suitable stone nearby, dug in the Estel quarry, only 600m from the bridge.

“The stone is a soft, yellow and shelly limestone”, specifies Mr. Charrière. “It’s easy to cut and shape, but once in place, and compacted, it becomes tough. It is a stone that is still used today for balustrades, stairs and terraces.

Built with slave labor

It is estimated that the construction of the bridge took five years and the entire aqueduct, from the source to the city, took 15 years.

About 500 workers were hired to build the Pont du Gard, and as many more for the rest of the aqueduct.

Some were paid, but slaves were also used, not only for manual labor, but also for skilled work such as shaping stone.

First, the pillars of the lower deck were built, followed by the arch and then the top, and this process continued at each level.

Wooden scaffolding was used, built by skilled carpenters. There were also cranes, operated by slaves walking in a cogwheel, which drove the lifting and lowering device, capable of lifting huge blocks of stone.

The aqueduct is believed to have operated until 500 AD. However, it is likely that Nemausus only needed water for about 300 years, after which the importance of the city declined and, with it, its population.

Keeping the water flowing freely required a lot of maintenance work to clean the lime deposits that had built up. It was physical labor, no doubt carried out by city-employed crews, and would have ended with the decline of Nemausus.

The water that still flowed in the aqueduct for the next 200 years was probably used by farmers for irrigation.

19th century graffiti on the Pont du Gard Pic: Don Mammoser/Shutterstock

Transformation into a historical monument

In the Middle Ages, however, the structure was no longer in use and people stole stones from it for their own building projects.

Although the aqueduct was never intended as a road, people began using it to cross the river around the 11th century. They cut the stone of the pillars of the first level to make it wide enough to take a horse and a cart.

“That, in fact, saved the Pont du Gard,” says Mr. Charrière.

“A toll was required to cross the bridge, which made it a valuable source of income. Otherwise, it could have been completely dismantled over time for its stone.

Much later, in 1743, a parallel bridge was built which could take more traffic.

It was not until the 19th century that the intrinsic value of ancient monuments began to be appreciated.

In 1840, Prosper Mérimée, the first inspector of historic monuments, ranked the Pont du Gard among the most important works in France, which means that its future is assured and that the pillars are restored.

From the 20th century, the bridge began to attract thousands of tourists. The parallel bridge was closed to traffic and, in 2000, the site was redeveloped to better accommodate tourism, while preserving the bridge and the local environment.

There is now a museum showing how it was built, and it is also possible to book a guided tour along the canal at the top of the bridge.

The first small section is in the open but most of it is in a tunnel, as the waterway has been covered its entire length to protect it.

Mr. Charrière says that while the Pont du Gard is undeniably beautiful, it should not be forgotten that it was not built simply to be beautiful.

“The goal was to find the easiest and best way to make something that was supposed to be useful. The modern analogy is a highway bridge, which engineers and architects design to serve a purpose, using the most economical and practical methods.

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