Throughout the Egyptian countryside, one often sees water jugs in front of houses, supported either by stands of solid stonework or by wooden tripods. These jugs are filled with water, then carefully plugged so that the contents are protected from and dust. The water, which seeps through the porous bottom of the vase, runs into a small receptacle placed on the ground below. This simple and ingenious system serves to assure a supply of freshwater throughout the day.

Frequently there is a ladle or a tin mug attached to the edge of the jug for dipping up the water directly. In Arabic, this combination of the water jug and stand is called zir, a term that originally designated a large pitcher with or without two handles, and that was very narrow at the top.

The zir represents a very ancient tradition dating from pharaonic times, when each house had a space especially constructed for it. During the Coptic era, it became the custom to erect stands in stone, which were supported by quadrangular legs, for removable jugs. There were also some examples in terra-cotta. The top of the stand was hollowed out with circular cavities arranged so as to hold the vases. These were connected by perforations through which the water ran into a human mask or lion’s head sculpted upon the anterior side and serving as an outlet for it. The libation tables from the and Roman eras, themselves from the ancient pharaonic sacrificial tables, no doubt foreshadowed the form of the Coptic stands.

Like their prototypes, the latter were often decorated by bas-relief sculptures of animals, curling vines, interlacing ribbons, crosses, or inscriptions. The sculpted lion heads, no matter how stylized, trace their origins to the gargoyles of the temples from the late period. As a symbol of both fertility and resurrection, the lion was related to the Nile flood; as protector of the gods, the lion, in the form of rainstorms and tempests, could destroy the enemy.


  • Badawy, A. M. “The Prototype of the Coptic Water-Jug Stand.” Archaeology 20 (1967):56-61.
  • Rutschowscaya, M. H. La Sculpture copte. Petits guides des grands musées 84. Paris, 1981.