The word gracht (Dutch pronunciation: [ɣrɑxt]) (plural: grachten) is a Dutch term that is encountered by English-speaking people when confronted with Dutch art (e.g. 17th-century town-views of grachten), Dutch history (Anne Frank House on the Prinsengracht) or tourism (boating tours on the grachten of Amsterdam). The word is almost untranslatable; for that reason the following terms kanaal, vaart, gracht and singel will be discussed here first.
- A kanaal (canal) is a man made water course, usually in the country-side, irrespective of whether it has streets along its banks.
- A vaart is a canal essentially used for transport rather than, for instance, drainage. Usually in the country-side.
- A gracht (city-canal) is a waterway in the city with streets on both sides of the water. The streets are lined with houses, often in a closed front. (In rare exceptions there is only one street, where on the other side of the waterway the houses border on the water, see the photograph "Example of half a gracht".)
- A singel is by origin a water-filled moat which surrounds a city for defense purposes. When the city expands the singel is incorporated in the city’s structure and cannot be distinguished any more from a gracht, although the name ‘singel’ is usually maintained.
Because of their origin, singels often encircle (older) parts of the city. But in other cases regular grachten were dug in circles as well, like the famous grachten-gordel (canal-belt) of Amsterdam.
There is no direct equivalent for "gracht" in the English language, therefore it is best left untranslated.
Function and history
Grachten were the life-lines of Dutch and Flemish cities. They were used for many purposes: for transportation, for draining, for water-winning and as sewers, all at the same time. In heavily populated cities these combined functions repeatedly proved to be detrimental to the public health.
Most Hanseatic cities have grachten to transport, to load and to land goods in and from ships. Sometimes grachten were made from older rivers, like in Groningen. There the older river called Drentse Aa was used as a natural part of the grachten (showed on the image).
In Delft the main gracht – the Oude Delft – started as a drainage canal for reclaiming land in marshy surroundings.
When it was still a Dutch colony, Cape Town had a network of grachten, that were fed by the springs at the base of Table Mountain. These provided water and sanitation for the infant town. In the ensuing centuries the grachten were covered over, but many of the prominent streets in the modern city centre still bear their names (Heerengracht, Kaizergracht, Buitengracht, Buitensingel, etc.). There is currently a project to restore some of these historic waterways.
A function in almost every city was drainage. Rain water flowed through these city-canals. Usually they were also used as a sewer. Because these functions are not needed any more, many grachten have been filled in to give access to road traffic. The names of these new streets are, however, mostly named after the old name of the gracht.
Delft as an example
The history of the city of Delft gives us a good impression of how the origins of the grachten (and their precursors) coincide with the origin of a Dutch town.
In a period roughly around the year 1100 a canal was delved here, making use of a natural creek in the marshy country. This canal was called Delf, later on Delft, from the word “delven” that is akin to the verb to “delve” in English. See canal  on the accompanying map of Delft. This canal was used for draining the land at both sides; later-on it also served as a waterway for transport.
Afterwards a second canal was dug, called the Nieuwe Delft (New Delft); it went right through part of the settlement that had grown in the meanwhile. See  on the map. The original Delf was from that time on called Oude Delft (Old Delft), as it is still today.
The rural village around Oude and Nieuwe Delft developed into a more municipal area and the canals  and  gradually acquired the character of city-canals or grachten. A third canal  was dug and also changed into a gracht; it met the moat of the Market-place and its surroundings, see the map. City-forming and the shaping of the grachten went here hand in hand.
In 1246 this conglomerate acquired city-rights from the Count of Holland and henceforward became the City of Delft.
It is interesting to see that a natural waterway  was later-on incorporated in the city and became a gracht as well. Still later, circular canals or singels [S] were dug and surrounded the city. Fortifications were built along these singels and fixed the shape of the historical inner city of Delft. Characteristic are also the narrower grachten [d], perpendicular to the main grachten. These are the remnants of former ditches that drained and bordered the pre-municipal meadows.
The history of the city of Delft, its grachten, and that of the surrounding countryside are intimately interwoven, like in so many Dutch and Flemish towns.
The word gracht stems from the older word graft, which is derived from graven, to dig. The Dutch language has had a sound shift in which the combination -ft became -cht. Other good examples are lucht (German: Luft, sky/air) and zacht (English: soft). In some regional languages like Frisian and Gronings the word graft is still used.
In Dutch the word gracht is only used when canals are located inside the city, while canals outside a city are called kanaal. However, Venice is an exception. In Dutch one does not say "de grachten van Venetië" (the city-canals of Venice), but "de kanalen van Venetië" (the canals of Venice).
Toponyms for grachten are usually made by the suffixes -gracht, -singel (which refers to the old circle-shaped canals), -wal (referring to the bank of the gracht), -vest (referring to a fortification) and -kade (Flemish: -kaai; quay). The suffix -diep is used in Groningen where it is a local word for a large canal.
When a gracht is a remake of an old river, the river's name is used.
Cities in the Netherlands which (still) have grachten
- The Hague
Cities in Belgium that (still) have grachten
P.A.F van Veen & N. van der Sijs, Etymologisch Woordenboek (Etymologic Dictionary) Van Dale, Utrecht 1997
it proves to be difficult to find general literature on Dutch city-canals, grachten, or singels. The history of these canals is, however, embedded in the history of their towns so that links to Dutch cities and their history may provide the information we are looking for:
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Delft#Understand.|
- Delft: J.F Niermeyer, Delft and Delfland, Leiden 1944
- Gouda Gouda
- The Hague 1652 
- Leiden Leiden#16th and 17th centuries and Leiden#Rivers, canals and parks
- Tourist guide  speaks of "kanalen" not of "grachten" when it describes Venice in Dutch.
Mudies or madies in esfahan City of Iran.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Grachten and canals in Amsterdam.|
for more information about Isfahan City of water Destribution plz look at: