Gracht (Dutch pronunciation: [ɣrɑxt]; plural: grachten) is a Dutch word frequently encountered by non-Dutch people when confronted with several things related to the Netherlands, such as Dutch art (notably 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 cannot be easily translated; for this reason, it is necessary to distinguish between four related terms:

  • A kanaal (literally meaning canal) is a manmade water course, usually in the countryside, irrespective of whether it has streets along its banks.
  • A vaart is a canal essentially used for transport rather than, for instance, drainage. Like most kanalen, they are usually in the countryside.
  • 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. As such, singels often encircle (older) parts of the city. But in other cases regular grachten were dug in circles as well, like the famous grachtengordel (canal-belt) of Amsterdam.

Although the word gracht means "canal" or "waterway" in the general sense, there is no exact equivalent for the term in English, 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, as water supply and as sewers, all at the same time. In heavily populated cities, these combined functions repeatedly proved to be detrimental to the public health.

Example of half a gracht

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 (shown 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, Keizersgracht, Buitengracht, Buitensingel, etc.).[1][2] There is currently a project to restore some of these historic waterways.[3]

A function in almost every city was drainage. Rainwater 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. However, these new streets have mostly retained the names of the grachts and singels they covered or replaced.

Delft as an example

The history of the city of Delft is a good illustration 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 [1] 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.

Grachten in Delft in relation to the origin of the city. Numbers entered in the historical map of Blaeu 1652.

Later, a second canal, called the Nieuwe Delft (New Delft, see [2] on the map) was dug through part of the settlement that had grown around the first. The original canal became known as the Oude Delft (Old Delft), a name it still bears today.

The rural village around Oude and Nieuwe Delft developed into a more urban area and the canals [1] and [2] gradually acquired the character of city-canals or grachten. A third canal [3] was dug and also changed into a gracht; it connected with the moat around the marketplace. The city and the grachten grew hand in hand.

In 1246, this agglomeration was granted a city charter by the Count of Holland and became the City of Delft.

It is interesting to see that a natural waterway [4] was later 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. The characteristic, narrow grachten [d], perpendicular to the main grachten, developed from ditches that had been dug to drain and delimit the fields which preceded the city.

As in many Dutch and Flemish towns, the history of the city of Delft, of its grachten and of the surrounding countryside are intimately interwoven.


A gracht in "Watertown" ("Wasserstadt") Nordhorn, a German city with close ties to the Netherlands

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 such as Frisian and Gronings, the word graft is still used.

In Dutch, the word gracht is used only 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).[4]

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

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:

See also


  1. ^ http://capetownhistory.co.za/?page_id=161
  2. ^ http://www.capetownpartnership.co.za/heerengracht/
  3. ^ http://www.reclaimcamissa.org/index.html
  4. ^ Tourist guide [1] speaks of "kanalen" not of "grachten" when it describes Venice in Dutch.