North of Damascus in a rich agricultural region, Hama (pop. 200,000) is an ancient Syrian city--accounts mention it 4,000 years ago. Begin by climbing the hill where the citadel was (nothing remains--all its stones were quarried for other buildings) for an overview of the city, the beautiful Orontes river and its palm-lined banks. Across the river are the remains of the Grand Mosque (demolished during the 1982 revolt, but rapidly being rebuilt upon the same site). The main attraction of Hama is a series of ancient 90-ft-/27-m-high norias (waterwheels), which date from the time of Christ--be sure to see the Four Norias of Bichriyat. Other attractions include the 18th-century House of Al Azem Museum (Roman, Christian and Moslem statuary) and the Mosque of El-Hayyat. Those visitors interested in architecture will enjoy seeing the doors of the Khan Assad Pacha and Khan Rousstom Bacha caravansaries.
Many of the local residents dress in traditional and colorful clothing. Side trips from Hama include the Al-Madiq (Qalaat al Mudiq) Citadel (an ancient hill fortress holding a village), Asriyeh (Roman temple) and Seijar (site of ancient town with castle). One of the most impressive attractions is the Qasr Ibn Wardan (a church and ruins of a palace dating from 561 AD). Allow a day to tour the city
Hama has a long heroic history in defending Syria against foreign invasions.One of the outstanding battles was that of Qarqar, where the Assyrian army was defeated in 853 B.C.Unfortunately, few of its ancient relics have been preserved.However, Hama is well known for its enormous water wheels ('noriahs') on the Orontes, which are as old as Hama itself.
- One of Hama's ancient buildings is al-Jami' al-Kabir (the Great Mosque), which dates back to the 14th century and includes two tombs of two emirs who ruled Hama in the 13th century.Another mosque is that of Abu al-Fida, named after Hama's Sultan, who was a famous Arab geographer and historian.The city is often linked with his name.A 3rd ancient mosque is the al-Nuri mosque, which was built in the days of Nureddin al-Zanki in 1129; on its wall appear inscriptions in both Arabic and Greek.Hama is particularly famous for its traditional industries, especially textiles and cotton cloth.
- Hama is notable on account of its wooden wheels called "Norias" . A noria is an undershot Virtuvian waterwheel which raises water from a pool or a well to a channel or a cistern above. It is a very ancient technique.
Its yield is, of course, pitifully small, compared with modern hydraulic installations, but being powered by the flow of the river itself the noria is cost-free and lasts for ever.
These ancient waterwheels are depicted on stone, papyrus and mosaic (one of the latter, found at Apamea, is on display in the National Museum in Hama). Even today these wheels are still used - sometimes fitted with great earthenware pots to collect the water - in Spain, Portugal, Greece and in Egypt. None can compare with the norias of Hama. Here the smallest is ten meters in diameter, and there are some as big as twenty meters. But their size is not the only thing that makes them impressive - nor the robust complexity of their construction. They have a rustic beauty indeed, but it is their blind power and apparent timelessness that really capture the imagination. They seem churn up the waters of the Orontes, but it is of course the Orontes that is causing them to turn, day and night, unceasingly.
Although these actual wheels are no more than two or three, perhaps four, hundred years old, their groaning and splashing - like that of the river itself - seems to go back to the very beginning of time.
They have a charm that it takes some times to appreciate. It simply cant captured by the tourist who makes a hurried stop to photograph "his" first noria. Especially since, in all probability, this will be the noria near the aqueduct by the Serial bridge, in the gardens in the middle of the town - near the Tourist Office, opposite the scenic café on a jetty in the river.
- Of the citadel - the Qalaat - of Hama, there is not a stone left standing. It stood on a tell which excavations have shown to consist of at least ten distinct archaeological layers, from the Neolithic period to the Middle Ages.
Every single stone of the medieval fortress was carries off and used in other buildings. But the hull on which, like all other Syrian strongholds, is still there and has been developed as public gardens from which, at sunset especially, there is very good view of the whole town. The winding course of the Orontes, between its banks of greenery, is laid out beneath us as if on a map. We can easily make out all the well known norias. There are at least ten of them, two or three are no longer working. Those farther out from the center of the town, often half-hidden among gardens, are difficult to locate from the river level itself.
A new circular road around the foot of the citadel hill makes it easy to find the group of norias that are furthest downstream; they are almost concealed by the luxuriant gardens that lend to Hama something of the atmosphere of an oasis. A rustic bridge on which there is a mill crosses the river at this point. The highest waterwheel, which dates from the 14 century, is known as the Al Mouhammadiya; it supplies water to the Great Mosque a hundred and fifty meters away, marked by an elegant octagonal minaret with a double lantern and wooden balcony. This mosque was built on the site of a Roman temple, later occupied by a Byzantine church; many re-used ancient capitals indicate its earlier history. It contains the mausoleum of two princes of Hama who reigned at the end of the 13th century; their cenotaphs of ebony inlaid with ivory are marvelous examples of fine woodwork.
Following the Orontes upstream, from the bridge with the mill and the Mouhammadiya, keeping to the streets near the river we come to the other norias and the main buildings of the town.
On the bend of the river, as it winds round the north of the citadel hill, a bridge leads across to a small mosque; beside it stands a short squat minaret, built of large blocks of white stone underlined by narrow bands of black. A little dome, bare of all ornament, marks a tomb adjacent to the mosque. Here lies Abu al Fida'a (or Abi Fidaa), King of Hama from 1310 to 1332, who was famous above all as an historian and geographer. The mosque is sometimes called Jami al Hayaat, "the snake mosque", from the interlaced designs around one of its windows, which look like snakes intertwined.
- At the very foot of the citadel, but in the south-east of the town, there is another mosque that is worth visiting: Al Nouri, with little ribbed domes, over which rises a fine square minaret, the bands of darker stone half-way up give it its typically Syrian character. The minbar (pulpit) inside in the prayer hall is another fine example of the taste and skill of the craftsmen of Hama; it is made from rare woods finely carved in geometric patterns. The delicacy of this decoration contrasts particularly well with the reflective sobriety of the courtyard with is simple arcading which harmonizes perfectly with the white domes close by. There are three inscriptions worth noting, on the outside wall: the first, in Greek, praises the bravery of the inhabitants in the face of the Roman invaders; the second, framed within a finely sculpted border, records, in Arabic, the name of the builder of the mosque, Sultan Nour ad-Din Zanki, and the date of its construction, the 558th year of the Hegira (1129); the third, also in Arabic, notes that students used to gather here to work and that their expenses were paid by the municipality.
- Less than a hundred meters from the Al Nouri mosque there is a scene that might have been taken straight from an old print.
Here the Orontes flows over a weir and then under a gray, arched bridge near which a noria creaks away, hard up against a house by the riverside. A cluster of domed houses with projecting verandahs supported on great beams, overlook the blue-green waters. Their sharply-angled walls rise in succession straight out of the river and give a fortress-like air to the whole scene. The only access to this quarter is across the bridge and through a pointed archway whose heavy doors looks as if it could once again be closed against the world, were the need to arise. From there, dark gateways , winding passages, irregular courtyards, tiny culls de sac and mysterious stairways finally lead one out onto the single street, lined with dwellings which could be princely or could be hovels. The tallest of these houses, its terrace splashed with water from the noria, did in fact belong to a noble family, one of whose sons became one the most venerated saints of Islam .
Two "khans", the Assaad Pasha el-Azem and the (more recent) Rustom Pasha, figure among the more minor attractions of Hama, with gateways and courtyards built of stone in alternating colors. They are near the souks, in the rue Al Murabet, the second street on the left as you leave the palace de la Liberty in the direction of Damascus.
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