Hama, Syria’s Water Wheels: Wild, Weird and Wonderful?

It’s a sort of pretty city that almost feels like a small town where time has possibly stood still. Its norias–ancient water wheels–are from the 13th century yet somehow they’re still spinning today. And grinding loudly, the way they do, almost sounding as if they’re groaning.

Some are right there in the town center; others are a 1/2-hour walk down hot, gritty streets. No matter where you are, you can see and hear them, it seems.

The city? Hama. The country? Syria.

I visited this unusual town about one year ago in order to see the water wheels and to to have a base for exploration of Krak des Chevaliers, the greatest Crusader castle in the region. And I’m glad I went. It’s a trippy sort of place and the wheels were cool to watch and listen to.

To go directly to the groaning sound, start at 0:33.

Watch and Listen to the Spinning Wheels

Different, right? I thought so, too. And while I liked Hama on some level, I didn’t love it. More on that later, though. For now, I’d like to explain the wheels and what they’re about.

The 5 W’s of Hama’s Water Wheels

What/Why: Some of the oldest waterwheels in the world, they were first built by the Byzantines for irrigation purposes. They helped capture water from the Orontes River and feed it in into aqueducts, which then channeled the water to local gardens and fields.

Where: Hama is located on the main road between Damascus and Aleppo, is about 130 miles (210 km) north of Damascus, the capital of Syria, and about 94 miles (152 km) south of Aleppo. It is on the edge of a settlement area facing the Syrian Desert.

When: The norias were designed in the 13th century by the Ayyubids, and over time, they were rebuilt or reconditioned during the Mamluk and Ottoman times.

How large?: They measure up to 65 feet or so. When in their presence, they seem much larger (to me, anyway).

Why do they sound that way? The unusual grinding sound the wheels make, according to some sites, is the friction of the wooden pin agains the pads supporting them.

What about Hama’s past? In 1982, there was a massacre when the Syrian army, under the orders of the president of Syria Hafez al-Assad, put an end to a revolt by the Sunni Muslim community. The massacre, personally conducted by the president’s younger brother, ended the campaign begun in 1976 by Sunni Islamic groups. Approximately 1000 people were killed, mostly civilians. Source: Wikipedia.

And now? According to Famous Wonders, 17 of the original 30 or so water wheels remain. They’re still functional, but the water from them is no longer used. Each wheel has its own name, according to this site, and “the biggest one is known as Al-Mohammediyyah, which used to give the Great Mosque its water supply.”

Anything else?As I’ve mentioned before, Hama’s a unique sort of place. Wandering around with a Japanese couple, we found ourselves standing in front of this unique shop. It’s what I referred to as the perpetual Valentine’s Day store since red hearts are the main product. Perhaps if you visit Hama, you’ll see it.

My Thoughts

I liked Hama, but didn’t love it. I was stared at there more than anywhere else I visited in Syria and it felt uncomfortable because the men also yelled things at me, making me feel a bit unwelcome. Also, I felt like I got ripped off a lot in the local souk. And my very poor Arabic (which was sort of charming and helpful at times in other cities) did nothing for me there.

I will not forget the man who ran my hotel, however; he was super sweet (he had his son walk me to the Internet cafe) and if I could remember the name of the place, I’d recommend it (clean and fair price). Overall, though, my general feeling in Hama was not a great one. Something about it was a little unsettling.

What do you think?

Ever visit a town/city, etc. that you liked but didn’t love? A place that you didn’t quite feel comfortable visiting but are glad you did? If so, what was it about the place that bothered you?

Would you visit Hama? Or is my post enough to satisfy your curiosity? Would you want to see and hear the wheels? :) And if so, I wonder if you’d love it there or just like it. Or perhaps, like me, you’d find it weird, wild and wonderful, but only sort of…

Want to see more of the water wheels? Visit my Facebook page and check out the album. Enjoy!

10 Responses to Hama, Syria’s Water Wheels: Wild, Weird and Wonderful?
  1. Emma
    May 16, 2011 | 8:02 am

    Amazing water wheels! The groaning they make is a little creepy, I agree. :)

    They’re quite remarkable. Thanks for sharing them!
    Emma recently posted..Winners!My Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 16, 2011 | 7:59 pm

      Hi, Emma! Yes, creepy for sure. I was intrigued by them….interesting history and wild that they’re still spinning. You’re welcome and thanks for visiting!

  2. Slice
    May 16, 2011 | 10:28 am

    Those waterwheels are massive! I can imagine it would be eerie with the sound of those on the go all the time! I’d definitely visit Hama if I was going through that area, seems like a unique town.

    I just posted about a place that I’m glad I visited, but wasn’t fully comfortable with was Phonsavan in Laos, the area is scattered with unexploded ordinance, and some of the locals acted strange.
    Slice recently posted..Dining with Bombs in PhonsavanMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 16, 2011 | 8:01 pm

      Hi, Slice. Yes–massive. It’s an unusual town, which I have a feeling you’d enjoy!

      As for Phonsavan….that does sound like a place where one might feel a bit uncomfortable for many reasons. And guess what? I’d go there in a minute! :)

  3. Roy | cruisesurfingz
    May 16, 2011 | 8:19 pm

    Wow, those water wheels sound eerie.
    Roy | cruisesurfingz recently posted..Gatecrashing A Hen Party In LondonMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 18, 2011 | 6:32 am

      Yes, they do! And more so in person….

  4. Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_
    May 27, 2011 | 2:24 pm

    Dude that is so wicked cool! I wanna play in the wheels!
    Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_ recently posted..Move Around Barcelona Like a LocalMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 31, 2011 | 9:02 pm

      Hey, chica. Thanks! And the wheels want you to play in them. How do I know? The local mannequins told me so! :)

  5. Tom
    July 19, 2011 | 10:28 am

    It sounds like a chainsaw haha! Reminds me of my dad hacking things up on the farm back home! I was supposed to go to Syria last summer after visiting Turkey but a bout of horrid sickness put paid to that – I planned on visiting Hama, too. Glad I found your post :)
    Tom recently posted..My 7 LinksMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      July 19, 2011 | 10:50 am

      Hi, Tom. Funny–it does sort of sound like that in some way. You were going to visit Hama last summer? No way! Wild. Shame you got sick. Bummer. I hope that once things clear up there, you do get to make it. Syria was one of the best parts of my trip last summer. Awesome place!

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