By Heidi Trautmann
The other day I came across a report in my travel diary from 2008 when we crossed over to Syria in our sailing boat and visited the country not knowing that it would be the last time to see the wonderful places in all its completeness and beauty. Every day we hear and read about hundreds of people shot dead or wounded in just the same places we visited; perhaps they are among those whom we have met on our walks through the beautiful old city situated at the Orestes River with its famous norias, old giant water wheels, measuring up to 20 meters. Since the 5th century they were used to irrigate the land around the Orontes river, which sits higher than the riverbed. The norias were designed to scoop water up from the river and into aqueducts which then channelled the water to local gardens and fields.
There is an old mosaic in the Hama museum, found in Apamea and dated to 469 A.D. showing their use. The wheels seen today were designed in the 13th century by the Ayyubids, who built around 30 of them. Out of the 100 norias that originally existed in and around Hama 17 survive today (dating from the 14th and 15th centuries). They have been rebuilt or reconditioned during the Mamluk and Ottoman times.
On our way to Hama coming from the coast we had come across so many witnesses in stone along the Orontes Valley, witnesses of times past, left by so many tribes and people, including the Romans and the crusaders, a country with an immense treasure of culture. They have all come through here, including numberless tourists. The valley is arguably the archaeologically most significant region in Syria. The sheer number of tell sites that dot the landscape - many of which remain unexcavated - indicate the region’s importance particularly in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Not to forget the huge hills of plastic rubbish, so one day we are going to talk of the Plastic Age.
A constant sound filled the air, the wooden wheels creaked and groaned attracting us to come closer. There were benches to sit and probably meditate. I took some sketches. We sauntered through the narrow lanes visiting the museum and art centre and with one of the artists I exchanged some ideas of techniques, I remember. He used coffee to paint his views of Hama. I hope he is still alive.
There are/were green parks along the river and in the evening the inhabitants came out of their dwellings and walked with their families, the children rather cheeky, especially the boys were looking down on me because I did not wear a black burka. Most of the women did in 2008, although not in 1999, a couple of years before. What are they doing today, hiding, fighting alongside their men, dying alongside their men?
Do the norias still turn and attract people with their sound? Has the water in the Orontes River turned red with the blood of the people killed by their own kind?