Hama is famed for its huge water wheels and it produced great scholars in geography, mathematics, medicine and much more. Here we look at a few of them.

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Hama, also called Hamat, is a city in central Syria, 54 kms north of Hims and 132 kms south of Aleppo on the road which connects these two towns.[1] It is built on both sides of the Orontes river (Nahr al-Asi), the larger part of the town being on the left bank, which in places rises as high as 120 feet above the river. Three bridges connect the two sides. No traces remain today of the medieval citadel and only a mound of ruins found early in the 20th century mark the site of the palace.[2]  The plateau which surrounds the town is in part ploughed as agricultural land growing cereals. Mediterranean orchards and market gardens thrive thanks to the hydraulic installations which bring water from the river to its fertile soil.[3]

Figure 1: Stamp printed by Syria, shows Water Wheel, Hama, circa 1952 (Source)[4]

In the year 16 AH (638), Hama was taken by the Muslims and remained for nearly four centuries under the administration of the jund (military district) of Hims. During the reign of the Hamdanid Sayf al-Dawla, the town of Hama was incorporated into the district of Aleppo, and until the beginning of the 12th century its destiny was to be linked with that of this town, which at that time was going through a troubled period.[5] It is known that after the raid by the Byzantine Nicephorous Phocas in 968 CE, during which the Great Mosque of Hama was burned down, Hama had been under the nominal control of the Fatimids, who allowed the Mirdasids to ravage it[6] (hence the Fatimids exacted revenge on Hama in the same way they had treated the Maghreb -allowing unruly tribes to devastate areas that had ceased to follow them). The Seljuks wrested what had survived of Hama from the Fatimids.[7] In 1127 it was incorporated in the administrative district of Aleppo, in which it remained until the death of Ridwan.[8] In the year 1133, the crusaders, taking advantage of an eclipse of the moon, penetrated the town’s suburbs but were forced to retire without taking the town. In the years following 1137, Hama experienced a period of turmoil before it passed completely under the rule of Imad Eddin Zangi (d.1146), who placed a strong army unit there to guard it.[9] Hama remained safe in Muslim hands under his son Nur Eddin, who was followed by Salah-Eddin. Then the town passed under the rule of the Ayyubids, who were the ancestors of the greatest figure of Hama’s history - the scholar-ruler, Abu’l Fida. The ruler historian and warrior, Abu’l Fida, had the closest links with the Mamluks and when the latter defeated the Mongols, they appointed him as Sultan of his former family fief, Hama, and its region.[10]  Here, it is important to draw attention to the role Hama played against both Mongols and Crusaders during the very decisive era of Muslim history 1250-1291, when the land of Islam suffered from the immense threat caused by the alliance of Mongols and Crusaders. At the great battle of Ain Jalut of 3 September 1260, the army of Hama constituted a major force within the Mamluk ranks.[11] Subsequently the same Hama contingents fought first alongside Baybars (d.1277) against Mongols, Crusaders and their Armenian allies, and eventually played a central role in the re-conquest of Acre from the Crusaders in 1291.[12] Following the Muslim ultimate victory against both Mongols and Crusaders, and due to his great military distinction in the field of war, Abu’l Fida was granted the right to rule Hama. Under his rule, Hama enjoyed great prosperity, but under his son, Al-Malik al-Afdal, due to the latter’s incompetence, it suffered great decline, and Al Afdal drew upon himself the wrath of the Mamluks who banished him to Damascus. After his death, Hama was directly ruled by the Mamluks through a governor appointed by them.[13] In the late 14th century, Hama suffered devastation at the hands of Timur Lang, to whom the destruction of the citadel is attributed.[14] The Mamluk administration built or rebuilt two of the most important norias (waterwheels) of the town and also the largest aqueduct.[15] They maintained their rule until centuries later, Mamluk power faded and was followed by the rise of the Ottomans.

Figure 2: These norias, which raise water from the Orontes River, are in Hama, Syria* (Source)[16]

The Magnificence of Hama

Sourdel notes Hama’s own particular charm which it was said was only appreciated by those who explored its various quarters.[17] This charm is appreciated by all medieval writers. Hama in Hims province, write al-Istakhri and Ibn Hawqal `is a small town, but very pleasant to live in, having plenty of water and trees, and fields and fruits.’[18]

The traveller Ibn Jubayr spent some days in Hama during the year 1185, and gave us a long description:

Hamah is a very celebrated, ancient, populous and fruitful city. To the east there of a great river runs broadly along its bed, and on it are waterwheels (dulab) in great numbers for irrigating the fields. On the river bank, in the suburb, are well fitted latrines, with a number of cells through which water flows coming from the water wheel. On the other bank of the river, near the lower town is a small Jami Mosque, the eastern wall of which is pierced with windows, and above are arcades through which you get a magnificent view. Opposite the passage of the river, and in the heart of the town is the castle hill. In the castle they have their water from the river by a channel which comes up there, so that there is no fear ever of thirst. The situation of the city is as though it lay above a low valley with broad extended lands, from which you go up on both sides as from a deep ditch to the city itself, which is perched on the slope of the hillside. Both the upper and lower town are small. But the city walls are high and go right round, enclosing the upper shoulder of the hill. The lower city is surrounded by walls on its three sides, the fourth being defended by the river. Over the river is a great bridge built of solid blocks of stone. This goes from the lower town to the suburb. The suburb is large, with many khans, and there are the shops of all manner of artificers and merchants, where travellers may find all they require, and so do not need to enter the town. The markets of the upper town are more numerous and richer than those of the lower, and they are places of gathering for all manner of merchants and artificers. The upper town has the Jami mosque, larger than the Jami of the lower town, and three madrasas. There is a hospital on the river land opposite the Jami as Saghr (the small mosque). Outside the city are gardens with trees and places of pleasant resort on either side of the river bank. The river is called al-Asi, the rebel, because apparently it runs from below upwards, its course being from south to north. To the south of Hama it passes Hims, and in this southerly direction lies the centre of Hama. On leaving Hama (on the way to Hims) after half a stage, we crossed the river al-Asi by a great bridge of stone arches, across which lies the town of Rastan."[19]

Figure 3: Hama, Syria by Frans Sellies (Source)

Yaqut describes Hama in the 13th century as a large town of the Hims province, surrounded by a wall very strongly built:

Outside the wall is a most extensive suburb, in which are great markets and a mosque that stands above the river Al-Asi. This suburb, too, has a wall round it, and it extends along the bank of the river Al-Asi where are Na’aurahs (water wheels), which water the gardens and fill the tank of the jami Mosque. This suburb they call as Suk al-Asfal (or the lower market), for it stands lower than the town, and the walled town above it is called As Suk al-Ala (for the upper Market). In this suburb also are many madrasas, which stand on the south bank of the Asi. Beside the city stands an ancient castle wonderfully fortified and constructed. Al-Malik al-Mansur dug a ditch there of 100 ells and more in length. In the year 884 Ahmad Ibn Tayibb describes this castle from eye witness as a village with a stone wall in which were large stone buildings with the Asi flowing in front of them, watering the gardens and turning the water wheels, but it is to be noted that he calls it a village. Besides the lower market also is a castle called Al-Mansuriya. It stands rather above the suburb, and to the left. In this lower market are many shops and houses for merchants and bazaars.’[20]

Yaqut also tells us, `Kurun Hama (the horns of Hama) are two peaks standing opposite each other. They are the summits of a hill overhanging Hama’.[21] On the right bank of the Orontes, there extended a quarter which Ibn Jubayr describes as a suburb and which, joined to the other bank by an arcaded bridge, was especially remarkable for its khans; it was there that travellers stayed.[22] The town proper was situated on the left bank, which was higher, reaching in places as much as 40 meters above the level of the river, and dominated by a line of mountains; it consisted of a lower and upper town both surrounded by a wall and also a citadel, built along the bank of the river on an isolated eminence overlooking the lower town; each of these towns had a mosque, that of the lower town built by Nur Eddin and that of the upper town being the original Great Mosque. There were also suqs. The lower town possessed in addition a hospital and three madrasas (one of which had been found by Nur-Eddin for the great jurist, Ibn al-Asrun.[23] The Great Mosque, the Haram, has evolved from a Christian basilica of unusual form: 3 naves of different breadth, 8 supports with five cupolas in the centre and covered by five cross vaultings on each side. The west wall seems to have been the narthex wall of the church. The south wall dates from the pre-Christian period. In the east, standing alone, is a four cornered minaret with Kufic inscription of probably the 11th century.[24]  The beautiful court is surrounded by vaulted halls, an estrade with two mihrabs before the haram, a second with a basin and isolated mihrab at the north hall and a khazna on eight ancient pillars. In the east hall a turbe and a prayer hall with heavy bronze windows of the Mamluk period. A peculiar feature of the architecture of Hama finds marked expression in the mosque: the adornment of the walls by mosaic effects in colour by the alternation of black basalt and white limestone.[25]

Figure 4: Row of Beehives in Sarouj outside of Hama, Syria (Source)

The Jami Nuri built on the left bank of the Orontes on sloping ground and with high foundations was founded by Nur–Eddin Zangi, the cross vaulting of the long haram belong to later period.[26] The lower part of the minaret with its square white blocks is perhaps also old. In the early 20th century, the mosque contained the beautiful remains of a wooden minbar given by Nur Eddin, and a richly decorated mihrab with decorated marble pillars given by the Ayyubid ruler Malik al-Muzaffar Taki Eddin, and in the eastern ante room a mihrab of marble columns the capital of which bears an inscription of Abu’l Fida.[27]

The water wheels of Hama, according to Sarton, are some of its great glories.[28] All travellers saw and marvelled at these giant water wheels. Nasir Khusraw in 1047 writes in his diary:

The City of Hama is well populated; it stands on the bank of the River Asi (Orontes). This stream is called Asi (meaning the Rebel), for there as on that it flows towards the Greek territory, that is to say, it is a rebel to go from the lands of Islam to the lands of the Infidel. They have set up numerous water wheels on its banks.[29]

Dimashqi, in 1300, says:

Hama is a provincial chief town, and seat of government. A fine city, and well-fortified and with excellent provisions. The Nahr Asi flows between the two halves of the town, and the two are connected by a bridge. Along the Asi banks are huge water wheels called Naurah, such as you see nowhere else. They raise the water from the river to irrigate the gardens. The place has many fruits, especially apricots, called Kufuri Lauzi (camphorated with almond flavour), which you will see nowhere else.[30]

The water of the Orontes is led into the gardens and fields through aqueducts, to which it is raised by water wheels, the sound of which has a peculiarly soporific effect.[31] Alongside the river 32 water wheels or norias of various sizes, the tallest of which was 22 metres high, raised water to aqueducts which supplied both sections of the town and irrigated the surrounding gardens; drinking water was provided, it is not known exactly from which date, by a special aqueduct which came from the region of Salamiya.[32] There are also similar water wheels in Antioch. The crusaders brought them to Germany where they are still used in a little valley in Frankonia.[33]

Figures 5-6: View from Rustam Khan Pasha  [34]

During Abu’l Fida’s time, in the late 13thearly 14th century, there were 32 such water wheels in Hama, by the early 20th century their number had fallen to nine; a rich heritage has been lost.[35]

Sourdel notes how in the late 20th century, there remain in Hama several monuments worthy of note. The most important is the Great Mosque which dates from the Umayyad period as is proved by the presence in the courtyard of a pavilion on columns intended as the local bayt al-mal (finance office).[36] The prayer hall is of an original plan: its three naves are in fact each of different width and its eight pillars support five cupolas. The courtyard is surrounded by vaulted porticoes with semi-circular arches, some of which appear to date from the time that the mosque was built.[37] On the right bank of the Orontes is the Jami al-Nuri, the mosque of the lower town, founded by Nur Eddin Zangi, in which survive important parts of the original building and which is particularly famous for the interesting minbar which belongs to the first foundation. On the opposite bank of the Orontes is the Jami al-Hayyat, or mosque of the snakes, so called because of the form of the small columns which frame one of the windows of the prayer hall and which resemble intertwined snakes.[38]

Figure 7: Hama by Effi Schweizer (Source) [39]  

The Scholars of Hama

Usama Ibn Munqidh (fl. 1138-1188 CE) was born in the castle of Shayzar (Caesarea ad Orontem) in the valley of the Orontes, fifteen miles north of Hama.[40] His chief literary work was probably done during the years 1164-1174, a period of relative peace. He wrote many poems, a treatise on rhetoric, Kitab al-badi', etc.[41] At the age of ninety lunar years (that is, about 1182), he composed, or at any rate completed, an autobiography called Kitab al-ittibar (Learning by example), which is regarded as being historically important and is one of the first larger works of its kind.[42]

Usama witnessed the first decades of Crusader onslaught and settlement in the Muslim lands, and himself fought against them just as his own father did. His experiences are found in his Kitab al-Itibar- editions and translations of which have been produced by Derenbourg in French,[43] Shuman in German;[44] Porter in English[45] and from an Escorial (Spanish) manuscript,[46] Philip Hitti edited a good version of Usama’s observations of crusader life.[47]

Usama tells many stories of the Muslim East under crusader rule, such as Frankish ordeal by water in which the victim was a Muslim man accused with his mother of murdering Christian pilgrims:

 They installed a huge cask and filled it with water. Across it they set a board of wood. They then bound the arms of the man charged with the act, tied a rope around his shoulders and dropped him into the cask; their idea being that in case he was innocent, he would sink in the water and they would then lift him up with the rope so that he might not die in the water; and in case he was guilty, he would not sink in the water. This man did his best to sink when they dropped him in the water, but he could not do it. So he had to submit to their sentence against him -may Allah's curse be upon them! They pierced his eyeballs with red hot awls [an awl is a punching tool used to make a hole in paper, leather and other soft materials]."[48]

Usama also tells how the old crusaders who had lived for a long time amongst the Muslims gradually lost their barbaric ways by acquiring Islamic values such as depicted in the following:

There are some Franks who have settled in our land and taken to living like Muslims. These are better than those who have just arrived from their homelands, but they are the exception, and cannot be taken as typical. I came across one of them once when I sent a friend on business to Antioch, which was governed by a friend of mine: Todros Ibn As Safi (Theodoros Sophianos, the Greek commander of the municipality of Antioch). One day he said to my friend: `A Frankish friend has invited me to visit him; come with me so that you can see how they live.’ I went with him,’ said my friend, `and we came to the house of one of the old knights who came with the first expedi