Once a caravan center known for its production of fine silks, the town of Hama lies roughly midway between Aleppo in the north and Homs in the south and is considered one of the most picturesque towns in the region. Straddling a gently curving stretch of the Orontes River, much of the city’s fame arises from its relationship with this unique setting.
The Orontes is known locally as the Asi River, Arabic for the rebel. Many theories have circulated regarding the origin of this name, some of them quite interesting, but most scholars agree that the unusual title is due at least in part to the river’s one major geographical idiosyncrasy: unlike any other river in the region, the Orontes flows northward, influenced by a slight upward slope in the Great Rift Valley at the river’s southern extremities.
As it makes its way through Hama, the Orontes irrigates the plentiful flowering plants and fruit trees that contribute to the unique charm for which the city is known. Certainly the most notable mark the river has left on the city, though, and the symbol for which Hama is most internationally famous, are the large water wheels scattered along the river’s course. These wooden wheels, also known as norias, allowed ancient residents of Hama to circulate water through the city and to the outlying agricultural areas. Though other cities in the region also utilized these devices, Hama especially relied on the norias due to the high river banks that flanked the Orontes in that area and made it difficult to lift the water to the level of the fields. The first water wheels in Hama were built as early as the fifth century CE; those that remained standing until modern times, however, were installed in the thirteenth century by the Ayyubids, the dynasty founded by Saladin.
In fact, Hama is one of the oldest cities in the region. Archaeological studies have found evidence dating the city back as far as the eleventh century BCE. At that time, ancient records suggest that Hama was the center of an Aramaean kingdom called Hamath, which appears several times scattered throughout various biblical texts: the book of Second Samuel relates that the king of Hamath sent an impressive tribute to King David after a significant military victory, and Second Chronicles mentions that King Solomon built “storage cities” in Hamath. These and other texts suggest that a number of different dynasties seized control of Hama as they sought to control the region, and the city often found itself torn between rival dynasties seated in Damascus and Aleppo.
Also of note in Hama’s historical landscape is the city’s Great Mosque, considered by some to be among the oldest mosques in the world. The structure presents an interesting blend of architectural styles, indicating its diverse history: before it was a mosque, the building on this site in central Hama was a church; before that, a Roman temple to the god Jupiter.