Written by Mohamed al-Dbiyat
“In the enchanting city of Hama, everything prevents the viewer from any thinking… Large, three- or four-storey water-lifting wheels (Norias) direct the scooped water in the air to higher irrigation canals built of stones or wood to irrigate the surrounding orchards. The long melodies produced by the Norias spread over the ether … a forgotten dream on the riverbank and part of a poem melodically expressed with a simple musical instrument of love and carefreeness. It is the inspiration of the chirping birds sounding from the evergreen nature. The azure blue construct of the realm of fantasy is made of fragile material, it eludes our knowledge of who erected it and what the meaning of its construction is. But one thing we know: its balance can only be maintained by the power of dreams.”
This fantastic description of the Norias was written by the Tharaud brothers in their book The Damascus Way (Le chemin de Damas), published in Paris in 1923. It has always been the most famous description of the beauty and grandeur of the Norias in the city of Hama.
Wooden water wheels on the Orontes [Nahr Al-Aasi] are not unique to Hama. Historically, 80 Norias operated along the whole course of the river.
The river Orontes begins in Lebanon and flows north through the middle plain of Syria. Near the city of Antakya the Orontes changes its direction to the west and flows to the Mediterranean at Samandag. Most of the Norias, however, were built in the surroundings of Hama.
It is not known when Norias, which are water-lifting wheels, were first invented. The Arabs, however gave Norias their name. A mosaic from the town of Apameia (Afamia) and dating to 469 A.D. confirms that the water wheels existed earlier when the Byzantines controlled the region.
The water wheels continued to be built according to the same ancient principles through the beginning of the 21st century. The bucket wheel is made of wood and the pillars of stone.
The Norias: an excellent hydraulic system
Since prehistoric periods, man has sought efficient means to collect river water for daily use and to irrigate arable land. Initially, man used primitive devices like tubs and troughs. Eventually, energy was needed to power water wheels, and animals provided the earliest source for this purpose.
Quantum leaps in water scooping techniques were realized through the application of free water energy by means of water buckets or water boxes, i.e. the Norias on the Orontes. The actual irrigation system, made possible by the Noria, starts in Rastan, a town in central Syria located between Homs and Hama. In this area, the Orontes runs through the limestone layers of the central Syrian plateau. Here, easy irrigation directly from the river is impossible, and the Norias provided a practical solution.
The old Norias hydraulic system is the most efficient and locally appropriate irrigation system in Syrian history. This invention is of paramount importance and necessary for irrigating arid lands in the region, which is characterized by its Mediterranean climate and summer droughts. Additionally, this system is essential for supplying water to the cities located on the banks of the river.
Hama, city of the Norias
Hama is an old Syrian city along the Orontes. It is also known as the city of the geographer Abu Al-Fida (1273 – 1331), who ruled there from 1310 to 1331 AD. Hama is often called “The City of Norias,” due to the numerous water wheels present. Within two kilometres, 16 Norias spread along the river. These Norias irrigate the fields on both sides of the river, and create a wide riverbank in many places.
The Norias are fueled by the river’s hydropower. The wooden bucket wheels of the Norias sink to the riverbed. To accelerate their rotation, small slanted dams are built in front of them. These slow the water, and allow it to flow quickly into the so-called bays. The water hits the individual buckets hard, so that the large water wheels turn and carry the water upwards in buckets. As soon as they reach the highest point, the buckets are emptied into large open water pipes (viaducts). These viaducts then lead the water to the higher fields.
The size of Hama’s Norias vary between 5 and 12 meters in diameter. Each water wheel has between 50 and 120 water buckets. The largest water wheel on the Orontes reaches a diameter of 22 m and was given the name Mohammadiya by the inhabitants of Hama.
A study in 1930 concluded that a single water bucket wheel can transport 45 litres of water per second at its maximum capacity. This amount of water is sufficient to irrigate 25 hectares of arable land. In order to maintain the smooth and efficient performance of the water wheels, they must be serviced every two years and, if necessary, some of the water boxes replaced. The technical term for this regular maintenance work is “kashta”, which means the removal of all wooden parts.
A water wheel system can consist of a single wheel or a double wheel, which includes two wooden wheels fixed to the small water dam. Sometimes there are water wheels on the opposite banks that ensure the best use of hydropower created by the small dams. If there are more than three water wheels on the same dam, it is called a battery.
The water wheels are divided into two categories according to their function:
- The rural water wheels, which are intended for irrigating fields.
- urban water wheels for irrigation of urban plantations, drinking water supply and public facilities such as mosques, bathhouses, bazaars, parks, etc.
The Norias today
The traditional hydraulic system of the Norias has proved an efficient method for carefully controlling water resources to this day. Arable land is irrigated and drinking water supplied.
These technically sophisticated and aesthetic systems played an important role in Hama’s rural development until pumps reached the region at the beginning of the 20th century.
Since then, many of the water wheels have disappeared. Those that survive in Hama are constantly looked after by local authorities. They have become a symbol of the city of Hama and its heritage. They are protected and the most prominent tourist attraction in the city.
The water bucket wheels are part of a heritage that reflects the ingenuity of the region’s inhabitants and their ancient experience of adapting to natural circumstances.