Norias (nawa’ir) of Hama
Hama along the Orontes River, Syria
Hegira 6th–10th century / AD 12th–16th century
Atabeg, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman
The waterwheel, or noria (properly pronounced na'ura (singular) and nawa'ir (plural)), is an ancient hydraulic structure designed for collecting and distributing water by utilising the power of a running stream. It is also the visual and aural hallmark of the city of Hama, 226 km north of Damascus, straddling the meandering River Orontes. The use of waterwheels in Syria dates to the Classical and Hellenistic periods, possibly even the Nabataean period (2nd century BC–AD 2nd century), and the first visual depiction of a na'ura is found on a mosaic from the ancient city of Apamea, 55 km north of Hama, dated AD 469. During the medieval period, however, there was a marked increase of references to nawa'ir in Islamic geographical writing, indicating their improved and multiplied development.
Under the Seljuq sultanate and their various Atabeg, Zangid and Ayyubid vassals, when Syria's cities witnessed robust urban development, the nawa'ir of Hama received special attention. Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi went on a rebuilding campaign after the earthquake of AH 551 / AD 1157, which included the restoration of Hama's water system and nawa'ir.
The earliest of the surviving nawa'ir are attributed to the Ayyubid period (late AH 6th – 7th / AD 11th - 12th centuries) while the earliest inscribed na'ura tower, named al-Muhammadiyya, dates to the Mamluk period in AH 763 / AD 1361. This is also one of the two largest nawa'ir of the city: 21 m in wheel diameter and 17.5 m in aqueduct height. The aqueduct of al-Muhammadiyya is particularly long as it supplies water for the Great Mosque quarter, nearly a kilometre away from the banks of the River Orontes. The second largest na'ura, also 21 m in diameter and known as al-Mamuriyya, is early Ottoman, dated AH 867 (1453).
Nawa'ir are constructed basically in two parts: the mobile wheel, usually made of poplar wood, and the static aqueduct, usually made of stone. The wheel consists of a group of broad beams fixed perpendicularly around the axle, creating a quadrangular formation in the centre, and radiating out towards the wheel's periphery. These beams are held together by circular frames and further supported by more beams that are nailed in at successive angles. At the periphery of the wheel are paddles that facilitate the wheel's circular movement and compartments (sanadiq) that collect the water. Given that the wheel is largely a wooden construction, its beams need regular maintenance and changing every 15 years or so.
Stone constructions, like the aqueduct for transporting water and the small dam controlling the river's water level, are also part of the noria's successful construction. The aqueduct is a tall rectangular receptacle standing parallel to the wheel and designed to be as wide as possible in order to receive maximum water per rotation. Attached to this receptacle is the long duct set on an arcade that serves the adjacent areas, providing them with water for domestic and irrigation purposes. On average, a na'ura can raise 50 litres of water per second, and irrigate no less than 75 hectares.
The city of Hama is famous for its waterwheels, or norias, which charmingly dot the meandering River Orontes, which passes through the city. The technique for building these waterwheels is an ancient one, but remarkably effective and still in use. The wheels are typically made of poplar wood, requiring regular maintenance, while their supportive structures, like aqueducts and dams, are made of stone. The dimensions of the total hydraulic construction are inter-related, depending on each other to collect the maximum amount of water efficiently and ensure its most effective distribution.
Some nawa'ir are dated by inscriptions but mostly by approximation based on archaeological evidence and historical sources. Recent excavations that have taken place under water are proving that most nawa'ir have ancient origins and have been continuously restructured throughout the ages.
Burns, R., Monuments of Syria: An Historical Guide, 1999, pp.126–9.
Delpech, A., et al, Les norias de l'Oronte: analyse technologique d'un éléments du patrimoine syrien, Damascus, 2005.
Waal Hafian "Norias (nawa’ir) of Hama" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2021. 2021. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;32;en
Prepared by: Waal Hafian
Copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez
Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.
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