Hammer and crowbar in hand, Mohamed Soltan and his colleagues repair a gigantic worm-eaten noria on the banks of the Orontes. In Syria, these workers are among the last to be able to maintain the water wheels that are the pride of Hama.
Developed several centuries ago to irrigate the medieval gardens of Hama and bring water to the hammams, mosques and wells of the city, the seaweeds are today a must-see attraction.
They are, according to Unesco, “unique not only in Syria but probably in the whole world”.
In a country ravaged by war since 2011, the twenty or so hydraulic machines that draw water from the Orontes in central Syria have sometimes suffered from lack of maintenance. The solid wooden beams could also have suffered looting or fire.
“It is our duty to bring them back to life,” said Mr. Soltan, 52, sweat beading on his forehead, hammering to hammer a stud into the wood of Muhammadia.
With a diameter of 22 meters, the Muhammadia is the largest of the noria of Hama and the oldest dated (1361).
“The norias are the soul of Hama. Without them, the city would be dead”, continues not without lyricism this municipal employee with salt and pepper hair.
Nearby, strollers pose for a souvenir photo in front of the imposing dark wooden wheels. Clouds of children swim in the river.
– “Symbolic value” –
While the city of Hama was largely spared the conflict, some areas of the province were the scene of fighting. Due to the vagaries of the war, ten of the 25 norias are still stationary.
“When I work with colleagues repairing seaweeds, I feel like I am bringing something to my city,” said Soltan, who has been in his post for 22 years.
“I forget all my fatigue when a wheel starts to turn again.”
The simple but ancient mechanism allows, thanks to small buckets attached to the wheel, to collect water to pour it into a basin or an aqueduct for distribution.
Hama’s wheels date back to medieval times, but they could even be much older: a similar seaweed already appears on a mosaic dating from 469 BC, says Unesco on its website.
Today, hydraulic machines are no longer useful. They remain a pride of Syrian popular heritage and appear on certain banknotes.
“We are still very interested in the maintenance and repair of these historic remains, because of their symbolic value,” said the head of the municipality of Hama, Adnane Tayyar.
“No one can visit Hama without going to greet the waterweeds,” he prides himself.
– Disappearance of know-how –
However, difficulties exist. There is especially “the desperate lack of personnel mastering the know-how and maintenance of the seaweeds,” said Ahd Sabaa al-Arab, who heads the Water Wheel Authority.
“It is also not an easy task to obtain certain types of wood, because of the lack of raw materials and rising prices,” he said.
Thus the number of workers specializing in the maintenance of seaweeds has gone from 35 to nine today: the rest died or took the road to exile during the war years.
“The seaweed for Hama is like a spine,” said Ismail, another municipal employee.
Clinging to the Muhammadia to fix a board, the fifties evokes the thorny problem of the transmission of know-how, a “manual work” which arouses less and less enthusiasm among the young generations.
“Our profession is inherited from our fathers, but we cannot pass it on to our children,” he laments.
mam / rh-lar / TGG / hj