Thursday, October 16, 2008

Syria: The grinding waterwheels of Hama

Chapter Six - The grinding waterwheels of Hama

The following morning, me and Basheer left Aleppo. We headed for Apamea, a city which flourished under the Seleucids. Its slightly overgrown appearance gives it a special character. The whole surrounding area of Apamea is stunning... A plain with high mountains in the background.

The site is not visited by many foreign tourists. Because of this, it's a peaceful place and I even saw a desert fox amidst the ruins, clearly a sign that the place isn't trotted all over.

Apamea ruinsApamea's a big site! For example, the Cardo (colonnaded main street) is over two kilometres long ! So it took quite a while to explore, but I loved every minute of it. Entry costs S£300. The friendly guy at the ticket booth speaks reasonable English and can inform you about the site and the ongoing excavations.
The 'antique' sellers are a real pain. They keep hassling you to buy what is mostly worthless crap. I wouldn't even buy it if it were antique, because I think antiques belong in museums. Also, a guy may come up to you, present himself as a guardian of the site and ask for your ticket. I showed the wrong ticket, which obviously was okay to him. This dude was clearly suspect. He'll walk with you for some time, secretly show you some details on the columns which look like (or are) penises, and then demand a tip. Make it clear from the start that you're not interested in his 'services' to avoid the hassles. I must say though, that all of the hustlers (here and in the rest of Syria) keep a low profile. Even when putting on the pressure, they're still light-years away from the guys in - for instance - India and Turkey.

The view from the citadel over the town below is worth the short climb. The caravanserai which now houses the museum is easy to make out. The Roman Theatre is heavily ruined and although being once the largest in the world, there's little to remember you of its former grandeur.

The museum costs S£150 and if you've seen the one in Ma'aret an-Nu'aman and/or don't have a particular interest in mosaics, isn't worth your time. I'd suggest picking the one which is most convenient for a visit, or go for the cheapest (this one). IMHO, the museum in Ma'aret is better in terms of quantity, but this one has the better quality.

There is no labellings, but the caretaker will soon enough act as self-appointed guide. His explanations are as good as useless. What he says, you can make out yourself. He will expect a tip afterwards, but is easily satisfied and is a rather friendly chap.

In the early afternoon, we drove to Hama, but first we visited some of Basheer's relatives. They were very kind people. We had tea and were invited for dinner. One of the family members was a young guy who was doing his 2.5 years of military service. He spoke French well, so we could have an interesting conversation.
We said good-bye to these friendly folks and continued. They lived very near to Qala'at Sheisar, an Arab fortress on a rock right by the road to Hama. It's not very interesting, the view from the road when passing by will satisfy most people. I wouldn't think (anymore) of organising a trip especially to see this place.
The nearby noria has been stopped and looks very neglected. Some women were washing crude wool in the river.
Just short of Hama we passed through the Christian town of Maharde. I immediately noticed that there were no veils worn around here. The sight of truly beautiful women walking around on the streets 'exposed' without company was odd to say the least.

As soon as we entered the city of Hama, I liked the place. The friendly, easygoing atmosphere immediately shows through. It's hard to imagine the cruel things that happened here in a quite recent past : in 1982 the Syrian government brutally crushed a thoughtless uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, resulting in the deaths of perhaps 25,000 people. New Hama is literally built on the bodies of the victims of this clash.
I stayed at the Cairo Hotel, which was far too expensive to be the cheap backpackers joint it's propagated to be. A single room was an astonishing S£550 ! Although I met other people who were only paying S£300, I couldn't get a discount on the asking price ??
The room was spotless and the shower great, but the mattress was only about 1 inch thick (really !) and when I woke up the next morning, the planks of the bed were visible on my back. The room was also too noisy. The receptionist, unlike his relative Badr, was a seemingly nice guy, but actually wasn't.
Badr is the guy who started the Cairo Hotel. I met him in the place he's now running, the Noria Hotel, a place I was impressed by. Excellent rooms of near-Cham Palace quality come at US$18 for a single. A quick conversion learns me that this is S£900, so for only S£350 more I could have a tremendous increase in quality over the Cairo ? This is clearly another sign that the latter is bad value for money. Yes, you're not mistaken : I was very disappointed in the Cairo Hotel !…
A much better place to stay was the neighboring Riad Hotel. The owner is a very friendly chap, and although they're in fierce competition with the Cairo, here they have fixed prices, which are cheap enough : S£250-300 for a room.
If you go next door to the Cairo, they'll give you a (maybe) S£50 discount on whatever the Riad is asking. Something I personally regard as ridiculous and totally not a sign of trustworthiness. Rooms are equally spotless in the Riad and actually more comfortable. For me it meant an amazing S£250 reduction for an even better room !
If you like dishonesty, go to the Cairo. If you like a welcoming, friendly and honest atmosphere, bunk in the Riad if you're travelling on the cheap, otherwise head for the Noria Hotel.

Like I said, I met Badr in his hotel. He's a friendly man who speaks excellent English, German and Polish. We had a lengthy conversation, which showed me he was a very modern person, definitely broad-minded and very modest for the rich person he was. He didn't even own a car.

Except for the hotels, he also has a pharmaceutical business. His knowledge on medicine has resulted in him being consulted as a doctor by the locals ! During our talks, two people came in to have their blood pressure measured by him, and asked which pills they had to take to solve eventual problems. Pills, BTW, are readily available over the counter in Syria, almost always without doctor's prescription.

Hama is famous for its norias, and they truly are a feast for the senses! Norias are large, wooden water wheels, dating back to the Middle Ages, which are turning day and night, fed by the water of the Orontes river. The wooden axles of the wheels rotate between wooden blocks. This wood-on-wood produces a loud groaning which is audible virtually all over town.

There are ten or so norias left in Hama today, and I think I visited them all. The al-Mohammediyyeh noria is the largest, with a diameter of 20 metres odd, but it's difficult to get a good view of it. No matter where you stand, it's always wrong for the best view, or you have to get to the other side of the river. I found the so-called Four Norias offering the best view, and the one right in the middle of town wasn't bad either.

Right by the Four Norias is the aptly named 4 Noria Rest. This restaurant offers excellent views and very good food. The waiters are friendly, and meals are cheap at about S£300 pp. It's a brilliant place to be at sunset, when local boys gather to jump off the high, turning wheels and aqueduct to attract the attention of the present tourists.

The Azem Palace was the residence of the governor who ruled the town in the 18th century. It's perhaps not worth the S£300 you have to pay to get in. Initially, I was very disappointed by the place and by the museum. The great 3rd century mosaic of Maryameen (Maria) made up for a lot of this.

I only started appreciating the palace after visiting the rooms upstairs. It's a nice place to be after all, but I still say it's probably not worth its entrance fee. The people here sell far too expensive postcards (S£25 for one !!).
Right by the palace are some norias and the an-Nuri Mosque. The best place to enjoy these norias is from the Sultan Restaurant, which is romantically located. The mosque's not worth a visit inside. The best part is its minaret, which is often the case with mosques.

Better is the Grand Mosque. It was completely destroyed in 1982 but has been well repaired. It's hard to imagine it was the scene of such violence. Nobody seems to visit it nowadays, but it's still a quite beautiful site. Even if its predecessor was many times more beautiful… Absolutely no hassles here. I was only one day in Hama... Which is unfortunate! I could have easily spent three there.

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