We bade a very fond farewell to Aleppo. We were on the 4am train to Hama some three hours south. Our hotel had kindly made us a packed breakfast, not overly appealing as it happened, but nice of them to take the trouble.
As you might expect, we slept most of the way and set our alarms lest we awake in Damascus. Hama is in the Homs region of Syria and had been the area that had risen up against the old Assad regime in the early ’80s. We read with alarm how 30,000 rebels had been slaughtered by government troops. That could never happen again, surely?
Hama itself was famous for its norias, huge wooden water wheels used to lift water from the River Orontes to irrigate the crops. It is claimed that they date back to 1100 BC and although no longer serving their original purpose they acted as a touristic curiosity attraction.
There were seventeen dotted along the river that used to be worked manually by farmhands, but now lay idle. They did however make a partial turn every now and again in the wind, accompanied by an eerie creaking noise as the ancient wood strained. I imagined that they would have been pretty deafening when in full swing.
This was borne out when Hamish and I strolled out to a restaurant on the edge of town that sat in the partial shadow of one of the giant structures. A group of Syrians were eating there and they persuaded the waiting staff to climb a small fence, ascend some steep steps and turn the adjacent noria wheel for the enjoyment of the diners.
What a din the straining wood and metal made, accompanied by the gushing water that spouted from the top of the contraption, drawn by the motion of the wheel. It wasn’t hard to imagine what it would have sounded like with all seventeen working at once. Enough to make any dogs in the vicinity run for cover, that’s for sure!
Hama itself had a compact centre with the river running through it, despite being Syria’s 4th largest city. It was pleasant enough with some very nice medieval restaurants, a small souk and a picturesque mosque. One of the restaurants stood in the shadow of a noria, a mosque and a stone bridge, making for a scenic spot as the sun went down.
Our other main reason for staying there was to visit the nearby Krak des Chevaliers (Castle of the Crusaders).
It was built up by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271, before it finally fell to Mamluk Sultan Baibars after a siege lasting 36 days, thereafter remaining in Islamic hands until after the end of the crusade period.
Renowned as probably the most intact crusader castle of recent times, Krak really was a ‘boy’s’ delight.
The imposing structure looked imperious when viewed from atop a nearby hill and it was an absolute joy to clamber around its immense stone walls and rocky pathways to imagine furious battles taking place in the vicinity. It once housed a garrison of over 2,000 and withstood the might of Saladin and his army, before succumbing to the Mamluks.
Our taxi driver took as to a spot above the castle for ‘good view’. He took the snap of Hamish & I below in our twin t-shirts kindly purchased by Mrs Wilbur for our trip. This has become one of my favourite ever pictures as evidenced by the large canvass copy adorning my office wall.
Back down at the castle, we stayed for at least two hours. The complex was vast and of course we wanted to explore every nook & cranny. The views were also amazing, no chance of arriving unexpectedly.
There were very few other visitors and with the size of the place we often had it to ourselves it seemed. Much nicer way to experience somewhere compared to being part of a tourist throng.
We were reluctant to leave, but did so in the happy knowledge that plenty more treats awaited us………