Hama Weekend, Part 3: Assassins and Waterwheels

Tuesday, August 2, 2005 | Hamah, Syria

The waterwheels of Hama are the local kids' favorite means of summertime entertainment.
The mosque's call at dawn failed to wake me Saturday morning, but the sun finally did the job a few hours later. To take advantage of the night's cool air, I had slept on the hotel roof, where bare mattresses were offered under a canvas awning.

My destination this morning was Musyaf (مصيف), the famed castle of the Assassins, an obscure branch of Nizari Isma'ili Shi'ites who developed special techniques of killing during their heyday in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that their leaders employed not only extreme training techniques, but also hashish (الحشي), hence their name "al-Hashashiyyin", adapted in English to "assassins". It was said the drug kept the killers loyal, if not completely dependent on their leader's supply.

Whatever their secrets, the Assassins were highly effective, taking down a number of prominent
Crusaders and even threatening the lives of Muslim leaders like Saladin. It is said the general tangled with them briefly, laying siege to Musyaf, but mysteriously withdrawing his armies from the siege before its completion after finding a dagger and a note on his pillow one night.

The legends definitely add to the castle's atmosphere, though the Assassins' stronhold is already formidable enough. In the mountains west of Hama, it sits poised on a hilltop overlooking a broad valley. As usual, I made a point of walking through every room, from the underground dungeon-like cisterns to the upper lookout towers, complete with Crusader-era crenellations, spiral staircases, and narrow archers' windows.

Definitely a good destination.

* * *

Back in Hama that afternoon, I had a chance for a daylight visit of some of the sights. It was significantly more enjoyable than the blur of the previous night's city tour.

Beside the riverbank, I passed by the Al Nouri Mosque (جامع النوري), commissioned in the late 12th century by Noureddine, uncle to Saladin (and a better general). A few other sites in the tiny old section of town were under renovation, as were most of the cobblestone streets, but I managed to visit the Azem Palace (قصر العظم), the riverside home of the former Ottoman governor, with a tranquil courtyard filled with orange trees and built around a central fountain.

At the river's bank, I learned how the locals make use of the waterwheels today. I stood beside one of the largest wheels and watched a gang of young teen boys swimming in the river and taking turns grabbing onto the slats of the wheel, which rapidly lifted them high into the air. With a wild shriek, they then lept sideways off the wheel and plummeted into the water below.

Last but not least, I paid my promised visit to 'Arif and his friends at the produce market, for more fruit and tea.

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