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Water Wheels: Syria's Symbols of Protest

In a new era of violence and protest, the ancient wheels have taken on renewed significance.

Over the past week, as violence has escalated within Syria and at its embassies around the world, protesters have created several symbols of the country’s turmoil. In person, they paint their faces with red tears. Online, a Facebook group called We Are All Hamza Alkhateeb, created in memory of a 13-year-old boy who was arrested and brutally tortured by government forces on April 29, 2011, changed its profile picture to a symbol of what looks like a pyramid encircled by a beaming red sun.

It's a depiction of a noria, a vertical water wheel powered by the rushing water that strikes its blades. Mounted around the rim of the water wheel, wooden boxes or pots scoop water out of the river below, carrying it up to the top where it is either used for irrigation or nourishment. Though water wheels were simultaneously developed all over the ancient world, the earliest evidence of the structure was discovered in a Syrian mosaic dating from the second century A.D.

Only 17 norias still stand in the Syrian city of Hama, mostly along the Orontes river, which cuts through the city. Last Friday, parts of the norias were covered in red paint to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Syria's attack on the city, when then-President Hafez al-Assad, the father of current leader Bashar al-Assad, deployed tanks and aerial bombs to quash government opposition in the Sunni Islamist community. The attack killed an estimated 30,000 citizens and flattened entire neighborhoods, and the Hama massacre still ranks as one of the most brutal events in modern Arab history. The sound of the norias (listen here), heard throughout the city, is haunting. When the wheel turns, it makes a sound that residents liken to a human cry. Most are no longer operational, standing as tourist landmarks that commemorate the city’s tragic history.

In a new era of violence and protest, they've taken on renewed significance. In the past, the anniversary of the Hama massacre was observed quietly by Syrians, for fear of attracting attention from the government. Yet the current brutality of the area has opened old wounds, inciting much of the country to openly commemorate the tragedy as a sign of resolve against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Until now, the noria has been the symbol of Hama, a tourist attraction that conceals the pain of the past, remembered by many. Images from the Local Coordination Committees of Syria show support pillars of the norias, painted with the Syrian Independence flag, as well as the phrase, “Hafez Assad Died but Hama Did Not.” In other Syrian cities, thousands gathered in a demonstration called, “We are Sorry Hama—Forgive Us,” where some protestors exhibited scaled-down replicas of the famous water wheels.

As the violence continues in Syria, where protesters continue to sympathize with the rebels of the past, perhaps the noria will serve as a symbol for all Syrians speaking out against al-Assad. But Associated Press reporters Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue are careful to point out the vast difference between the past uprising in Hama versus today. “[T]he devastation of Hama came after a campaign of terror led by the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood… In contrast, the current uprising began in March with peaceful protests that have since spread around the nation, demanding Assad’s ouster.”

While Bashar al-Assad has not yet followed in his father's footsteps, his recent campaign against outspoken Syrians is becoming more fatal by the day. The world is watching while the wheels keep turning.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user ncarey.

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