Syria’s Steel and Iron
James A. Reilly
Located on the Orontes River (Nahr al-`Asi), Hama is 200 kilometers north of Damascus and 75 kilometers east of the Mediterranean coast from which it is separated by a rugged chain of mountains. Known as Hamath in ancient times, the town owes its 3000-year history of recorded human settlement to the fresh running water of the Orontes, and to its location along major caravan and trade routes. Hama sits astride the passage from Aleppo to Damascus, the principal conduit for people, goods, and money in Syria in Ottoman times as well as today. The only potential competitor to the north-south route from Aleppo to Damascus was Syria's coastal plain, running west of and parallel to the line of hills, and mountains that overlook the Mediterranean from Antioch in the north to Acre and Jaffa in the south. However, Syria's coastal cities had been devastated and depopulated in the Middle Ages as a consequence of the Crusades, and until the seventeenth century the ports of Tripoli and Saida were sentry outposts guarding the interior rather than significant north-south relay stations. Hence Hama was an important stop on Syria's major trunk road, a busy transit point for caravans and soldiers during the Ottoman epoch.
A promontory that rises above Hama made the site defensible, and its medieval citadel was perched atop it. (Today only faint traces of the citadel can be seen, since the fortress's remaining buildings and walls were cannibalized for building materials in the middle period of Ottoman rule. A distinguishing feature of Hama was (and is) its assembly of wooden water wheels whose design goes back to classical antiquity. These wheels lift water from the Orontes to the higher ground on either side of the river and allow for a verdant band of cultivation. Poets celebrated Hama's gardens and water wheels, which remained its trademark over the centuries. Hama and its riparian neighbor Homs some 55 kilometers upstream were renowned for their fertility, evident in springtime when crops and cultivation extended from one horizon to the other on the Homs-Hama plain.
Syria came under Muslim Arab rule in the seventh century. Though the end of Christian Byzantine government marked a dramatic political rupture, the onset of Muslim rule did not traumatize the lives of the Syrian population. Their new Arab masters were in many respects more akin to them than the Hellenistic rulers of Byzantium had been. Within a relatively short period of time Syrians forsook the Aramaic language and adopted Arabic. The majority came to accept Islam as well, though Muslim tolerance ensured that Christianity continued to be publicly and widely professed.
Hama was not particularly prominent during the early centuries of Muslim rule. Unlike Homs, Hama had not been the site of a major battle between the early Muslims and Byzantium so it did not acquire comparable luster in Muslim historiography and legend. Hama knew no parallel to the Muslim shrines of Homs that were built around the tomb of the Arab conqueror of Syria, Khalid ibn al-Walid, and the Companions of the Prophet who had marched northward with him.
The advent of the Crusades (eleventh-thirteenth centuries) increased Hama's importance in the Islamic period. Hama became a redoubt of Muslim rulers who confronted the Frankish principalities along the Syrian littoral. After Sultan Nur al-Din Zengi consolidated his rule in Damascus (1154), he built a hospice (bimaristan) and an eponymous mosque in Hama, the latter of which remains a landmark to the present day. The Ayyubid descendants of Salah al-Din (Saladin), Nur al-Din's deputy and successor, established a local dynasty in Hama in 1178-1179 before submitting to the Egyptian-based Mamluk sultans from the 1250s onward. The most illustrious of these Ayyubid princes was the author Abu al-Fida (d. 1331), whose reign was later memorialized as Hama's `golden age. Finally, with the Ottoman conquest of the country in 1516, Hama and other Syrian towns were incorporated into a vast political and economic framework that determined the final shape of their pre-modem character.
The Ottoman conquest had been precipitated by frontier and trade disputes with the Mamluk sultans of Cairo. From an early period the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul had recognized the strategic and commercial importance of Syria, mastery of which offered them access to the riches and holy places of Egypt and Arabia. These latter were, in turn, gateways to the Indian Ocean whose historic trade networks were succumbing to European control beginning with the Portuguese at the turn of the sixteenth century. Therefore the Ottomans' occupation of Syria in 1516, at the moment when their Empire was approaching the peak of its powers, had both strategic and commercial implications.
The Ottoman sultans had built up a vast body of military and bureaucratic servants who administered extensive areas of southeastern Europe, the Black Sea littoral and Anatolia in addition to Arabic-speaking lands of the Middle East and most of North Africa. Ottoman priorities were defense of the frontiers, security of trade routes, and prompt remission of taxes. A legally defined ruling class - the sultan and his household plus the thousands of soldiers and administrators in his service - were distinct from the subject population (ra'aya) on whom the tax burden fell. Ottoman rule in newly conquered regions was in the first instance conservative and it adapted itself to pre-existing social, economic, and political structures. This conservatism notwithstanding, new configurations of power gradually emerged in the Ottoman Syrian provinces. Successive fiscal and political crises in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries compelled Istanbul's representatives in Syria to ally themselves with various local forces in order better to ensure the overall objectives of defense, internal security, and tax remission. Such alliances served to break down the heretofore clear distinction between the rulers and those whom they ruled. As early as the seventeenth century, local dynasties emerged in parts of Syria and Palestine under the aegis and at the sufferance of the Ottoman state. This devolution or sharing of power, though in one sense a symptom of Ottoman 'weakening,' also gave the Ottoman center a high degree of flexibility. The Ottomans were able to work with and to manipulate local forces in a manner that allowed a durable political framework to endure in the Arab Middle East for four centuries. Notables and elites, though locally and regionally based, were encouraged to identify themselves with Istanbul and to look to the Porte (the Ottoman government) for legitimization and political support.
The first 150 years of Ottoman rule were good ones in the main for the cities and towns of Syria. The Syrian lands were integrated into trade routes that spanned the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean via Egypt and Arabia, the Black Sea region via Istanbul, and Iran via Iraq and eastern Anatolia. Public works in the form of pious endowments (sing. waqf, pl. awqaf)helped to spur the creation of new quarters in Aleppo and Damascus and to improve the infrastructure of Jerusalem. Ottoman officialdom took a keen interest in trade and the development of trading infrastructure, in particular caravansaries. Security threats to urban Syrian commercial interests were internal, mostly taking the form of highwaymen, brigands or rebels from disaffected portions of rural peasant and pastoralist communities. The Ottomans' foreign enemies were far away, in Iran, Hungary, and north of the Black Sea. Only in Jerusalem, for a time, did the fear of a new crusade lead to reinforcement of the city's fortifications. Elsewhere in Syria, including Hama, citadels and walls were allowed to deteriorate or they became incorporated into the domestic urban fabric, illustrating a general insouciance regarding the possibility of outside invasion or attack. Syria settled securely within the confines of the Ottoman state.
Hama shared in this general well-being during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its built-up area expanded with the growth of regional trade and the intensification of links between the town and its countryside. Whilst Hama suffered a setback toward the end of the sixteenth century during the period of Ottoman troubles associated with the Celali military rebellions, Hama benefited from its merchants' ties to Aleppo during the peak of the latter's prosperity in the seventeenth century. When the fortunes of Aleppo and northern Syria declined, in relative terms, during the eighteenth cCntury, Hama became linked to new centers of regional wealth and power in Damascus.
Until 1724-1725 the district of Hama was administratively subordinate to the littoral province of Tripoli, but afterwards it was part of the province of Damascus. Hama served as a topping point on the route to the Hijaz for pilgrims from Anatolia and northern Syria, and its transfer to Damascus in the eighteenth century reflected the increasing responsibility given to the governor (wali) of Damascus for the security of the Syrian pilgrimage caravan to Mecca. The attachment of Hama to Damascus gave the latter's governors direct access to Hama's grain resources, needed not only to supply the provincial capital but also to provision the pilgrimage caravan. The chief -.Ottoman official in Hama was the district governor (mutasallim). Consistent with a wider pattern in Syria, mutasallims of Hama came from the Ottoman military class and held titles of agha or bey. The nzutasallim received assistance from a retinue of military and fiscal officers. Letters of appointment for Hama's mutasallims emphasized their police and tax duties, including protection of the pilgrimage caravan and the prompt and scrupulous remission of taxes.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Syria and the rest of the Ottoman Empire were gradually and unevenly integrated into a Eurocentric world economy. In the nineteenth century the Ottoman state itself took on a new form through bureaucratization and the curbing of local autonomies, the better to administer its far-flung domains systematically in keeping with the demands of modern statehood within the emerging international system.
Hama was caught up in these currents, and by the early twentieth century the regional context in which its society and economy were embedded had significantly altered. Paradoxically, however, Hama had also by the twentieth century acquired its reputation as a traditional and conservative locality. Its social and economic life before then was indeed marked by important continuities. Nevertheless, some of what appeared traditional in early twentieth-century Hama was of recent provenance and signaled the new circumstances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.