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Volume 24, Number 3May/June 1973

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A River Called Rebel

Written by Joseph Fitchett and McAdams Deford
Additional photographs by Nik Wheeler

Under a table of rock in a gorge deep in the brown, corrugated flanks of Mount Lebanon, a trickle of water flows into a still blue pool where wary trout cruise in chill shadows. After a moment's hesitation the stream spills northward, its course lined with willows, tamarasks and trailing greenery. Veering out of Syria's Lake Homs, the stream carves a path to aristocratic Hama, a green pocket at the edge of the great Syrian Desert, oozes through what was recently a reed-choked marsh, then wheels west toward Turkey and there, amid desolate beaches, slips quietly into the Mediterranean. This is the Orontes, the river called "Rebel."

Rebel? This unprepossessing stream, in places scarcely more than a creek ambling quietly, sometimes invisibly through the Fertile Crescent? Yes, because in its twisting journey to the sea, it obstinately refuses to permit the high sills of mountain stone to block its passage and steadfastly husbands its waters against the thirst of swamp and desert. Yes, because it refuses to be one thing or another. It spurts into rapids, idles in ponds, races through spillways, seeps into red-brown farmland and cools shady villages clustered close to the thin green line that marks its course. Yes, because unlike all other rivers in the Crescent, which flow south, the Orontes flows north—an oddity explained by the slope of the Great Rift. A volcanic cleft in the earth running from the Great Lakes of East Africa via the Red Sea to Lebanon, the Great Rift tips imperceptibly at just the point where the Orontes begins to move and spills the small stream northward on a course 300 miles long and crowded with geological as well as historical paradoxes.

The "Ghab" is an example. For centuries the Ghab ("Jungle"), a long trough of spongy hillocks and rank-smelling ponds, offered ironic contrasts to other streams of the area. Whereas in much of the Middle East, long denuded of vegetation, rain waters raced unchecked into desert depressions and evaporated, in the Ghab the Orontes nearly destroyed the valley with floods. In prehistoric times, volcanic action partially blocked the Orontes near Jisr ash-Shughur in northern Syria, backing it into a broad silted valley with an impenetrable basalt floor. As a result winter rains would fill the Orontes to overflowing and ground water which normally entered the river as a subterranean runoff, oozed up from the surface of the valley like water poured into a flowerpot without a drain. In winter the valley became a lake extending 50 miles south to Shayzar near Hama, and in summer it was not much better.

The twofold effect of the flooding is another paradox in the story of the Orontes. The first effect was to drive people up onto the slopes of the surrounding mountains in an effort to escape the winter flooding and summer pestilence. But on the other hand, the river silt, under careful husbandry, made the Ghab valley so fertile that in Roman times the region was a granary of the empire. Writing in the first century, the Greek geographer Strabo described Apamea, a stronghold midway along the eastern side of the Ghab, as "a city on a well-fortified hill, situated in a hollow plain and almost surrounded by the Orontes, which, passing by a large lake in the neighborhood, flows through widespread marshes and meadows of vast extent, affording pasture for cattle and horses... The Selucids kept five hundred elephants there ... and the Macedonians (of Alexander the Great) before them kept a royal stud of more than thirty thousand brood mares and three hundred stallions."

Today, the marshes have gone the way of the elephants. In a $100-million reclamation project, Syria is building dams, draining the swamps, building concrete irrigation canals, experimenting with fisheries (in Strabo's "large lake"), and setting up facilities to transport and market the grain, sugar, cotton and livestock that the swamp's newly recovered 85,000 acres of farmland will produce.

The project should serve as a model for a comprehensive approach which combines land reclamation with social development. For generations, Alawites—a Muslim sect—have been drifting away from their poor, overpopulated mountain homes; now they are being resettled in the Ghab and every inhabitant has an equitable share of the land distribution. The new villages are laid out in an ingenious spiderweb, clusters of houses strung together by roads and by power and telephone lines. The fishermen's cottages thatched with reeds from the swamp are fast disappearing—along with illiteracy and disease. The only trace of the valley's past is the "high-water mark" between the dilapidated old villages high up on the slopes and the new villages lower down.

Historical paradox is equally obvious along the Orontes. Although its economic potential was seldom realized and its swamps and gorges hindered passage and limited its strategic importance, the Orontes valley was nonetheless a battleground as early as 1500 B.C., when the Egyptians and the Hittites clashed at Kadash, an Orontes ford near Lake Homs.

Kadash was important. By controlling Kadash, armies could control movement up and down the inside edge of the Fertile Crescent. Since the Homs Gap was then the only practical pass through the mountain chain stretching between Antioch and Palestine they could also control east and west traffic as well. (This is why the Crusaders later built their great Krak des Chevaliers fortress nearby.) Consequently when the Hittites in 1285 B.C. stopped the Egyptians at the ford and annihilated them (Aramco World, May-June, 1967) the strategic impact was enormous. The Egyptians never regained the momentum lost at Kadash and the peace treaty ultimately signed between Ramses and the Hittite king, renouncing all forms of war between them, was one of the earliest peace treaties in the world. Its text, carved on the temple of Thebes in Egypt, signifies the importance of the Orontes corridor.

Through the years, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians continued to jostle for mastery of the river, but gradually exhausted their strength and opened the way for Alexander the Great, and the Seleucids—Alexander's successors—who gave the Orontes its first taste of peace and prosperity.

The Seleucids were named after Seleucus, one of the Greek generals who met on the Orontes after Alexander's death and carved up the great leader's empire. Seleucus got the Asian possessions, including Syria, which he set out to colonize by founding cities and importing Macedonians to inhabit them.

The Orontes, which linked four new "sister cities" together was the backbone of the new kingdom. Each of the two seaports was paired with an inland river city. At the river mouth Seleucia (near the modern Turkish town of Samandag) was linked with Antioch (Antakya) about 35 miles inland, as far upstream as boats could navigate. Laodicia (Latakia) further south on the coast was teamed with Apamea, inland on the hillside above the Ghab. The populations of nearby towns were transferred to the new communities (standard practice in the ancient world) and Seleucid veterans settled among them.

A strongly defended seaport, Seleucia provided defense and communications for the new capital, Antioch. Laodicia could communicate with the military capital, Apamea, through the valleys of the Orontes and a tributary. (Following much the same pattern, Syria is today constructing a railway link from Latakia inland which reaches the Orontes at Jisr ash-Shughur since Apamea's elevation is no longer needed for health or security.)

After the Seleucids came the Romans and, later, the Muslims and Crusaders whose prolonged struggle decorated the steep mountain slopes above the Orontes with a series of castles whose ruins command the river valley to this day.

Some of the castles have survived nearly intact. The double castle, Shughur-Bakas, is a fairy-tale drawing perched on moss covered rocky spurs thousands of feet above the wild backlands of north Syria. Burzey, high above the Ghab, has the fascination of all fortresses which seem the work of man in one light and the work of nature in another: as a fortified place, its history goes back to Pompey. Qalaat abu Qobeis, one of the forward positions overlooking the river, became a castle of the Ismailis, known to history as the renegade Assassins, who were entrenched in these hills. By the early 12th century, most of the lower Orontes was controlled by the Christians from Antioch. The Arab fortress of Apamea itself, Qalaat el-Mudiq, fell to Tancred, Prince of Antioch, who renamed it "Famia."

But probably the most interesting Orontes castle is picturesque Shayzar, a Muslim stronghold that held out against the Frankish invaders for more than 50 years, clinging to a long spur of mountain that drops jaggedly to the river (Aramco World, May-June, 1970).

Between periods of upheaval the Orontes tended to bind all its communities together in a superficial kind of unity but, in still another paradox, kept them self-centered and fragile.

Homs is typical. Homs survived as an independent principality for millennia—even when the Orontes valley was the plaything of Egyptian and Mesopotamian power. But it paid the price of its isolation. When the Persians swept into Syria via the Orontes corridor and the Romans crumbled, there were no allies to call on. Homs went under and, never part of a larger, sustaining system, was unable to recover.

Today, only half-remembered local myths of Homs' heyday remain—which reveal how unthinkable Homs' actual situation was then. In a stretch of barren valley just south of Lake Homs, a row of giant manholes marks an ancient underground conduit which local people (and the Guide Bleu!) say led to Palmyra, once a great Roman city about 150 miles away. In fact, the aqueduct was part of a now-abandoned local irrigation system. But the mythic instinct is right: Homs ought to have been integrated into a larger economic entity; it might then have survived. Today, Homs is again prosperous. It has an oil refinery, a sugarbeet refinery and an agricultural college.

The Orontes' tendency to isolate rather than unite also explains a lot about Hama, a community with a reputation for extremism. The large town dominates a wide, unevenly watered agricultural region, where feudalism was longer-lived than anywhere else in Syria. Austere and violent, Hama first defied the Crusaders and then Tamerlane—partly because the presence of the river made it impossible to deny water to the citadel. More recently Hama spearheaded the nationalist uprising against the French mandate between the two World Wars. But feudalism also made Hama harsh and fanatical—and the scene of bloody revolutionary excesses. The only Orontes city not located at a great commercial intersection, and dependent on the none-too-robust river, Hama has always been notoriously hostile to outsiders and intent upon its closed concerns.

Yet Hama is one of Syria's loveliest cities. Built along a shallow S-curve in the river, the city erupts in azaleas, mulberry trees and fruit orchards. Away from the river, the lightly planted steppe gradually gives way to desert plains. The river gardens make Hama the rival of Damascus—a reminder that the practice of beautifying cities with gardens began in the Orient. In Hama, the city is wedded to the river. High stone mansions line the riverbanks. Wooden window bays overhang the secluded water. Beneath the harem windows, stone landing docks remain. The empty, echoing stables show how many fine racehorses, reared in the wide surrounding plains, used to be stabled in Hama grandees' town houses.

The former residence of the Ottoman pasha, Beit Azem, is a museum. But the most engrossing exhibit is the palace itself, with the still Orontes as a backdrop. Inside the palace, water, piped by waterwheel, runs down over brightly inlaid marble mosaics to cool the stifling summer air. These "air-conditioning units" are positioned to catch the sunlight angling through stained-glass panes in the central cupola: patches of changing color dance on the water. In the center of each room, fountains provide paradisiacal sounds. And of course the elaborate steam baths are linked with the river.

But the most attractive feature of Hama is the presence of the norias, the huge, dark, moss-green waterwheels which lift water from the river.

Their operation is very simple. The river is dammed, except for a small, fast-flowing channel only slightly wider than the massive wooden wheels. As water races through the channels it fills open-fronted boxes on each blade of the wheel and simultaneously turns the wheel. The wheel carries the dripping boxes to the top where the water spills out into a stone aqueduct and runs down to the fields or houses below. The system is wasteful, but cheaper and more reliable than pumps—and infinitely more charming. At night, when traffic ceases, the narrow, cobbled lanes of the town echo with the creaking music of the massive wooden wheels, and to impress the fairer sex, daring young men frequently leap off Kama's Great Noria into the river—a drop of nearly 50 feet.

Since the Orontes flows through deep gorges over much of its course, the crudely built wheels, said to be of Persian origin, used to be a characteristic sight along the whole river; the need for them is sometimes cited as another explanation of the river's "rebel" name. But nowhere else have they survived as well or become so closely identified with the riverscape as in Hama.

But of all the Orontes communities, it was in Roman Antioch that the river came into its own. In Antioch the Orontes, then 120 feet wide, parted to enclose a pear-shaped island that housed the Roman administrators and flowed on past the North Gate, a massive affair of Egyptian granite offering a dazzling glimpse of the city that awed even the Romans: a main street two miles long and lined with double porticoes. Nowhere else in the world could you walk beneath an arcade for two miles.

Antioch was located 35 miles from the mouth of the river and in the center of the fertile Amuk plain. Always a formidable fortress, under the Romans it became so rich, flamboyant and worldly that in a short time it rivaled Rome and Alexandria.

The river was one of the keys to Antioch's rise and fall and the Romans knew it. At Seleucia, four miles north of the actual mouth of the river, they built a new harbor with great artificial basins and splendid buildings. To avoid a bend in the Orontes where the current was too rapid they cut a channel. To divert mountain torrents which threatened to silt up the harbor they hewed from solid rock a gigantic drainage trench a mile long and 40 feet deep.

Eventually Antioch, like all the cities of the ancient world, fell too. In the reign of Justinian, a series of extraordinary calamities struck the city over a period of 15 years—a major fire, a sack by Persians, a plague and two earthquakes, one catastrophic. It toppled the city walls into the Orontes, rendering it unnavigable—and valueless—for centuries thereafter.

One last paradox involves religion. The Orontes was at once the route by which new religions spread and the place where old, heretical minorities found a haven. It was along the Orontes that St. Paul came bringing Christianity. It was along the Orontes that the forces of Islam came too. But it was also the Orontes that gave refuge to the Alawites and the Ismailis, both offshoots of Islam. And when controversy broke over the head of St. Maroun, one of many early Syrian Christians who fired the 3rd century's imagination by extreme asceticism, he and his followers moved into the Orontes valley to get away from the cities where hostile mobs could be aroused against them.

As antagonism mounted, the Maronites continued to retire up the Orontes valley. Remnants of other movements which had suffered similar persecutions joined them, and a sizable group established themselves in a rudimentary monastery, Deir Mar Maroun, a few hundred yards from the major source of the Orontes. The fortified monastery was the Maronites' last stop before they withdrew up to the mountain fastness of Lebanon in the 10th century.

The Orontes has always stamped itself on men's imaginations. As a sacred pool, Lake Homs figured in sun-worship rites up to the time of Elagabalus. Statues of the river appear on Seleucid and Roman coins. In Antioch homes of the period, the Orontes often figures in mosaics: examples are preserved in the Antakya Museum, an incomparable treasury of opulent Roman decor.

As late as Roman times, amulets bearing the name of the river were fastened to sick people. It also seems to have been a common practice to light lamps and offer sacrifices to spirits by the side of the river to obtain relief from diseases. In certain areas, people along the Orontes still bring their troubles to the river.

The lower Orontes was endowed with innumerable legends by the Greeks, who could never stand a place without a past. The rescue party seeking the ravished Io had settled on the site which became Antioch. Perseus checked a savage flood on the Orontes by conjuring up a ball of fire in the heavens through his prayers. Orestes, released from his madness on a mountain near Antioch, washed away his guilt in the Orontes.

Later civilizations responded in other ways, to cope with other tensions. On the terraced slopes above Seleucia, the Roman vineyards were surrounded by rock-cut tombs and caves, occupied by anchorites who, like St. Simeon, were repelled by the luxury and indulgent pleasure-seeking of city life and sought lives of solitary meditation and asceticism.

Some beliefs never change, however. Near the mouth of the Orontes, on the black sand of the Turkish coast, stands the domed, whitewashed shrine of an Islamic holy man, Sheikh Yussef, who like the Greek hero Perseus rebuked the Orontes when it threatened to flood. A few hundred yards further north is another shrine, revered alike by Sunni Muslims, Alawites and Christians as the tomb of the "Sheikh al-Bahr"—the Lord of the Sea. From all over the surrounding district, people come there to burn long orange tapers of waxen incense. Their immemorial loyalty seems to testify to the obscure power of the Orontes to fire man's imagination as a glorious, mysteriously life-enhancing rebel.

Joseph Fitchett, formerly a writer with the U.N., now covers the Middle East for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Network.

McAdams Deford is with the U.S. Embassy in Jiddah.

This article appeared on pages 12-21 of the May/June 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1973 images.