Over the last few months, Syria has been making headlines almost daily as the struggles between the government and protesters have become increasingly violent. This past Friday, the city of Hama was the target of a government-led military assault that claimed the lives of at least 65 protesters and injured countless others. As tens of thousands of mourners gathered the next day, tanks began to surround the city and caused funeral processions to feel more like protests. The New York Times commented that the pattern of protest, crackdown, mourning, and protest is one that has been repeated hundreds of times in the Middle East in the past six months, beginning with the events in Tunisia.
The imagery of cyclical patterns of struggle and revolution were in the back of my mind when I came across the cover of the February 22, 1913, Scientific American. It featured the famed waterwheels of Hama, the same town so recently hit with violent government crackdowns.
The wheels date from the 12th and 13th centuries. They served to move water from the Orontes river to irrigation channels using the undershot principle, meaning the wheels moved by the flow of water passing beneath. The wheels were a source of pride for the Syrian people, who in 1913 claimed that one wheel measuring about 70 feet in diameter was the largest in existence. They also served as a meeting place for the youth of the city, who, according to the article, would climb the moving wheels and leap off into the stream below to earn a few cents from spectators.
While they are no longer in use, the wheels still remain an important testament to engineering feats of the Middle East. However, at the time of this article, they were indeed in motion and led the author to comment, "The creaking of the wheels is incessant day and night. They never stop." In retrospect, the poignancy of this statement forces us as readers of the past and members of the present to acknowledge the trauma and progress that accompanies revolutionary ideas, whether they be scientific or political. The photographs from the cover of the magazine made the wheels seem like gears that kept the city moving, yet they also added a sense of pastoral serenity to the landscape. They are a startling contrast to the pictures coming out of Syria today.