Since 2009 the University of Copenhagen has examined how settlement, land and water use developed in Syria during the Islamic period. Data collected through collaboration with the University of Durham Survey of the Homs Region provided the starting point for an archaeological investigation of village remains and water provision networks in the Orontes valley. The most significant Islamic period remains identified in this rural landscape were a group of eleven large stone watermills, each stretching across the full course of the Orontes river (Figure 1). These structures, an exceptional survival in the Middle East, represented an important source of information about rural society and economy of the Ottoman and medieval periods in Syria, and yet they were almost entirely undocumented.
In the autumn of 2010, with the generous support of the Foundation, a three week season recording two of the mills was undertaken by an interdisciplinary team, combining archaeological building recording with ethnographic enquiry and investigation of available historical sources. Participants included the present author, an Islamic archaeologist, specialists of architectural history and building archaeology Dr. Cristina Tonghini, (University Ca’Foscari of Venice) and Dr. Matthew Godfrey (University of Leicester), an ethnographer and archaeologist of rural technologies, Miss Holly Parton (Chichester UK) and an Ottoman architectural historian, Dr. Marianne Boqvist (Swedish Research Institute Istanbul). We were kindly assisted in the field by architectural heritage collaborators from the Syrian Direction Générale des Antiquités et Musées, Miss Shereen al-Faris and Miss Lucia Khabbaz.
Two mills were chosen for the season of fieldwork, owing to their exceptional state of preservation, containing millstones and other elements of mill machinery, and for their appurtenance to local memories and customs. Beginning with al-Banjukiyya, (Mill 4, Figure 2) fieldwork generated a detailed photographic record and written description of the watermill structures and their constituent elements. All interior and exterior elevations, and individual structural or mechanical components were documented, and mill infrastructure and hydrological features in the surrounding landscape were photographed.
The mill was planned and a section drawing was completed. Mill 2, Umm al-Reghif, is still in use occasionally today, operated by a family living in the nearby town of Qousseir who have owned it for several generations. A photographic record was taken and a section drawing was completed, illustrating the millstone with its grain container above and the water wheel and gearing in the wheel floor below the milling level (Figure 3). Recording the oral traditions that survive in the context of this mill was a key component of fieldwork, and represented the opportunity to document the rare survival of artisanal practices that have been largely lost elsewhere in the Middle East over the course of the twentieth century. Ottoman archival sources also provide important data about this rural environment, and in a number of instances tapu tahrir defters (taxation registers) mention watermills on this stretch of the river directly, including a reference to an “Umm al-Reghif”.
A secondary task of the season was to undertake a preliminary documentation of the nine other mills lying within our permit area. This involved recording dimensions, registering surviving elements and photographing all elevations. An imperative was provided by the complete disappearance of the remains of Mill 10, Maksam al-Dar, since its first being visited in September 2009. The mills have many structural characteristics in common, seen especially in the layout of the buildings and their hydraulic systems. The highly standardised aspect of their construction suggests a centrally organised rebuilding programme in the late Ottoman period, potentially linked to the tanzimat (reorganisation) reforms of the empire. It is tempting to postulate that a team or teams of specialist mill builders were active at this time. Later changes to the buildings included the incorporation of watch towers that may have initially had a defensive purpose guarding and controlling the adjacent Orontes river crossings, before being transformed into domestic dwellings (Figure 4).
Traces of Medieval and Ottoman Mills on the Orontes
The building sequence established in 2010 for Mills 2 and 4 is a working hypothesis, deriving primarily from a consideration of the regularity of stone courses as a primary indication of discontinuity, enabling the identification of architectural interfaces and different stratigraphic units. Preliminary analysis of building phases indicates that parts of Mill 4 (and the nearby Mill 3, Tahun al-Qadas, not studied in 2010) are likely to have been built between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. This suggested dating rests on the use of columns as bonding elements in a systematic and regular way, a practice introduced in Syria in the twelfth century, and seemingly disappearing after the Mamluk period (visible in Figure 2). The worn inscription on the lintel of the gateway of Mill 4, reused and of Mamluk date, may relate to this phase (Figure 5).
It is likely that most of the components of the ensemble of mills in our study likely date to the later Ottoman period, from the late 18th or early 19th century. Mills 3 and 4 are atypical in preserving the earlier building phases. Ottoman work at Mill 4 consists of major reconstruction, especially in the north-eastern area, presumably subsequent to a destructive episode caused by flash flooding, not infrequent on this stretch of the river. In a later phase an additional floor was added to the western part of the mill, a feature likewise observed at the other surveyed mills with similarly well preserved elevations. Antique spolia probably from nearby Laodicaea ad Libanum are among the stone elements used in the construction of the milling floor of the mill (Figure 6). Only preliminary analysis was carried out of Mill 2, Umm al-Reghif, in 2010, in order to distinguish major structural changes. Two main phases were detected, as well as a recent rebuilding which occurred during the childhood of the present miller. Our working hypothesis is that the major part of the structure of the mill was built in one episode, broadly contemporary with the second architectural phase at al-Banjukiyya.
Recording an Oral Tradition: the Umm al-Reghif Mill
Umm al-Reghif (Mill 2) provided the focus of the ethnographic work in 2010 (Figure 7). A qualitative methodology was employed, compiling information principally from interviews with the miller to explore the wider socio-economic role of the mill. He explained in detail how the mill worked: the two functioning vertical waterwheels, the names of the different mechanical parts, the various architectural features of the building, and their function in the operation of the mill. He also provided us with information regarding his knowledge of the substances ground, which included grain for flour, animal fodder, maize corn, barley, bulgur wheat, chickpeas and on occasion even salt. All elements of the pre-motorised milling process were discussed, providing information pointing to the great economic significance which the watermills once possessed, in a region which has been referred to as the breadbasket of Syria since the Abbasid era. Former production rates reached an extraordinary 700kg of around the clock for eight months of the year.
The data collected attests to the complex range of competences and accumulated knowledge necessary for the successful operation and maintenance of an Upper Orontes watermill and all its associated hydraulic infrastructure. Millers were intrinsically involved in the positioning and construction of the mills themselves; the miller recalls his father and grandfather installing metal or wooden stakes and slats in the river bed to alter its course so that it flowed into the mill pond. While belonging to a tradition dating back at least to the Mamluk period, the current miller possesses knowledge of the sourcing and maintenance of the stone, timber and metal components of the structure. The miller himself found an ingenious solution to the replacement of one set of wooden waterwheel gearings (seen in Figure 8), owing to the absence of skilled artisans, utilising the driveshaft of a modern minivan. Other information relates to the customers of the mill, who were not only locals, but could be from as far as Hassiya and Tadmur (Palmyra) 50 km and 200 km distance away in the steppe, transporting wheat, barley, bulgur wheat and even salt by donkey for processing in Upper Orontes mills in the mid twentieth century. The unprocessed grain would be carried to the grinding wheel manually, horse or donkey drawn carts never entered the mill, though he agrees that this was not necessarily the case at other mills, where evidence indicated that the doors were widened, potentially for this purpose.
Mills in Archival Source Materials
Ottoman tax and waqf records provide rich sources of information about the economy and society of the rural world in Syria. These are concentrated in the first period of Ottoman rule in the sixteenth century, and are written from the perspective of urban administrators. They indicate the close connections that could exist between the Upper Orontes region and the Ottoman ruling class in Homs, Damascus and indeed the imperial capital. The mill and adjacent village of Ghanto (Mill 9) belonged to the waqf of an important Ottoman governor of Syria, Lala Mustafa Pasha, while a mill, known as Umm al-Reghif, was part of the waqf of the Grand Vizier Rustam Pasha, providing income to sustain a takiyya in the city of Homs and a khan in Hama. Five millstones operated in the sixteenth century mill of this name, less than the seven working stones of the twentieth century, nonetheless indicating that the Orontes watermills possessed an economic significance that resonated beyond their immediate surroundings.
An Islamic Rural Heritage in Peril
The documentation and study of the Upper Orontes mills is producing significant new information about a neglected component of Islamic cultural heritage which was a central element of rural society and its economy. The work is given added imperative because these buildings, along with much of the archaeological landscape within which they sit, is directly threatened with destruction. The continued existence of the ancient practice of pre-motorised milling into the twenty-first century are to our knowledge limited to two locations in Syria and Lebanon, and Umm al-Reghif is the last instance of vertical-wheeled milling in Syria. In addition, decreased river-flow, caused by the extraction of water for irrigation, coupled with heavy pollution of the Orontes, means that this may not survive the present generation. It is hoped that this project will help draw attention to this rural heritage, both in Syria, and amongst interested parties internationally.
Institute for Cross-cultural and Regional Studies
University of Copenhaguen
 Recorded by Max van Berchem and Jean Sauvaget: van Berchem, Max (1909) “Inschriften aus Syrien, Mesopotamien und Kleinasien, gesammelt von M. von Oppenheim” in: Beträge zur Assyriologie 7/1, Leipzig, pp. 32-4. Sauvaget, Jean (1940) “Caravansérails Syriens du Moyen-Âge: II. Caravansérails Mamelouks” in: Ars Islamica, 7, 1, pp. 1-19.