23 December 2011


Welcome back. Are you ready for our final day-trip from Damascus?
Roman Colonnades and Arch of Triumph,
Palmyra, Syria, 1983.

It must have been my Australian colleague who planted the idea of touring Palmyra. He, accompanied by one of his countrymen, visited the site a couple of days before he left Syria, which was a couple of days before I caught the 6 AM Karnak bus for the 130 mile ride to Palmyra.

Shortly after I awoke that morning, I knew the day would be special. My 8th floor hotel room shook rhythmically in synch with a 5.5 magnitude earthquake. If by chance I hadn’t noticed, people ran through the corridors, shouting and banging on doors.

(An even more stimulating hotel evacuation occurred a week later. That was precipitated by a half-hour, anti-aircraft-like firing for hotel guests and all of Damascus around 2 AM. Who expected Ramadan to begin so early, so noisily?)
The decamanus (top), looking back at the 
Arch of Triumph, and other cross streets
(bottom), Palmyra, Syria, 1983.

Discovering Palmyra 

The bus ride was smooth and I was soon roaming through 2,000 year old ruins, totally unprepared. Once again, I found a guide book after my visit: Assa’ad, K. and O. Taha. 1966. Welcome to Palmyra. Al-Incha Printing Office, Damascus.

Various websites share a wealth of information on Palmyra; however, the one that would have been most useful that day had it existed is Google Maps. With ruins spread over some 2.5 square miles, zooming in on the annotated satellite image would have provided a much needed perspective. (Try it--Palmyra, Syria.)

Let me tell you a bit about Palmyra. To be current, I’ll rely on Wikipedia, the Sacred Destinations website (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/syria/palmyra) and especially the UNESCO World Heritage Site website (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/23).
Collonades and statues, Palmyra, Syria, 1983.

Palmyra (“Tadmor” in Arabic) is an oasis in the heart of the Syrian Desert, northeast of Damascus. Human settlement at Palmyra traces to the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras; the site was mentioned on a tablet from the 2nd millennium BC.
Temple of Ba'al-Shamin, Palmyra, Syria, 1983.

When Palmyra came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD, the city was already an established caravan oasis. Being on the trade route that linked the Roman Empire with Persia, India and China, Palmyra marked the crossroads of several civilizations. Emperor Caracalla declared Palmyra a Roman colony, bringing new construction and making Palmyra one of the greatest cities of the Roman Empire. 

Conflict between Persia and Rome peaked in the 3rd century. In support of Rome, the ruler of Palmyra managed to withstand Persian armies but was assassinated. His wife, Queen Zenobia, assumed power. Acting to remove Roman domination, she took over Syria, Egypt and much of Asia Minor. Rome ultimately besieged Palmyra until it fell in 274 AD and took Zenobia captive.
Ancient structures, Palmyra, Syria. 1983.
Jumping ahead, in the 6th century, Roman Emperor Justinian rebuilt Palmyra’s defenses, yet most of the city remained in ruins. A century later, Muslim Arabs took Palmyra in the name of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.
The Arabian Castle of Qala'at ibn Maan overlooks 
Palmyra, Syria, 1983.

The Arabian castle of Qala’at ibn Maan, which stands on the hill above the oasis, was constructed in the 16th century.

Palmyra was “rediscovered” in the 17th century, though excavations didn’t begin until 1924. The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1980, and archaeological studies continue today.

Given the amount of restoration that’s occurred over the past 30 years, I had a difficult time matching some of my photographs with recent photographs on different websites.
Restoring the Roman ruins of Palmyra, Syria, 1983.

Walking through Palmyra 

It was hot! Although I'm known for not drinking enough water, I emptied my bottle before I took a welcome lunch break at a hotel near the ruins. (Today, there are several hotels.)

Prominent on the site are the colonnaded streets, one stretching over half a mile along the axis of the city and others leading to monuments now identified as the Temple of Ba'al, Diocletian's Camp, the Agora, theater and other temples and quarters.
The Theater, Palmyra, Syria, 1983.

After adjusting to the wonder of walking through the scattered ruins of the city, I saw the funerary monuments in the distance and my wonder began anew. Beyond the city, the Valley of the Tombs is the site of four cemeteries with three types of tombs, including caves.
The Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra, Syria, 1983.
Outside and inside tombs at Palmyra, Syria, 1983.
Wrap Up

The bus got me back to Damascus by 8 PM, safe, sound and in awe of what I’d experienced, not only at Palmyra but throughout Syria. How lucky I was to have had the opportunity.

Thanks for stopping by. I’ll write again in about a week.

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