It was my first time in the Middle East – visiting Damascus, Aleppo and the Krak des Chevaliers – and all the Syrians we met were friendly and kind. But the high point was a trip to the oasis town of Palmyra and its Unesco world heritage site.
To get there we travelled west along a desert highway, stopping for tea at the Baghdad Café, a famous backpackers’ inn, on the way.
Palmyra stood all alone, bleached white in the afternoon sun, with nothing beyond it but a vast orange-coloured desert. There was hardly any tourism even then and we weren’t mobbed by vendors offering us camel rides or carpets or guides offering breathless commentary. The only sounds came from a gentle breeze and our own footsteps as we explored the edges of the city.
As ever with ancient sites, it took me a while to orientate myself and make sense of the wind-blurred reliefs, the colonnaded streets, the elegant archways and lofty columns.
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There are, in fact, three sites in one. The open spaces to the north were known as the Zenobia district, in reference to a 3rd century queen who ruled over the Palmyrene empire, which extended from Turkey to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Here were the ruins – traces of stone foundations – of two Byzantine churches. Palmyra was Christianised by the 5th century and there was a revival of the church in the 6th, when these buildings were erected.
Palmyra from afar PHOTO: (Alamy)
To the east of these was the impressive Temple of Baal-Shamin. Dating from AD 17 and dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and fertilising rains, it was once part of a much larger structure – but as one of Palmyra’s bigger structures it can still prompt awe.
The prophet Elijah had railed against the idolatry of this pagan god, linked variously to thunder, fertility and the harvest at various times in history. Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife, had been a fervent follower.
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In the so-called Allat district, named after a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess, was a fabulous theatre in an amazing state of conservation, an agora (gathering place), a small nymphaeum or water fountain, a small 1st century temple dedicated to Nebo – the Mesopotamian god of wisdom – and an imposing tetrapylon, a gated plaza which contains the remnants of four massive granite columns (the stone of which was brought from Egypt).
Standing alone, outside the three areas, was the remains of the Temple of Bel, built in AD32 and the best preserved and most striking structure at Palmyra. On raised ground and overlooking what used to be the main thoroughfare, its columned portico still gives you some impression of how huge it must have been when it was intact. The architecture melds Ancient Near Eastern and Roman features and when you get close up to the reliefs you can see Bel – or Baal – on horseback close to Hercules and assorted Roman deities in military garb.
Temple of Bel PHOTO: (Alamy)
Overlooking the site is a 13th century Mamluk castle, high on a hill, named after the Druze emir Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani.
If the separate elements are intriguing, the whole is just astonishing. Palmyra is full of cool, shadowed corners and walls, where you can go to be alone with the ghosts of the place. As visitors to other ancient monuments will know, this is a rare treat. Our small group stayed for a whole afternoon, dazzled by the peace and beauty. As the sun went down on the colonnades, and the long shadows of camels fell on the fallen monuments, we knew we were in a special corner of the world.
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Some archaeological sites stir because of their harmony or completeness. But Palmyra beguiles because of its lonely isolation and because of the many layers of history that are scattered around the site. It helped me to connect all the layers of Syria’s history that I had already learned about on the trip – Biblical, Crusader, Ottoman, contemporary – with the Seleucid empire and Roman conquest, and also with the great saga of the Silk Road. For it was also here that caravans from the east and the west arrived to trade salt, dyes, cloths, slaves, perfumes and prostitutes.
A relief showing grapes PHOTO: (Alamy)
Palmyra is one of the world’s great meeting points, one of the most significant crossroads. There are almost too many civilisations to comprehend in its stone ruins, too many stories to tell.
Isil jihadists may well want future visitors to this spot to remember only one; in which case, the site is doomed.