* Was fortunate enough to travel to Syria and see the country in 2008 (when the original article was written), three years before the actual war broke out. This is a reminder, a story about the country with immense cultural heritage, posted here with wholehearted wish for peace to be restored.
The plan of Palmyra shows an intriguing peculiarity: its principal axis (the Decumanus Maximus) is not perfectly straight, but rather „jogs“. The monumental arch was built in the early 3rd century AD under Septimius Severus in order to disguise the misalignment of the first and the second section of the Great Colonnade.
The arch is unique in its genre, with the two lower arches facing respectively towards the Temple of Baal and the main boulevard of the Great Colonnade that cuts through Palmyra from east to west, eleven meters wide and more than one kilometer in length. The arch is richly decorated with motifs of acorns and oak leaves, palm trunks.
Construction of the road began in the 2nd century AD. It may be considered as consisting of three sections. The first, west of the Tetrapylon, is the oldest and runs through the residential district. The central portion, dating to the 3rd century, is the most monumental in character, and the third, the last in chronological order and never completed, led to the Diocletian’s Camp, the area which was once the palace of queen Zenobia.
How to “park” your camel
While strolling around the Temple of Baal or along the Great Colonnade expect to be approached by Syrians who would try to sell various frippery (at least that’s how it was in 2008).
It is true that you can buy table cloths, scarves, cheap jewelry, and that people should earn something (where else if not in a place full of tourists), but they can be so annoying that you could have easily gone without this bothersome. It is not that easy to say no, I mean – everything is so cheap, but if you don’t buy anything they will walk behind you until you do, or until you succeed to hide behind one of those columns.
But than again, those people there who used to earn few coins in Palmyra, they actually did add specific charm to the place. Well, just imagine seeing Syrian guy typically dressed, in long white jalabiya, who has just “parked” his camel, right there, next to you! Or the other one on some small motorbike, riding between those columns! You could have not ask for a scene more striking than this!
Don’t be surprised if they come to you in your own language. Not a surprise if it’s English, right. But what if it’s Serbian? Actually, locals did learn few words in every language it seems, for “business purposes”. They will say “good day” or “it’s not expensive”, and there are some who would shout after you: “Pretty lady!”
Five doors to the stage
Another stop not to be missed in this incredible ancient town is the Theater. It was build in the mid-2nd century AD and nowadays there is only a dozen of tiers of seating remaining, about the third of the original number. Facing the tiers rises the majestic stage, 48 meters in length and 10,5 wide, representing the facade of a building. All that remains of it is the ground floor, but it originally rose two more stories.
Unlike other theaters in which there generally used to be three doors, the Palmyra Theater has five, the central one of which is known as the Royal Arch. (Not sure if this still stands or how damaged it is.)
Citadel and the necropolis
On the hill you will see from the valley, there is the Arab stronghold, the Citadel. View of the old Palmyra from its walls is breathtaking. The fort used to be governed by the Emir Fakhr al Din from Lebanon, from the end of the 16th to the mid-17th century, who was one serious opponent to the Ottoman Empire and its domination. But according to the pottery pieces and other artefacts on the spot that date back to the 12th and 13th century, it seems that the fortress itself was much older.
There were seven towers, and it was easily reachable by the road leading across the bridge.
You will come across those persistent merchants here as well who would ask for baksheesh even for being in your photo.
Never the less, they do put some effort into it and sometimes bring an interesting traditional instrument or just pose with such a “nonchalance” that you can’t seem to stop taking pictures, so do try to have few coins intended for them.
Right next to the remains of the ancient Palmyra there is the necropolis, tombs where the whole families of this town were buried. With its 150 sepulchres, this necropolis is the largest in the entire Greek and Roman world and comprises both individual and collective tombs.
Here, you will see beautifully preserved sarcophagus of the man interred with his wife and children at the deepest part of the funerary chamber, while his descendants were buried along the sides of the room in funerary urns each closed with the bust of the deceased. One of such is known under the name of the Tomb of the Three Brothers.
Cafe in the middle of the desert
They say that there was no place to spend the night in Palmyra earlier, so tourists had to travel for hours to reach Palmyra, go around and visit the town, and than continue to move towards Damascus or to the south of Syria in order to get some accommodation. When I was there, however, in this small town with only few streets, shops and the museum, there was an authentic small hotel. It had to be booked in advance for a sleep over, surrounded by the atmosphere of the old town and fresh desert air, which quickly cooled down our room at night.
Once you decide it was time to part from this amazing ancient town and you continue your journey (through the desert where all you can see are the endless sand and one range of dappled mountains), you will be more than surprised to find out that you will take a break. And there, in the middle of the desert next to the road, there was one genuine cafe!
Not very far from Palmyra (and at about 150 kilometers from the Iraqi border), there was this so called Baghdad Cafe. The story goes that it was opened by bedouins who have decided to “change career” and have turned to tourism. It seemed that they have lived there and they were the ones to make us coffee. Inside – old carpets, stove… And some kind of a waiter-owner-bedouin-guy who took us through the souvenir shop, showed all of his goods patiently and waved to us when we parted.
And now, after all this, I dare you to forget, ever, that you have visited Syria!