*Was fortunate enough to travel to Syria and see the country in 2008, three years before the war broke out. This is the reminder, the story about the country with immense cultural heritage, posted here with the wholehearted wish for peace to be restored and cities to be rebuilt.
The plan of Palmyra shows an intriguing peculiarity: its principal axis (the Decumanus Maximus) was not perfectly straight, but rather „jogs“ a bit. 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 was 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 was 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, was the oldest and runs through the residential district. The central portion, dating to the 3rd century, was 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 the queen Zenobia.
How to “park” your camel
While strolling around the Temple of Baal or along the Great Colonnade visitors were often approached by Syrians who would have tried to sell various frippery (at least that’s how it was in 2008).
It’s true that you could buy table cloths, scarves, cheap jewelry, and that people should have earned something (where else if not in a place full of tourists, right!), but they were sometimes so annoying that you could have easily gone without this bothersome. It was not that easy to say no either, I mean – everything was so cheap, and if you didn’t buy anything they would have walked behind you until you did, or until you have succeed to hide behind one of those columns.
But then 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, with the wind in his scarf! You could have not ask for a scene more striking than that!
We were told not to be surprised if they come to us in our 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 was the Theater. It was build in the mid-2nd century AD and there was only a dozen of tiers of seating remaining, about the third of the original number. Facing it rose up the majestic stage, 48 meters in length and 10,5 wide, representing the facade of the building. All that remains of it was the ground floor, but it originally rose up for two more stories.
Unlike other theaters in which there generally used to be three doors, the Palmyra Theater had five, the central one of which is known as the Royal Arch. (I am not sure if this still stands or how damaged it was during the recent war!)
Citadel and the necropolis
On the hill that was to be seen from the valley, there was the Arab stronghold, the famous Citadel. View of the old Palmyra from its walls was really breathtaking. The fort used to be governed by the Emir Fakhr ad 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 finds 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.
Those persistent merchants were here as well. Here they asked for baksheesh for posing for a your photo.
Never the less, they did put some effort into it and sometimes brought an interesting traditional instrument or just posed with such a “nonchalance” that you couldn’t seem to stop taking pictures. Few coins there sure came handy.
Right next to the remains of the ancient Palmyra there was the necropolis, tombs where the whole families of this town were buried. With its 150 sepulchres, this necropolis was the largest in the entire Greek and Roman world and comprises both individual and collective tombs!
Here, it was possible to 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 was known under the name of the Tomb of the Three Brothers.
Cafe in 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 then they had to continue to move towards Damascus or to the south of Syria in order to get some accommodation. When I was there, however, there was the authentic hotel in this small town with only few streets, shops and the museum. It had to be booked in advance for a sleep over, surrounded by the atmosphere of the old town and the fresh desert air, which quickly cooled down my room at night.
Once we have decided it was time to part from this amazing ancient town and to continue our journey (through the desert where all we could see were the endless sand and one range of dappled mountains), we were more than surprised to find out that we would 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!
The full Homage to Syria SERIES.