I started to write this after I had heard of the destruction of some of the ancient buildings by ISIS/ISIL. Just the thought of losing such an historical site to these rebels was enough to make my blood run cold. To say that I was devastated is an understatement.
As the UNESCO web site claims:
“An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. … ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.”
Palmyra (/ˌpælˈmaɪrə/; Aramaic: ܬܕܡܘܪܬܐ Tedmurtā ; Arabic: تدمر Tadmor)
“Archaeological finds date back to the Neolithic and the city was first documented in the early second millennium BC as a caravan stop for travellers crossing the Syrian Desert”
“In 64 BC the Roman Republic annexed the Seleucid kingdom, and the Roman general Pompey established the province of Syria. Palmyra was left independent, trading with Rome and Parthia but belonging to neither.”
Imagine driving down a highway, turning a corner in the road and being among Roman ruins that are just over 2000 years old! That is what happened on our first, and subsequent, trips to Palmyra, Syria during our time there from 1994 until 1997.
The ruins lay on the outskirts, south, of the town of Palmyra and straddle the highway which links Damascus to Palmyra and towns and villages further to the north east. You litterly drive around a bend in the road, park your car, get out and begin walking among the ruins. There is no gate, fence, admission fee, or even an “official” guide to lead you along the colonnade or around the amphitheater. One is immediately amazed by the sheer size and scale of the site. The columns rise tens of meters into the sky and the inscription below the pedestal which once held an important figure is still clearly visible. There is some debate on just what happened to the statues on each of these columns. The general consensus is that once Islam became the dominate religion they were destroyed because only Allah can create a likeness and anything else is an idol. The local Muslims, however, take the view that it was the Crusaders who destroyed the statues.
The monumental buildings seemed to be out of scale with the surrounding area. Or maybe it was the vastness of the desert which made them that much more impressive. Walking through the ruins one seems to be taken back in time and wonders what a busy town this must have been. While we mostly just explored the major site the ruins are actually spread over a much wider area.
Of course the majority of the main buildings are still clearly definable but also the base structure of the living quarters can be made out. As one wanders down the streets the ancient underground sewer or water pipes are still visible as well as several old bath tubs and the roman bath.
On our first visit I mistook the funeral towers to be Roman watch towers. I later discovered that these tall towers once held the bodies of deceased families or even groups of people. The paintings on the walls and ceiling in several of the towers is still clearly visible. While on our first visit I wandered off to take photos while Wendy and another lady from the Embassy went off to explore on their own. When it came time to meet up the two ladies were nowhere to be seen. As I looked around for them a young boy came up and said that I was to follow him because that is where they had gone. It turned out that they were “invited’ to a bedouin camp for tea and I was to join them. While we were having out tea suddenly goods began to be displayed for us to buy. I was informed by one of the bedouin men that it was considered “bad manners” not to buy. There was no use in my telling him that I considered it “bad manners” to be invited to their camp and then being forced to buy something. I learned very quickly that in the Middle East nothing is ever given for free!
Sadly there seems to have been very little archaeological excavations done on the site. There is some evidence of digs but on the whole the site seems to have been ignored. Although, this may be because the average Syrian either is not interested in the historic development of the country or they are not taught anything post-Assad in school. Any archaeological exploration in the country seems to have always been undertaken by, North American or European universities.