Palmyra, Syria

The incredible Palmyra

In my writing on my travels through Syria, I have mentioned a series of great cities and civilisations that I have been lucky enough to visit in my time there, including current cities like Damascus and Aleppo, the mighty Crac de Chevaliers, and formerly great cities that are now in ruins like Rosafa, Mari and Dura Europos. Among the great cities now in ruins is the incredible Palmyra, which is not just a very important historical site, but also in a remarkably good state.

Palmyra was mentioned in writings from Mari in the second millennium BC. The name may have been an incorrect translation of the previous name, Tadmor, which was mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as a desert city built or fortified by King Solomon of Judea. When the Seleucid Empire invaded Syria in 323BC, Palmyra became independent, and grew as a caravan stopping point. Mark Anthony sent a raiding party to Palmyra in 41BC, however, advance notice of the attack allowed the residents of Palmyra to move to the other side of the Euphrates, implying an amount of nomad activity was still going on in the city.

During the reign of Tiberius, Palmyra came under Roman control as part of the province of Syria. Roman rule allowed the city’s trade to continue to grow, and as it became more and more a centre for trade and for trade routes, Hadrian visited the city and proclaimed it a free city. It was renamed Palmyra Hadriana in his honour. Under the rule of Queen Zenobia, the Palmyrene Empire was established, stretching at its peak from Egypt to Asia Minor. The Romans responded, and Zenobia was captured by Aurelian, and was paraded through the streets of Rome as a captive. However, she was exiled to a villa in Tibur, where she played an active role in the society. Palmyra became a legionary fortress and lost much of its trading prowess. The city continued through the Byzantium period, then was captured in 634 by Khalid ibn al-Walid. In the 12th century, the impressive Temple of Ba’al was turned into a fortress, and in the 16th century the nearby fortress of Qala’at ibn Maan was built. During the years of Ottoman rule, the city declined, and by the time of the French mandate in the region after the First World War, the population was limited to that of a village, based in the Temple of Ba’al. The French forces dislodged them, and has been a site of archaeological investigation and tourism ever since.

Parts of the city are very well preserved, including the Temple of Ba’al, and the theatre. There are a series of other buildings, temples, churches and streets, with a monumental arch and a tetrapylon. There is a necropolis outside the city, including some underground tombs that are accessible. It is slightly odd to look at the busts that decorate the tombs, that are of the residents inside each of the compartments. There is also a tower tomb at the site.

The oasis that led to the building of the city can still be found, and remains verdant in the surrounding desert.

The castle at Qala’at ibn Maan is impressive in its own right, but also provides superb views of Palmyra.

There was some tourist infrastructure in the city, but nowhere near as much as you might imagine, and there were also fewer tourists than you might imagine there. It was one of the sites that we saw with most tourists, but still at best a handful of people, although given that we were the only people in places like Mari, then this still felt relatively busy. We did find one man with a remarkably cute camel who was looking for tourists to have their pictures taken with the camel for a small fee. We gave in to the cuteness.

There is a hotel right beside the ruins, the Zenobia Cham Palace. It is quite remarkable to sit and have breakfast whilst watching the ruins at the end of the terrace.

This also meant that it was easy to watch the incredible sunsets and sunrises from within the ruins themselves.

We met our Bedouin hosts at Palmyra, and rode through the ruins during a sandstorm by camel, which was a wonderful experience, although my camel riding skills are not such that I was able to take too many pictures at the same time.

Reports from Syria at the moment suggest that sites like Palmyra are suffering in the current conflict there, and whilst our first thoughts must be with the people of Syria, I do hope that the incredible antiquities of the country that have remained in such a good state for so long are able to survive for future generations.