Thursday, February 23, 2012

Seriously Syria: Palmyra

"The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines."
~Charles Kuralt

Monday, July 30, 2001.

 Today we left Damascus and headed for Palmyra. One thing that is cool about travelling in Syria is that the buses go all the time. It seems strange to me that these countries with relatively small populations can sustain this type of traveling! The downside to this in particular in Syria, is that when we arrive at the bus station, we are met by 100 touts who scream names of cities at us or run alongside us asking, "Excuse me where you go?" This is because there are different bus companies competing for travelers. As soon as they're bus is filled up it can go. You would think we be sitting there all day, but actually, we never had to wait more than 40 minutes at a stretch.  

So off to Palmyra we went, though we both felt more time could have been spent in Damascus. Though we were not too keen on more Roman ruins, apparently Palmyra is a serious top place to visit, as well as being UNESCO site-a designation Jerash in Jordan doesn't have. However, I think that this is because Palmyra has a far racier past than cousin Jerash.

 Pompeii conquered the rest of Syria in 63 BC. Instead of wasting his troops energy by talking them through the desert to Palmyra, the town became a buffer zone between the Roman and Persian Empire. 

In A.D. 130, Hadrian declared Palmyra a free town so the people of Palmyra were free to govern themselves. In A.D. 217, Rome gave Palmyra the status of Roman colony, so the Palmyrenes did not have to pay taxes and had rights which were on par with those of Rome. At this time, the citizens changed the name of Palmyra to Palmyra-Hadriana to show their gratitude. 

 Palmyra became an important city on the trade routes between Rome and the empires of the East. Petra's demise was Palmyra's fortune and more and more trade routes felt under Palmyrene control. However the peak of Palmyrene was when Rome granted Palmyrene King Odenathus full control over all of the Roman forces in the area. This was because he rescued the Roman Emperor Valerian from Persian kidnappers. But Odenathus was murdered in 268-2266 A.D. and his queen, Queen Zenobia assumed the throne for her infant son. But Zenobia was no idle queen and set about expanding the Palmyrene kingdom. Within five years her armies controlled Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor up to and including Ankara. Mints in Alexandria were making coins with her image and Zenobia had taken to calling herself Augusta, the Roman Imperial title. 

Obviously Rome was a little pissed off and Emperor Aurelian retaliated. By A.D. 272, Zenobia's trips were defeated and Palmyra was captured as Zenobia tried to flee. She had to ride in shackles in Aurelian's victory parade. She lived out the last of her days as a prisoner in Italy. Palmyra never regained its previous splendor. And in 1089, an earthquake toppled most of the city and the place was pretty much abandoned after that.

The first day we arrived we really wondered what the big attraction was. This place was no more than a village with cement houses, sometimes painted, kids on bikes, a few chickens. Having arrived in the midday, all sane people had retreated indoors to escape the heat. And what heat it was! Was finding this oasis in the desert all that great? After we checked into our hotel- Al Afqa Hotel, run by a larger than life manager named Mehren,  we wanted around the little tumbleweed town, ate dinner and returned just before sundown where we took a taxi up to the Mamluk castle to watch the sunset.

 I met a Canadian archaeologist who knew my Roman art history professor from UVic. The discussions I had with her further confirmed that leaving the political profession of art history to go to linguistics was a good one. We watched the sunset, went back to the hotel and joked with Mehren, and retired to the room for the night 

Tuesday, July 31, 2001.

Today we got up and headed to the museum and organized a ride of the tombs of Elahbel and the three brothers. Since we had time to kill, we headed out to the ruins which were surprisingly close to where we were staying. I think over all we didn't really see anything that we didn't see at Jerash, though Palmyra seemed more of a city where Jerash seemed like scattered ruins. Of course we had our usual host of totes and camel drivers to bargain for. I told one guy I really hated camels and he kept chasing me down show me his camel wouldn't bite! I have had enough of the furry flatulent beasts! 

After a quick jaunt down to the colonnaded street, checking out the nondescript ruins we headed back in the heat the museum where we met our driver and another Canadian named Tim. Tim was a budding archaeologists you had been on a dig in Turkey. He was way more energetic than us in the heat, running to the top of nearby ruins donning his Indiana Jones hat and peering into the corners with a heavy duty torch. So the first tomb we went to see was the Temple of Elabel. Because these tombs are the best, they are locked and shown only four times a day. 

The temple of Bell was built in 103 A.D. for four brothers and their portraits are painted on the wall. But on each side of the temple seems to be a filing cabinet for the dead. Four floors, nine recesses, each could hold nine corpses, that's 324 bodies in this one alone! This was done for profit so you could be buried in a tomb even if you couldn't afford one. 

One interesting thing was that the spaces were so narrow it was obvious and later confirmed by our Indiana Jones companion that the Romans buried their dead sideways. The tomb of the three brothers was underground and had funerary statues. 

Tim  bartered for several minutes for a Kafiya. He got the guy down to 70 Syrian pounds-very cheap! But he didn't have the correct change. So he borrowed 50 pounds off René and promised he would find her and return the money. After he got out of the taxi he stuck his head back in and said he promised and he even did the scouts sign! We trusted him! 

He did pay René back by leaving an envelope of money with Mehren at the hotel. When Mehren saw the piddly amount of cash in the envelope, he seriously blew a fit:
"You'd think he left you ten million dollars, with the fuss he made about getting this envelope to you! I should go out there and find this guy and crack his head!" Luckily our Indiana Jones was already out of town. 

We were hungry at this point so we decided to go for a walk and check out the Pancake House, a restaurant that came highly recommended by the traveller's we had met. We were having a hard time finding it until a man on a bike drove by and called out, 

"Pancake house?" 
"Follow me!"

 This was the Iad, cook, owner,  manager and full blown-entertainment. After we ate, he invited us into the cool and quiet backroom to hang out with him and his son. René ended up talking to  Iad, who drilled her on all sots of topics in order to kill time and I played a strange little card game with his eight-year-old son Mohammed. Iad's wife Gina was currently in Romania with their youngest son and he was left alone with Mohammed for the summer holidays and it was driving him crazy! Mohammed had a fixation with everything mine and carefully checked out the contents of my bag: my camera, backpack, passport, and sunglasses. I took some photos of him wearing everything including my shoes! 

We left to catch the afternoon sunlight on the ruins but not before promising to return for a free dinner! And it was a good dinner-couscous with lamb and tomato- the most expensive thing on the menu! There were no other customers and we spent a few hours there. But I have to admit I got bored listening to Iad ask René when she was planning to come back to Palmiyra and offered to help her find a job in Damascus so they could see each other. Not that I want the attention René gets from these men, but it was getting ridiculous! So I bugged Mohammed and we built our own fun. 

Soon Mohammed and I were bored with each other and we waited and watched Iad fawn over René and Rene laugh it off for bit longer. He did tell us his grand plans for the pancake House which was basically to become as big as McDonalds is in other countries. (No McDonald's in Syria.) We were only allowed to leave after we had tea with Iad's parents Where he introduced René and told them her life story, ignoring me completely!  We also had to promise to come back for breakfast even though in my opinion it was a large pain in the ass and I had had enough of Iad.

Wednesday, August 1, 2001

This morning we packed, checked out of our hotel and carried our luggage over to the Pancake House. Iad had sent Mohammed to sleep at his grandfather's and he himself had pulled up a mat Arab style and was asleep on the floor of the restaurant when we arrived. He got up, not a morning person, and staggered around the kitchen making us a really nice send off breakfast. We had pancakes and coffee, and more of the same conversation as the night before. Rene asked and lots of questions about his wife. He answered but didn't talk too much. 

He then drove us to the bus station, bought our tickets to Homs, got on the bus and booted two poor boys out of their seats to wait for the next bus. He then reorganized the front seats so we didn't have to sit next to any swarthy men. He asked us if we had made arrangements with the hotel we wanted to stay at in Hama, and we told him no, but it would be okay. Lucky for us, Iad called ahead and booked us a room, as he knew it was often full and there was no where else decent to stay in Hama! 

Then we finally said good bye to Iad, the Pancake Man, me feeling a little guilty and sheepish for scoffing so much at him when he really was quite generous, thoughtful, kind, and did a lot for us.

-To be Continued!-



  1. Absolutely riveting. You are just as fluent with words are you are with paint and pencil. It was a pleasure to read. Thanks, Deborah Groom

  2. High compliments, Deborah! Thanks so much!

  3. What is interesting to me is reflecting on your experience of Syria and what is going on there today. It seems to be quite a contrast. Thanks for your posts which help to make it a real place with real people to one who has not been there.

  4. Thanks, Nemo. The decision to publish my Syrian blog here is because of this very reason. That and I heard my Syrian Coworker's brother has gone missing in Syria, and though I know this blog isn't going to move mountains, it's all I can do- maybe it's something if people read it. Syria is an amazing country full of really nice people. I can't for the life of me understand why a government would want to do this to its own people. Syria has so much potential- the headlines break my heart daily.