Thursday, May 27, 2004


Driving into Palmyra at night you are greeted by a glowing section of Corinthian columns standing about thirty feet high that trail off into the darkness. You get the feeling that Palmyra was not too long ago a prime resort area; there's a bedouin tent restaurant (closed for remodeling (?!)), a number of small souvenir shops, and a few four and five-star hotels. Overall the city is small -- I'm totally guessing about 3,000 people. We planned on visiting the ruins in the morning so we checked into the Palmyra hotel and looked for a restaurant. We ended up at Cham Palace, an ornate hotel with an amazing lobby -- columns echoing those in the ruins outside supported an arched ceiling painted with blue sky and light clouds. Mirrors at the ends of the lobby extended the collonade and sky forward into the distance, and the marbled wall held a Greek fresco of Cassiopoeia. In an almost Twilight Zone twist, there were absolutely no guests in sight. None. The three of us alone enjoyed mushroom soup and grilled chicken as the desert wind rattled outside. We talked with some of the local vendors. In 2000, they say, business was booming. And now? A Syrian tour guide made a downward swipe with his hand. "Almost nothing. I might get one tour every two weeks." That's a shame. I know the politics made the situation tense, Syria has so much hospitality and history to offer, if only given the chance.

We tried to find an open bar and settled for the one in the hotel -- again, we were the only guests. After one drink we decided to retire to the rooms. I could only find two channels on the TV -- a French station TV5 europe and a French-dubbed Mexican movie about a hitman with a heart. He looked like Charles Manson. Omar and Tarik had mentioned CNN but I couldn't find it. In the morning we had breakfast and saw a table of French tourists. When they heard us speaking English they seemed startled and stared at us. (I never claimed the French don't sport a hefty attitude!)

We started our visit to Palmyra at the museum so that we could both see the exhibits and pick up a tour guide. Most impressive inside were the funerary busts of second and third-century families and the samples of Palmyran script, which looks a little like a cross between Greek and Hieratic. With guide in tow, we headed over to the ruins. Palmyra was a major stop for caravans traveling along the Old Silk Road. They paid protection taxes to the city, and it prospered. By the second century they had amassed enough wealth to build a magnificient city, a paradise in the desert. Although only 30% of it now stands exposed, it is certainly enough to rival the ruins of Ephesus. Walk among its streets and share the road with the ghosts of 90 generations of merchants, noblemen, artists, and hustlers. The guide walked us among the columns and explained what was what. We saw a bathing pool, the agora, the processional way, an oil press, the city's drainage system. Originally the Palmyrans worshipped one of the many Baals, and eagle images were common. He showed us one area where excavations reveal another city lies beneath this one that easily dates back to the late Bronze age, meaning people have lived here at least five thousand years.

Outside the city stood crumbling towers where the rich Palmyrans buried their dead. One is still in good repair and we visited it. The tower has 96 steps to the top and on each floor there were crypts where the dead could be placed, mausoleum style, with a funerary bust as the cover. Many of those busts are now in the museum, but we also saw a number of statues with the heads broken off. Tarik asked about those and the guide explained that the heads were the most beautiful, small and easy to carry, so the many waves of passers-by through the ages simply stole them. I believe he said some of them are in the Danish museum, and they're no more likely to give them back than the French are to give up the mummies they stole from these same crypts in the 1930s. We also visited an underground crypt with a painting of Achillies, but unfortunately, no photos allowed.


At 5:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a single photo or comment about me :@ :@


P.S: Hope that you are doing fine , I will send you an Email soon.


Post a Comment

<< Home