A day wandering the Middle East's finest Roman ruins
28.02.2010 - 04.03.2010 12 °C
Jihad drove us through pelting rain from Qasr Ibn Warden to the sprawling Roman ruins of Palmyra. There were a few precarious times when we feared we might aquaplane as he sped through huge patches of standing water without slowing, but we arrived all in one piece two hours later.
We raced past the ruins in order to get to a couple of Roman tombs by 11:30am as two of the most impressive tombs are only open for 15 minutes at a time at certain times of the day. The first was in a rectangular tower, about 10m x 10m and four stories tall. It stood amongst other heavily dilapidated tombs in the desert, with the citadel overlooking on the hill behind. We waited about five minutes before the keymaster arrived, with a huge ring of big iron keys. All four levels had multi-level nooks inside for bodies - the tomb must had housed hundreds of deceased! There were some carvings of the 'inhabitants' still present.
After 15 minutes on the dot, we were ushered out of the tomb and it was locked once more. We next went to the tomb of 'Three Brothers', which was underground. This was also a tomb for the public and again would have housed hundreds of deceased, again in multi-level shelves. We overheard a guide say that bodies were interred on their sides in order to save space. This tomb had fantastically intricate carvings and paintings of Roman tales, but unfortunately no photos were allowed.
We again left after quarter of an hour, and after a tasty lunch of spicy, soft orange cheese rolled up in huge flatbread (thanks to Jihad) we were dropped us off at the nearby Temple of Bel, which was dedicated to the Semitic god Bel , or Malakbel in 32 AD, and also used in pre-Roman times. The ruins were incredibly well-preserved, with huge, intact columns greeting us as soon as we entered. We had to initially pry ourselves away from the several guides who approached us and insisted on us using their services, but then spent our visit marvelling at the amount of column segments and capitals lying around in the dirt, and intricate carved square stone pieces.
We then walked towards the Roman ruins, and entered through a huge, restored, arched gate. Palmyra was a huge site and for us (we now consider ourselves "advanced amateurs" at ruin hopping) probably the Roman ruins to beat all that we'd seen in sheer size and grandeur.
Palmyra originally was an ancient Aramaic city, and was a key Syrian city, having long been a vital caravan city "Bride of the Desert" for travellers crossing the Syrian desert. It was made into a Roman city in the 1st century and was an important trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman empire, before being captured by the Arabs some 600 years later.
The highlight for us was the huge Tetrapylon, a set of four groups of four pillars, each set bearing a huge slab of rectangular stone that purportedly weighed 150,000 tonnes... that's a lot of elephants! All except one pillar were reconstructions but we had to really look to spot the difference. Apparently the red rock was brought in all the way from Aswan, Egypt.
We ambled through the huge sites, pausing to admire carvings that were so fresh-looking they could have been done that morning and stealthily placed there just for us and climbed up piles of stones to pull some irreverent poses. A lot of time was spent searching among the column capitals and stones to find a small carved 'take-home-able' piece, but sadly this proved fruitless for us - but we both agreed later that we'd feel too guilty to enjoy it, let alone what it meant for Syrian historic heritage!
By and large the preservation and reconstruction efforts were fantastic (again we are advanced amateurs), but there were clearly tons of grass-topped stones that indicated further sites were yet to be dug up. We had to laugh at one reconstruction effort however - most rows of columns all had small shelf-like piece jutting out near the top, that once would have had a statue of an official sitting atop. However, the last column of a row had the last shelf hilariously sticking out on the opposite side of the column!
During our walk we had to precariously pass some baby camels and their on-guard parents, eyeing us as they munched on the fresh growth. There were some locals who lived in small shacks amongst the ruins and a man and his daughter ran out to greet us when we approached, their grins showing heavily browned teeth. It turned out though, that they only had come out to thrust their open palms at us and ask us for money and pens.
We had a great day exploring Palmyra. Hopefully the photos show what an epic site it is. Afterwards we met Jihad to see the ruins from above, by sunset at the Citadel. The wind again was icy and we shivered as he pointed out all the tombs dotting the landscape - there were literally dozens and dozens of them. We also got talking to the local Bedouin youngsters selling souvenirs near the entrance, and laughed along with them as they tried to trick and dazzle us with their multi-syllable names that we could not repeat to them.
After the sunset we requested Jihad take us to a good local restaurant for dinner and again he delivered. The restaurant was a tiny hole in the wall, with only two tables, and a huge sheep carcass hanging in the wall near a big, greasy wooden chopping board. We watched as our kofte was grinded right infront of us from a huge slab cut from the carcass, and sprinkled liberally with spices and parsley. Dinner was lamb and chicken kofte, cooked on huge skewers right outside the restaurant, falafel, baba ghanoush (father's favourite - roasted aubergine dip), hummus, salad and flatbread. We were glad Jihad didn't offer some of his specially-ordered treat - grilled lamb tail fat! It was a delicious meal to cap of a great day in Palmyra.
The next day we returned to Damascus, firstly passing the monastary of Mar Musa, where we were meant to stay, but given that it was so cold we decided against it (also you had to hike with your pack up the snow-capped mountain to the monastary). We also stopped into Ma'alula to visit the charming Church of St Baccus, and the nearby Gorge and Convent of St Thecla. We stayed in Damascus for a further three days before it was time to say ma'a as-salaama to Syria and head into Lebanon!
Jihad and his new baby outside a tomb
Chalky checking out the tombs
Inside the first of two tombs
The Temple of Bel
Ancient clay plumbing
Fantastically intact carving
Jac all puffed up in the ruins
Chalky: The Thinker or more Napoleon Dynamite?
The Tetrapylon is THIS big!
Chalky and the colonaded street
The Palmyra Citadel looms over the ruins
Views from the Citadel
Jihad and Chalky
Us outside the Citadel
Jihad pointing out views from the top
The sprawling ruins and tombs
Our last night with Jihad - the tasty local restaurant he took us to