Aleppo to Palmyra is five hours by bus. We stopped midway at Hama, which apparently gets some Old Testament mention as Hamat. Besides a chance to stretch, Hama offered us a chance to see some thousand-year-old water wheels. These giant wooden wheels still lift water from the “lake” up into a stone aqueduct. And as they work, they groan—a sound that reminds one of the Ents in the Lord of the Rings. This stop was profound in no way at all. But if you’re going to stretch your legs in a small Syrian city, why not do it where there’s a don’t-see-that-everyday sight waiting to be beheld?
The next stretch of road saw me enjoy some wonderful visiting. My eyes didn’t see how it happened, but the next time I looked out my window, all traces of green had vanished and been replaced by desert as far as one could see. Sometime after noon, we arrived on the outskirts of Palmyra, the most eastern point on our itinerary. A decent lunch preceded the main course of the day—the ruins of ancient Palmyra.
Mere moments from our restaurant, we turned a corner only to be stunned. Ruins were everywhere—towers, tombs, columns, and more—just lying there in the middle of the wilderness.
Most of these ruins date to the 2nd century, while the town itself (once named Tadmor) is mentioned in texts all the way back to the 2nd millennium BC! It was ruled at one time or other by the Assyrian, Persina, Seleucid, Roman, and Greek empires as a valuable desert oasis and point of trade along the ancient Silk Route between Asia and Europe. In fact, the name Palmyra means “City of Palms”, speaking to its refreshing and vital presence in this harsh landscape. Throughout the 2nd century, Palmyra was granted increased freedom by Rome. In the 3rd century, Palmyra was led into its most glorious days by Queen Zenobia, a most fascinating woman. Modeling herself after Cleopatra, Zenobia was multi-lingual, highly educated, as well as a significant military leader. She defeated Roman forces and captured significant cities all the way to a successful invasion of Egypt! Eventually, Rome tired of her defiance. She was captured in battle in 272 AD. The following year, Palmyra was crushed, and by 634, it had faded from history, until “rediscovery” in 1678 by some English merchants. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, curiosity was increasingly piqued, until the 20th century brought about the beginning of excavations that will continue into the foreseeable future.
The highlight of today was undoubtedly the Temple of Bel—Bible readers will know Bel as Baal. This building is mammoth! Portions of it certainly date back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. That’s along way removed from the Old Testament stories of the Canaanites and Baal as thorns in the side of Israel, but what we saw today are remnants of that same cultic system. The building today displayed clearly separate gates of entry for worshipers, priests, and animals for sacrifice. An altar was clear, along with the inner sanctuary surrounded by the enormous courtyard. The columns and walls are astonishing in size—to think of ancient people building and moving such pieces is truly mind-boggling!
The rest of the afternoon was spent trekking down Palmyra’s column-lined main street, as well as exploring the ruins of its theatre, various temples, and tombs. The area is sprinkled with tombs uniquely designed into towers or underground caverns. Both were built to house the “mummies” of entire families. They are quite large, spurring us to inquire how many family members were typical in days gone by. The answer was that faithful servants were given the right be buried as part of the family when they died. While it’s nice to “give one his dues”, I can’t help but wonder if a pre-death gift might not have been appreciated! I’m sure there’s something in the honour of that form of recognition that I’m missing, ignorant foreigner that I am.
A great supper, on the patio overlooking the ruins, has led me to a bit of reading and computer time. I’ve failed to make it to bed before midnight yet on this trip. But that trend ends tonight. We are booked for a 5:30 AM wake-up call, to get started on what promises to be a very full day, after which we’ll sleep our first night in Jordan. Syria has treated us wonderfully, but our road leads south, so on we go.