24 July 1996
PALMYRA - CITY OF PALMS
We checked out of our hotel early and took an early bus to Palmyra. The journey towards the northeast of Damascus passed through a huge expense of the Syrian Desert. The landscape was bare, desolate and seemingly endless apart from the equally barren ranges of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains in the horizon. Hardly any life here and there’s much less vegetation than the highway from Damascus to Homs. There’s an occasional hamlet - half-deserted as well - and army camps that appeared from nowhere. The sun was glaring at times and we had to pull the curtains. Not much to see and the only “entertainment” for the 4 hour journey were the Egyptian soap operas and slapstick variety shows on the bus TV.
Palmyra appeared as a surprise at the end of an extremely boring journey.
We found ourselves at the foot of the mountain and when the bus made a
turn round a ridge, we saw an ancient tower, and then another one.
Soon, we found ourselves travelling on a road cutting through a city of
ruins and lush greenery of the palm forest not far ahead. Tall Corinthian
columns, ancient walls and towers, monumental arches everywhere - we have
arrived at Palmyra - pearl of the Syrian Desert.
Zenobia - heroine of the desert
Also known as Tadmor, Palmyra arose as a caravan stop between the Mediterranean
world and the empires of the East - Mesopotamia, Persia and India.
The native Arabs played host to traders of the East and West. Latin
and Greek was used in the academies of Palmyra, while Egyptian, Persian
and Aramaic were heard in the city’s exotic market place. Bare-bellied
Bedouin beauties danced to the latest Persian tunes in the caravanserais
(inns) to entertain tired traders while the devoted prayed to the all-powerful
Baal, Mesopotamian Lord of the Heaven, in his gigantic temple at the heart
of the city. This was a most cosmopolitan city, enriched by the wealth
of the East and West.
The city was Roman, though it eventually came under the control of the Arab chief, Septimius Odaenathus, who achieved great prestige and glory for the city when his army defeated the invading Persians and saved the Emperor Valerian and the Empire’s eastern dominions. He was made “Protector of the East” for his efforts but his imperial career was cut short by an assassin’s sword in 266 A.D. His son was killed together with him, and naturally, suspicions fell onto his second wife, the half-Bedouin half-Greek Zenobia, who immediately took power in the name of their son, Vaballathus.
|When the Romans refused to recognise the titles she inherited from her husband, she marched onto the Roman lands, and within a short time, occupied the whole of Syria (including Palestine) and Egypt, and then deep into Anatolia. Once Alexandria, metropolis of the East, was occupied, Zenobia had coins minted in the images of her and her son, who had by now assumed the name Augustus.|
Thereupon, Zenobia set out to outdo everything her husband had, fine-tuned the Palmyrean legal system and promoted trade and commerce. When the Romans refused to recognise the titles she inherited from her husband, she marched onto the Roman lands, and within a short time, occupied the whole of Syria (including Palestine) and Egypt, and then deep into Anatolia. Once Alexandria, metropolis of the East, was occupied, Zenobia had coins minted in the images of her and her son, who had by now assumed the name Augustus. (Souvenir medals of these coins abound in Syria today, and I saw little girls wearing them around the neck as well). Ambassadors came from afar to pay tribute to this new overlord of Syria and Egypt. But her victory was short-lived. Marching deep into the mountains of Cappadocia, her forces were cut-off by Roman maritime attack. At the Battle of Emesa (Homs), the forces of Emperor Aurelian defeated her and then marched straight towards Palmyra. Palmyra was besieged and had to surrender in 272 A.D. when Zenobia was captured, and sent off to Rome in chains. The city rebelled when the Roman Army marched east to meet a Persian invasion. The Romans returned and the rebellion was crushed with great barbarity. Its citizens were massacred and the city burned. This was a blow the city never recovered. It was thoroughly destroyed and even today the area occupied by the ancient ruins are probably greater than the modern town that stood beside it.
As for Zenobia, after the victory parade in which she was carted across Rome in a cage, she was released, and spent the rest of her life in a Roman villa, as the dutiful wife of a Roman senator. I wonder how she felt when the news of Palmyra’s destruction reached her. She must have been devastated and resigned to staying in Rome rather than harbouring ambitions to reviving a Palmyra that no longer existed.
In any case, Zenobia have become a Syrian national heroine and a role
model for Syrian feminism. Her images are everywhere and companies
and places are named after this symbol of Syrian nationalism. Few
Arab ladies had ever received such an honour and prestige.
And of course, for the money-short Syria of today, Zenobia also represents
a source of income...a legend to be promoted so that more tourists will
come to this country...
After depositing our luggage at the Hotel Oriental, one of the best
little hotels in town, we asked for directions to the ruins of Palmyra.
The modern city of Palmyra is not a particularly big one, but looking at
the construction and the housing projects, at the far end of the town,
I gathered that it must be one of growing importance - not just for
tourism and certainly not for agriculture...perhaps it’s the strategic
importance of the city. Although situated near the geographical
centre of the country, Palmyra guards the eastern approaches of the Syrian
Desert. Apart from the Euphrates region of the north-east, this is
the only big settlement facing the army of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq - bitter
rivals of Syria’s Bathist Party.
Despite the unavoidable desert dustiness, the city seems to have a great deal of civic pride. In all of Syria, I have never seen such clean streets and well-tended buildings - not in decaying Damascus, nor in litter-full Aleppo. Little street corner gardens can be found and tourist restaurants dotted the tiny city centre. Polite souvenir shopkeepers and restaurants waiters say hi to us in English. Nowhere in Syria do so many people speak English. After all, this city still depends largely on tourism, and its citizens know what tourists want to see and do. But there’s hardly the tourist crowd one sees in London, Prague or Hong Kong, and indeed, even tiny Greek resort islands probably attract more tourists than Palmyra. The US-labelling of Syria as a sponsor of terrorism has its effects. I have not met any US tourists during the week I was there. I saw some French, Dutch and Germans, plus a few Thai and Japanese, and Russian and Czech too. No Americans. No mass tourism. What a pity for a country with so much to see and to do.
Sunburnt in Palmyra
Under the scorching afternoon sun, we walked towards the ruins, which
were just outside town. A rundown taxi stopped by us, and its
driver, a skinny character slimmer than Assad, asked if we want to get
to the Arab Castle or the ancient tombs later in the afternoon. It’s
too hot to walk there, he said, and besides, they are only opened after
4 pm. We turned him down politely and this was certainly not the
first time we were to see him, or any of the few taxis that tried to get
us during our stay in Palmyra. There were not many taxis in this
city but there were even fewer independent tourists. Hence every
tourist is critical to the meagre income of these drivers. One would
not be surprised to find the same drivers hassling one again and again,
especially in low seasons like summer. The same applied to the tour
guides of Palmyra - all of them at the tourist office tried hard to get
us to engage them as guides, “it’s too dangerous on your own”, “we can
show you hidden treasures”, “you will get lost in the ruins”, etc.
No luck for them as we were definitely going to do Palmyra on our own.
“Nothing in this scorching desolate land could look so refreshing...”
T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Standing in the middle of the road from Damascus, we found ourselves
among the ruins of this once great metropolis. Stretching ahead for
miles was a wide expense of half-destroyed pillars and columns, a pretty
long avenue of columns (the “Colonnade”), a few half standing temples -
Greco-Roman style - rocks, debris and so on. In the horizons were
the dry, barren hills of the Anti-Lebanon and on one of the hills, was
the Arab Castle, or more properly known as the Qalaat ibn Maan (Castle
of the Chief of Maan), a sad-looking building tormented by the ravages
of time. And to the west, one could see the funerary towers of Palmyra’s
leading families overlooking the ruins. All these, together with
the glaring sun and the near absolute desolation of the entire city, created
an effect that is almost surreal, almost out of this world. This
could be a lost city on Dune, or Mars, or anywhere faraway and mysterious.
|All these, together with the glaring sun and the near absolute desolation of the entire city, created an effect that is almost surreal, almost out of this world. This could be a lost city on Dune, or Mars, or anywhere faraway and mysterious.|
We walked along the Colonnade, the one kilometre long thoroughfare of
Palmyra. The avenue itself wasn’t very wide, only about three metres
or so. But the beautiful arches and the km-long columns was a sight
to behold. Imagine Zenobia’s victory parades down the avenue, or
the excitement of the arrival of a trading caravan bring the latest Persian
fashion made on exquisite Chinese silk. Warehouses, mansions of the
rich and famous, markets, public offices and theatres all lie on this street,
which links the Palace to the great Temple of Bel.
To those who have less imagination, this may be just another Roman city, but there’s a very significant difference. Unlike Pompei and other great Roman cities, one can have Palmyra for himself. The city is almost deserted, without the usual hordes of tourists so common elsewhere. At any one time during the lull season, there are perhaps no more than 50 tourists in town. No one to fight with you for photo posing opportunities, or get swamped by souvenir vendors (there are hawkers, but they are just a minor irritation here). Though I had to endure one...
The Bedouin’s Cola
“Hi Japanese, stop there ! Come here, it’s hot out there !” the Bedouin souvenir vendor shouted at us as we walked along the Colonnade. “Have some tea,” he said, “it’s our Arab hospitality.” Normally suspicious of such offers, and yet I was unable to resist the opportunity of having a drink after a walk in the hot sun. I sat down and have a chat with him (while Cousin Casey continued her shots of the magnificent ruins), of course, not before explaining to him that we are Singaporeans, not Japanese (though he didn’t appeared to be convinced...)
Hassan was born a Bedouin but have since settled in the town. There isn’t much for him to do except to sell tourist souvenirs, and this provides meagre income for him, wife and five kids. Five kids ! For one who can barely earn enough for a living ? Well, that’s Allah’s will, he said. And too, the lack of tourists is Allah’s will as well. The Americans are bad...they have scared away all the tourists, he said. That’s why business is bad. But why talk about sad things, he said. We should cheer for the friendship of Arab Syria and Japan, and down with the bad Americans - really bad guys, who atom-bombed Japan... Oh no, I explained again that we are not Japanese, and that Japan were the nasty guys in that war. My country, Singapore, was occupied by them and many were killed. Hassan became confused. So, he said, you are not Japanese, and that you don’t think the Americans are bad. Anyway, let’s not talk about these confusing things. Have a coke, friend, we are great friends, right ? We Bedouins love friends from afar. Don’t worry about the price... It’s only a cola.
And sure, I took the offer. After all, I could tell my friends that I was invited for a drink by a Bedouin...and of course, I would make it sound as though I had been hosted by a Bedouin chief in his magnificent tentage, with his mini harem and more... As I indulged in my coke, Hassan reached for his bag and took out a little figurine and some coins. “Antique, real antique,” he said. “Very cheap and very good,” he urged me, and they would bring me good luck. Mindful that such treats were probably con-jobs, and even if the antiques were real, I would be in breach of local laws. I turned him down and wanted to leave.
At this moment, kind, friendly Hassan turned into Hassan, the Bedouin swindler”. “You don’t want real antiques, then pay me for my cola !”
“How much ?”
“Three hundred pounds” - My god ! That’s about US$7 - Day light robbery !
“No way,” I said. “I have thirty pounds here. Take it or
leave it.” I placed on money, which was slightly less than US$1 on
the mat, and started leaving.
|Hassan, the Bedouin swindler, now turned into Hassan, the swearer. He screamed at me in Arabic, which I could not understand - probably the Arab version of that four letter word...I walked as quickly as I could along the Colonnade, towards the Theatre.|
Hassan, the Bedouin swindler, now turned into Hassan, the swearer.
He screamed at me in Arabic, which I could not understand - probably the
Arab version of that four letter word...I walked as quickly as I could
along the Colonnade, towards the Theatre.
The Theatre was a typical one of Greco-Roman architectural style. Pretty well restored compared to the sprawling ruins of the city. Statues of rulers, noblemen, merchants, priests, etc once stood round this theatre - a symbol of Palmyra’s civic prosperity. To a modern-day visitor like me, this theatre was also a place for shelter in the hot summer sun. Here, I met Abdullah, a 23 year old Syrian who lived in Kuwait with his family.
Abdullah was born in Damascus but moved to Kuwait a few years ago, when his professional father found a job there. He was back on an university vacation and was lying down on a raised platform in the theatre - Cleopatra style - when I met him.
“Hello, Akihato (Hello in Japanese) ! How are you ?”
“Hi, I’m not Japanese.” (Not for the first time). “I’m from Singapore.”
“Oh, the Garden City ? Yes, I have seen your beautiful country on TV. It’s very modern.” I was happy that at least this was one who knew about Singapore. Most people I’d met so far thought that we were part of Japan or China. Some even thought that we were going to be part of China in 1997 (mixed up with Hongkong). The hesitation I had moments ago (the result of the exchange with the Bedouin souvenir vendor) dissipated and spent the next 30 minutes chatting with him about life in Syria. And I had the incentive to do so, as the sun outside was overbearing.
“What brought you here, to Palmyra ? Holiday ?” I asked.
“It’s the fifth time I’m here. I like this place. I’m sick of Damascus. I want to get away from it all. People in Damascus are too money-minded these days. They know we are living in Kuwait and so looked at us with a certain jealousy. They say nasty things about us and ask for this or that favour. I’m sick of it all. In Kuwait, they treated us like outcasts. Second class people. They have forgotten how we helped to liberate them from the Iraqis. All the crap about Arab unity and brotherhood is nonsense. I don’t understand - in Kuwait, we are foreigners - Syrians. In Damascus, however, we’re Kuwaitis to them. That’s why I’m beginning to hate Damascus where I grew up. That’s why I’m here, in Palmyra, where the people are not bothered where you were from. Nobody cares. Life is slower and people are friendlier. I like here. Here, I spend time to be myself, and nobody can disturb me.”
I did not mention the Bedouin souvenir man.
Abdullah asked about my itinerary. Of course, I didn’t mention Israel. And I told him about the Christian quarter of Damascus, which brought a cheerful smile in his face.
He told me about his ex-girlfriend in Damascus. She was a Christian.
A Greek Orthodox Christian. Christianity is a nice religion and Christians
are nice, and hard working, he said. He used to attend mass with
her. But both their parents were against them together. Due
to religion. So they had to go to separate ways. The wounds
had been healed, and he still had fond memories of those days together.
|I remembered the story of the young Serbian man who died with his Muslim girlfriend in wartime Sarajevo a few years ago. That has become a modern legend of love and tragedy. Perhaps that story may even inspire a movie. But it’s not nice being a subject of a tragedy. The easy way out may be most desirable after all.|
It was a sad story but mitigated by the lack of bitterness on Abdullah’s
part. I remembered other stories of such relationships, many of which
ended in tragedies. I remembered the story of the young Serbian man
who died with his Muslim girlfriend in wartime Sarajevo a few years ago.
That has become a modern legend of love and tragedy. Perhaps that
story may even inspire a movie. But it’s not nice being a subject
of a tragedy. The easy way out may be most desirable after
Well, our conversation came to an end when Cousin Casey came and reminded me that we had to go to the Temple of Bel before it closed. I bid farewell to Abdullah. I’d thought about asking for his address so that we might correspond in the future. Before I could ask, he said to me, “Inshallah - Allah Willing - We’ll meet again. ” And so we set off for the Temple of Bel.
Next : Gods, A Castle and A Prison Camp
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