Roman Ruins in Syria

Palmyra

With the yellow van laid up in Homs for servicing, the three of us took a bus to Palmyra to visit the ruins there while waiting for news from the garage. Luckily for us, Homs happens to be kind of a central hub in Syria, and our plans to visit Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra would have taken us through there anyways. It was even on the way back and up to Aleppo. Besides, if you have to wait anyways, what better way to kill some time than by visiting a famous, enormous, and ancient collection of Roman ruins?

The area of town that we stayed in was only a stone’s throw away from the ruins, which was great for visiting the site, but slightly annoying because of the number of touts harassing you at every turn. We had a bit of a tricky time negotiating a decent price at our hotel, because the sign outside had two numbers listed as the price: one in Arabic and one in English. We’d taught ourselves to read Arabic numbers to help avoid getting ripped off, so the owner of the hotel had to go on the defensive quickly when we pointed out to him that the price listed in Arabic was less than half the price listed in English. He told us that it was a “locals only” price, which we thought was kind of a dumb thing for a hotel to have. Regardless, we settled on a price somewhere in between, although we’re still convinced we overpaid a little. Oh well. The room was nice enough, with A/C and a private bathroom, so I’ll stop complaining. It wasn’t that expensive in the end. But I suppose that’s one thing that bothers me in a place like Palmyra: it’s not that things are expensive compared to “back home” prices, it’s just that you have to fight and haggle for absolutely everything. Everyone is trying to get extra money out of you, so even a cup of tea is usually listed at a higher price than it should actually go for. It’s a little exhausting when there’s no respite.

One of the "turns" in the main street

Anyways, we didn’t come to Palmyra just to let touts and rip-off artists annoy us. We came for the ruins. Palmyra is home to the site of a large city of ruins that is collected along a 1.5 kilometer long central street. While nearly all of the buildings are little more than foundations and a few crumbling walls, the main street itself is lined with an impressive collection of surviving columns and arches. The best thing about the site proper is that it is free to visit, so we were able to stroll out of our hotel and be in the middle of a 1800 year-old city in less than 10 minutes. Admission is charged to visit some of the more intact buildings, but the real joy of visiting the site is simply walking up and down the main street, imagining the scale and the splendour of the city as it must have once been.

The main street in Palmyra

On our first night there we climbed a hill near one end of the site to watch the sun set. It was a great way to gain an appreciation for the extent of the ruins, and also to get a bit of an orientation on their overall layout. The city plan was a little unusual for a Roman city because the main street was bent in two places, where in most other examples it would run as straight as an arrow through its whole length. To disguise this condition, the corners were adorned with arches and pillars and podiums and statues, which transformed them from planning eyesores into urban nodes. They are in fact probably the most impressive and interesting parts of the ruins to visit. The most post-card view of Palmyra is the second corner, where four collections of four columns each adorn an elevated platform. While only one of the columns is original (the other 15 have been restored), it gives a wonderful sense of the original effect. There is an Arab fortress overlooking the site from a hill on the horizon, which happens to compliment the view of these columns nicely.

Checkin' out the ruins

I woke up the next morning very early to watch the sun rise over the site. The light was beautiful on the columns as it highlighted the pink tones in the stone. Unfortunately I misjudged the weather, and my t-shirt proved to be perfectly inadequate protection from the biting wind that morning. So after about an hour of wandering the site in the wonderful peace and quiet of the dawn hours, I retired back to our warm hotel room, where Meg was enjoying having the cosy blankets all to herself.

We did some more exploring later that day after the sun climbed a little higher. There is such a contrast in temperatures between night and day in this part of the world. The afternoons are so hot that you can’t even stand to be in the sun for 10 minutes, but the nights are sweater-and-scarf cold. We spent most of our morning at the Temple of Bel, which is the largest surviving structure on the site, and which occupies a prominent location at one end of the main street. When the sun got too hot and the tourist groups grew to large, we retired to a streetside café for tea, and spent most of the afternoon reading and watching the day pass us by. Our second evening was spent enjoying dinner on a terrace with a view of the ruins and the sunset, and it seemed a fitting conclusion to our time at Palmyra.

On our way to the ruins

There comes a when traveling for a long time when it’s possible to start to feel like you’ve seen enough of some things. You hear people talk about being “museumed-out” or “churched-out” in Europe, or perhaps “templed-out” in Asia. With the sheer abundance of the Roman ruins we’d seen in Italy, we’d even considered giving Palmyra a miss while in Syria. I’m very glad we didn’t. No matter how numerous or spectacular other sites have been, Palmyra still impressed. And it was unique in many ways as well. Besides, if I ever find myself thinking “oh, it’s just another 2000 year old temple” or “ho hum, just some more ancient columns”, I have to stop and shake those thoughts out of my head. Each site, each building, each piece of the ancient world that has survived for us to see today is incredible in it’s own right, and I hope that I don’t fall into the trap of taking them for granted. I think Palmyra reminded me of this, and for that reason especially it will stick with me.

The second an more famous "corner" at Palmyra

Comments

  1. Bruce The Moose

  2. And when you think of all the people who built it and lived in it…to them it was the most important.

    Another great place in time.

    True enough. It must have been a spectacular city to live in at it’s peak.

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