“Shadows of the days gone by” in Palmyra

Set in the middle of the Syrian desert, the ancient silk-road city of Palmyra was once a part of the vast Roman Empire and one of the richest cities in the Near East. Great stone ruins and the columns of temples and public buildings now rise among the remote sandy wastes.

From Damascus, the Syrian capital, it's a dusty journey of at least three hours by way of ancient rocky villages to reach Palmyra, standing like a life-sized cinema set against the backdrop of the bare desert landscape. Back in the eighteenth century, the French historian and philosopher, the Comte de Volney, wrote of the legendary cultures of the Middle East, claiming that neither Greece nor Italy left anything to compare with these ruins in the desert.

The origins of Palmyra are obscure, although some say the city dates back to the times of King Solomon, and it may be that the name is associated with the date palms of the region. What is clear, though, is the power and independence the city attained from its connections with other Nabatean epicentres of commerce such as Petra. The transfer of goods and knowledge flowed along the Silk Road from the depths of Asia Minor to the Mediterranean ports, and the city's strength was founded on both its strategic location and the taxes demanded of all who wished to travel safely across her domains.

The magnificent panorama of Roman ruins show that Palmyra's heyday came when it was part of the great Roman province of Syria; Hadrian visited in 129 AD and proclaimed it a free city, and it continued to flourish for a century or more. But it's been said that the Palmyrans never did more than pretend to be Roman, and in the middle of the third century, Queen Zenobia, confident of the importance of the city in the Ancient World, dared to challenge Rome. Eventually the Emperor Aurelian regained control and the legendary Zenobia was paraded in golden chains through the streets of Rome before being allowed to retire to the Italian city of Tibur, the modern Tivoli.

Palmyra was rebuilt, but never regained its standing as a trade centre although it retained some strategic importance. The city's fate was sealed by an earthquake in 1089 that left the grand Roman  monuments in ruins. Since then, until it became the focus of interest for archaeologists in the nineteenth century, it passed between the different civilisations in power in the region, with periods of boom and decline, until it was little more than a village of ruins where Bedouin families took refuge with their flocks.

The great temple of Ba'al, where sacrifices were made to the city's main god, with its Corinthian colonnade, is considered the most important site in Palmyra; it dates from the first century, as does the well-preserved theatre with its nine curved rows of seats. Above the city, on a bare hilltop, sits the sixteenth century castle of Qala'at Ibn Maan, commanding a perfect view of the arid wilderness where, in all imaginable shades of ochre, are arrayed symmetrical rows of columns, lopped off short or rising in lone pride, fancy arches, tombs and mansions, and a great jumble of capitals, pillars, cornices, pilasters and corbels scattered on the sands under a blazing sun.

Walking in the hazy first light of dawn or at dusk between the columns and plinths of this vast ruined city is nothing less than awe-inspiring, and only poetry can hope to do justice to the emotions it evokes: Shelley's Ozymandias where “the lone and level sands stretch far away”, perhaps, or Peacock's Palmyra, with its “shadows of the days gone by.” 


Getting around:
The ruins lie at a twenty minute walk from the uninspiring city of Tadmor with its hotels, restaurants and souks. Some choose to make the trip by bike; alternatively, you can take a taxi, and you should be able to agree a fixed price with the driver for all trips and excursions you want to make while in Palmyra. Particularly in the summer, it's a good idea to get up early and visit the ruins in the relative cool of the morning, then return to the hotel when the sun is high. If you make a second visit to the ruins a few hours before sunset, you can round off the day from the heights of Qala'at Ibn Maan castle watching the sun go down and paint everything in glorious shades of gold and saffron.

Where to stay:
There are many accommodation options of all levels in Tadmor, although the recently refurbished Zenobia Cham Palace, boasts the finest location, overlooking the ruins of Palmyra. Other luxury options include the five-star Tadamora Palace and the Dedeman Palmyra.

Where to eat:
The location of the Zenobia Cham Palace makes its terrace an attractive option, while in Tadmor, the Wadi Restaurant (near the Citadel hotel) offers more traditional cuisine with local dishes, and also boasts a pleasant terrace. Sadly, most of the restaurants in the area are aimed at the passing tourist trade, and it is difficult to find the genuinely good Syrian cuisine that is readily available in Damascus or Aleppo.

Further information:
Syrian Tourism