The Site of Palmyra consists of the ruins of a caravan-oasis that further developed under Roman rule. After the Romans conquered Syria in the mid-first century AD, Palmyra flourished because of its location on a major trade route and became known as city of palm-trees.
Emperor Caracalla declared it a Roman colony, which made it a luxurious one: new constructions, streets, arches, temples and statues were built, making Palmyra one of the greatest cities of Roman empire.
Due to reports on its splendour by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries, Palmyra also exerted a decisive influence on the evolution of neoclassical architecture.
Map of PalmyraLoad map
The sun was already setting. In all likelihood I had arrived too late. But I climbed, regardless. The road wound around the hill and up it I ran. Loose stones skittered beneath my boots. But then, breath catching in my chest, I emerged from the shadows of the peak. From here, the watery blood-orange sun hung just over the horizon. I stepped around the corner of the towering Arab castle and looked down over the oasis. There, far below on the ash grey plain, bracketed by a hinge of palms, millennia old stonework glowed in the fading light. A long colonnaded processional route marched away from my vantage point for over a kilometre towards a squared-off area of temples. Their walls and columns still stood proud of the sands and trees that surrounded them. Behind me the sun sank away and I watched the shadows of night fold down over Palmyra.
Palmyra is a bewitching sight, a lattice of soaring ruins sketched out in the sands of the Syrian Desert. It carries all the exoticism of Egypt. But the history of Palmyra at its 3rd century peak – the Palmyra that I visited – is well-documented. And its story is as interesting as any myth.
Palmyra sat on the fringes of the Roman empire, a wealthy waystation on the trade routes to the east and a bulwark against encroaching threats. The high-water mark of its influence and power occurred during what is known as ‘The Crisis of the Third Century’ when competing candidates for emperor plunged Rome into civil war just as external enemies were able to mount a sustained campaign against it. In 260 the Emperor Valerian led his legions east against the Sassanians; his troops were crushed in battle and Valerian himself was taken captive. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Palmyra’s king, Odaenathus, perhaps realising that the privileges he enjoyed under Rome would not survive Sassanian rule mustered the manpower of Palmyra and sallied forth. Catching the Sassanians by surprise he routed them. The Palmyrene forces then intervened decisively to support Valerian’s son against rival claimants before whizzing around the Levant, recapturing all of Rome’s former territory and taking the fight into Sassanian territory. Odaenathus was lauded by Rome and declared ‘King of Kings’ and – uniquely – remained loyal. But after he and his eldest sons were assassinated in 267 his widow Zenobia was not so loyal. Initially ruling as regent for Odaenathus’ 10-year-old son she took the step of seceding to form the Palmyrene Empire in 272. Her reign was glorious – she soon controlled an empire stretching from Sudan to Anatolia. But her reign was also short. The Roman Empire was finally getting its mojo back after 37 years of anarchy and the new Emperor Aurelian defeated Palmyra and captured Zenobia and her son. When the city rebelled again the following years it was destroyed before being re-established on a smaller scale.
So the archaeological site is predominantly 3rd century. This is later than the ‘iconic’ 1st century Rome that people tend to think of. As such its architecture is very refined. The site is partially-walled but – at least as far as I could see – free to enter. Arriving from the modern town to the north the first stop is the Temple of Baal Shamin, god of storms and rain. Thereafter you hit the Great Colonnade, flanked by massive pillars, each with a pedestal for a statue and an inscription in both Palmyrene and Greek (it is interesting to note that in the established civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean that were annexed to Rome the culture remained very Greek-oriented and Latin never truly succeeded in supplanting Greek as the language of commerce). The Colonnade has two of the most eye-catching monuments in a grand tetrapylon and a monumental arch. What perhaps isn’t so noticeable until it is pointed out is that these were not just decorative and that they served a function to disguise kinks in the route. There is an agora, a bath house, a senate building and a reconstructed theatre. And then, at the eastern end of the city, the great Temple of Bel, chief of the gods. This consisted of a large walled area (with a separate ramp for bringing in sacrificial animals) and an inner temple, marvellously well-preserved.
And the truly amazing thing was that I had this phenomenal site as my own personal playground. Other than a couple of chaps on camels there were no other tourists apart from the small group with whom I had come up on the bus from Damascus.
There were other things to do away from the city centre. A museum stood on the edge of the new town. And over to the west is the ‘Valley of the Dead’ where the Palmyrenes entombed their dead in richly decorated funerary towers. The National Museum in Damascus had a good presentation of Palmyra’s burial rites.
More than any other review I hope to write, the details here are vastly and tragically out-of-date. I visited in 2009. In 2015 the forces of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ captured the city. The rather cuddly-looking statue of the Lion of Al-Lāt which stood outside the museum was destroyed first. Then the Temple of Baal Shamin. Then the Temple of Bel. Then, over the next two years, a number of the funerary towers, the monumental arch, the tetrapylon, part of the theatre and a number of other buildings were also destroyed. Everything that had survived 17 centuries was being methodically dynamited back into dust and sand. Even the archaeologists who had dedicated their lives to excavating and chronicling the city were executed. Having fond memories of Palmyra this, of course, hit me hard. And it posed a philosophical question: considering the slaughter conducted by IS during its rule, why should I get so upset about ruined buildings? The answer, of course, is one that I imagine all members of this community will know. The murder of a person is a crime. But the systematic attempt to eradicate a culture and erase all vestiges of its past is something different. The soaring heights of human achievement from times long go serve to provoke wonder and awe – to sprinkle a little bit of magic on the world if you will. It is the attempt to rid the world of magic, to rewrite the facts of the past, and to prevent one culture understanding another that goes against everything I hold dear.
Reconstruction work is now ongoing at Palmyra. I hope that future travellers will some day have the opportunity to see its stonework glow in a new dawn.
World Heritage-iness: 4.5
My Experience: 4
(Visited Aug 2009)
Lonely Planet talks of Syria and Jordan’s “Unflattering media profile” as putting off tourists. I can’t see how that can apply to Jordan but it is certainly the case with Syria. In fact we found the country very pleasant to travel round in 1999 – hopefully more recent events in a neighbouring country won’t have altered this! The trip had many highlights some of which are described in my reviews of the 3 other WHS. (In fact Syria also has 15 Tentative List sites - many of which in my opinion fully justify inscription). I hesitate to state that the ruined desert city of Palmyra is the best, since the others are very good too, but it certainly merits a visit by anyone who enjoys atmospheric historical sites.
The journey to it across the desert sets the scene whether you come from East or West - its earlier name was Tadmor meaning “City of Dates” and both its old and new titles seem fully justified as you reach the oasis with its large palm groves.
The city was Roman in the sense that it reached its peak when the area was part of the Roman Empire. However the colony had a degree of independence as a buffer state between Rome and Persia and had its own monarch. One of these, a Queen Zenobia, rather unwisely declared independence and finished up being carted off to Rome in chains. She is the “romantic figure” which Palmyra plays heavily upon (with hotels, restaurants etc named after her!). I don’t know if Hollywood has portrayed her but one can imagine the result!
In fact the site doesn’t need any extra hype. A viewpoint from a hill fort a few miles away is well worth getting to both before (to show you what you are going to see!) and after (to remind you and put it all in context!) your visit – a large city is spread out beneath you with column lined roads still clearly visible. A number of major buildings remain in a reasonable state of preservation including a fine Temple of Bel (Baal). The city is well worth a half day wander (and wonder).
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2013 In Danger
Together with all 5 other Syrian WHS, due to Civil War
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