My camera was old, a sandstorm cloaked the stones; this lends an ethereal nature to these images of ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. It’s hard to evoke the scale of the place which includes temples, a theatre and an extensive burial site with over fifty tombs. While you can wait in the queue for the Colosseum in Rome for over two hours, we shared this once-prosperous city, strategically placed in the middle of the Syrian desert and a vital part of the Roman Empire, with a few hawkers, a handful of camels and a scant bus load of other tourists.
It was a relief to wander undisturbed as we’d been a bit overwhelmed by the eager friendliness of everyone we’d met during our visit, especially in the town adjacent to the ruins. “Where are you from?” was the common refrain and we were thanked profusely for visiting Syria. I wonder where they are now?
Invaders have marched into Palmyra before. Taxes and revenues from the caravans which passed through fuelled its growth and magnificent projects abounded. Let’s not forget that these riches were built by slaves and their masters’ splendid vision was crafted in toil, blood and death. Success was also its downfall when the powerful rulers of the city, including Queen Zenobia, flexed their muscles against Rome. The city was raised to the ground by Emperor Aurelian in 273 AD. Luckily he didn’t possess hi-tech explosives.
Countless people have been inspired by the remains of the city: Lady Jane Digby’s grave in Damascus has a piece of its limestone as a tombstone; David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here; Lady Hester Stanhope was a visitor after it was ‘rediscovered’ in the late 17th Century, and many country houses of that time have ‘Palmyra ceilings’ based on the zodiac ceiling in the Temple of Bel. Sadly the name that is foremost in our minds is Khaled al-Asaad who dedicated his life to the preservation and restoration of the site, resulting ultimately in his torture and death at the hands of those who exceed the brutality of the past in their actions.