|Islamic State on its way to Palmyra.|
Some of us cannot go to Palmyra anymore, but others of us can, and with the news that Islamic State has now entered Palmyra this seems a good time to republish an article about the ancient site which provides the sort of helpful cultural and historical insight any tourist needs before smashing the place to bits.
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At the bar of the new five-star hotel, I ordered an Alabama Slammer and would have settled for an arak and a glass of orange juice, but it made no difference; I was treated to total and lengthy incompetence. 'He's new,' the head barman explained, 'a local bedouin boy who knows nothing. You can visit their tents around here. Of course they are not really nomads anymore. They earn a living from tourism to Palmyra.'
|Palmyra in the Syrian Desert.|
Outside, a few sheep made a pretence of grazing over the burning sands. But the old man inside, helped out now by a son teaching children how to read and write, and by another learning how to serve an Alabama Slammer, could afford to retire from the nomad business. The young woman reached without reticence for one of my cigarettes, and I saw that her hands were tattooed, that her wrists flashed with gold - and that the floor of their tent was made of concrete.
|Bedouin tents take on |
a sense of permanency.
The need for treatment is reduced these days, as the drive from Damascus is less than three hours. Even so, when the sun is high and the desert is blanched of colour, there is time enough for the tedious horizons to fill with spectral things. Pairs and sometimes entire families of twisters spout suddenly like fountains from the ground, dust clouds sweep across the road and phantom pools of water levitate deliciously above the sands. In the distance, black bedouin tents seem like the carapaces of dead beetles consumed by heat.
Even 4000 years ago, travellers arrived at the oasis of Palmyra to find refuge against this delirium of sand and sun. To the west lay Anatolia and the Mediterranean, to the east Mesopotamia and India, but between east and west lay the terrors of the Syrian Desert. Offering sustenance and water to caravans navigating this perilous wasteland, Palmyra stood at the central joint of the ancient world - and prospered.
|Funerary bust of a wealthy|
In the Palmyra Museum you see statues of these middlemen of antiquity lounging at their banquet tables, their women drowned in jewels, setting off their ostentation with a sourness in the downturned corners of their mouths. A relief at the Temple of Bel shows that gods as well as goods travelled about on the backs of camels. Palmyra was a trading city through and through, its great colonnaded avenue lined with shops, the columns bearing consoles on which once stood not statues of mythic heroes or generals, but of businessmen who had literally earned the honour.
|A Palmyrnee merchant,|
wealthy and content.
You are led to the spring today by the sound of laughter. From a fissure in the rock it pumps its hot sulphurous waters into a sunken pool by the roadside. Peering down, you see local boys splashing one another. This was the source of empire.
Its steaming waters are led through channels round an oasis of date palms, half a million it is said, though pomegranates grow here too, and figs, and olives. At night when the westerly breeze blows through the leaves, it is like the sound of waves lapping against a distant shore. By day it is wonderful to wander here among the shadows and fragrances and the swoops of brilliantly feathered birds. Children surge along the dappled lanes, their laughter bubbling like the channelled water.
|Palmyra rises in an oasis fed by a small sulphurous spring.|
The hotel is named for the third-century Queen of the East, who for a brief impetuous moment touched Palmyra with romance and then brought it to destruction. To the Roman peace, most of all, Palmyra owed its fortune. To the limits of the Euphrates, the highways of trade knew unprecedented security - and after the Emperor Trajan broke the power of Petra early in the second century AD, the Romans ensured that the wealth of the Orient passed through Palmyra. The once splendid city whose ruins now lie before you belongs almost entirely to those first three centuries AD.
At the edge of the grove but rising higher than the palms themselves, the great Corinthian columns of the Temple of Bel, the most high god of Palmyra, dominate the city. Once the columns carried capitals of bronze which must have shone like flares in the sunlight. Reliefs show offerings of fruit; one painted panel of exquisitely carved vines bears succulent, coloured grapes. From atop the temple walls you can look out over the oasis and eastwards across the limitless sands, and you can also survey the whole of Palmyra - nearly half the size of Alexandria, then the largest city in the world apart from Rome.
Beyond a monumental arch the colonnaded avenue strides off through the heart of the city; past the remains of shops and baths and a well-preserved theatre; until it reaches the main crossroads marked by the tetrapylon - four pedestals supporting four massive columns each, the sets of columns topped with an entablature. The tetrapylon has been reconstructed and only one of the columns is entirely original, a pink granite monolith brought from Upper Egypt, which - multiplied by 16 - means a transport task of pharaonic proportions.
|Queen Zenobia captured by the Romans.|
Zenobia had presumed to challenge the might of Rome in AD 270, leading her armies to the Nile and into Anatolia. 'She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt,' wrote Gibbon, 'equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex.'
Zenobia was in fact of Arab stock, her family originally merchants who, before that, had perhaps been desert nomads. But her husband had been king, and he had served the Romans well, patrolling their eastern provinces as far as the Euphrates. For his loyalty at that disastrous moment when the Emperor Valerian was beaten and captured by the Persians, the Palmyran was named 'Corrector of the East' and Imperator. Then mysteriously he was assassinated, and taking advantage of Roman troubles with the Germanic tribes, Zenobia declared herself Augusta, laying claim to the whole Roman Empire.
Control of the trade from India to Europe via the Euphrates, the Red Sea, the Nile and the Bosphorus was her aim. But in AD 272 the Emperor Aurelian marched against her, captured Palmyra and brought Zenobia back to Rome in triumph, leading her through his city in chains of gold. When the Senate mocked him for his victory over a woman, Aurelian is said to have replied: 'Ah, if they only knew what a woman I have been fighting] And what would history say if I had been defeated?'
Zenobia is said to have ended her days in a villa at Tivoli. Palmyra was left to exhaust itself alone, once more rising against the Romans, forcing Aurelian to return. This time he sacked the city. It never recovered and the sands washed in. They have here and there sucked away at the stone, grotesquely reworking the columns to create the effect of elephantiasis.
|The most ancient things in Palmyra are its tower tombs; inside they are arranged in ascending rows of what look like left-luggage lockers, each filled with a body.|
Standing apart from the city, these sepulchral towers rise several storeys tall into the night. Inside they are arranged like left-luggage lockers, each body stacked atop the compartment of another. It is like having a tent with a concrete floor; their occupants have come to rest, but they still like to feel in transit.