Perhaps nothing can be said to be beautiful at five o’clock in the morning. But sunrise over the oasis of Palmyra definitely comes pretty close,
We crawled out of bed at the deafening shrill of the alarm clock: 04.45 a.m. A quick glance out the window confirmed what we had been dreading: even late September, Syria’s autumn, the sun rises early over the desert. It was dawn, the light announcing that the sun would soon start its climb up the horizon.
This glimpse of grey light outside a hotel window was the beginning of a race against the sun. We jumped into our ragged backpacker’s clothes, grabbed the camera equipment and woke the hotel receptionist on our way out the hotel door. Then we ran, flew like djinns through the narrow, dirty streets of Palmyra, at daytime dominated by donkeys, carriages, and small mopeds, the main means of transport in the area. At this time, though, the only sign of life we saw was an old truck sliding along the desert highway, which passes through the small town of Palmyra.
We made it! We got out of town, into the desert and to its stunning ruins before Helios started manoeuvring his wild horses high up above the oasis. Or was it really Helios? In Palmyra you never know: the religious influences have been numerous and different. At fist, one worshipped Baal, then came the Romans and imposed upon the citizens of Palmyra the Hellenic culture. Later, as Christianity became the main religion of the Roman Empire, the temples were turned into churches. But, of course, this period did not last long before the whole of the Middle Eastern region converted to Islam – the main religion today as it was more than one thousand years ago.
So, when we take our seats on downfallen columns, shivering from the desert’s cold dawn air, nothing could be more appropriate than listening to the distant sound of the Imam singing his prayers as day breaks. Against the purple, pink, and red horizon rests the black silhouettes of the oasis, the palms swaying softly in the breeze.
The oasis is the secret and the treasure of Palmyra. The water emerging from the ground gives life to palm trees (the only ones growing naturally in Syria), pomegranate trees, and olive trees, thus giving the citizens of Palmyra the possibility to survive in the arid desert. Outside the green oasis lies the town, apparently not much more than a dust-grey colony of houses. It is quite new, living its own life outside both the oasis and the overwhelming ruins that cover a considerable area.
THE DATE CITY
Even in ancient times, Palmyra was a thriving city, situated on a central point of the trade route between the Far East and the Mediterranean region. Through Palmyra passed silk and spices, and merchants always played an important role in the city’s daily life. But if the merchants were important, there would never be a city without local city dwellers. They lived off the crops provided by the fertile oasis, as well as off their flocks of goats which they herded in the burning desert.
Today the merchants of ancient times have been replaced by other foreigners, only now with cameras tied to their waist instead of heavily decorated daggers. But time has not changed much of the way the locals live. Even though small pick-ups roam the streets of Palmyra, the importance of camels and donkeys cannot be neglected. In late September, the citizens spend their days in the oasis, where they climb the palms and harvest the dates. These sweet fruits are the main products of Palmyra, or Tadmor, as it is known in the Arab world. Tadmor means, not surprisingly, the Date City. Outside the green world of the oasis, among the impressive monuments, the black goats still wander about. Squeezed in between the colonnades and the remains of the Roman city wall is a colony of black tents – Bedouins.
– When I was a kid, we used to live in the ruins, explains one of the locals, a white clad charming old man, who served under General de Gaulle in WWII.
– Now, we’ve got houses in town, and only a few “Bedous” still have their tents among the columns. But me, I am no more a Bedouin.
So time doesn’t stand entirely still in the desert. The climbing sun is a good reminder of that. The sky turns transparent as the sun peeks over the palms and sends its first beams to paint the clouds above in a golden colour. The silhouette of a vaulted colonnade gives a dramatic effect to the event. Behind us the ruins: columns, temples, and streets are glowing in the warm light. High above in the background the Crusaders’ castle overlooks the spectacle.
Down the hill next to the Crusaders’ castle lie sinister looking tombs and what is left of the Roman city wall. This leads the visitor to the palace of Zenobia, the romanticised empress of Palmyra, the hard headed ruler who made Palmyra the capital of an important, and to the Romans threatening, empire. In the name of her son Wahvallath she conquered Egypt and most of the central Middle Eastern region. But such a venture couldn’t be successful for long; Palmyra was far too important to the Romans. So the emperor Aurelian sent his troops to the desert and forced the Palmyrians into submission. Zenobia was taken prisoner and ended her days in Tivoli, a village outside Rome. This fact could never dismantle her reputation, however, and in the consciousness of the Arabs, Zenobia remains a heroine. Although less known than Cleopatra, she was surely as big a headache for the Roman rules as her Egyptian sister of spirit. A clever femme fatale almost two millenniums before feminism and equal rights.
THE TEMPLE OF BAAL
From Zenobia’s palace there is a column lined street which leads to and through the small temple of Baal, four amazingly well preserved columns, each consisting of four columns grouped together under the same stone roof. Then the street continues, bypassing the agora (the city square) and the theatre, before crossing the highway, which links modern Palmyra to the rest of the world and ends up at the doorsteps of the grand temple of Baal. In the Middle East, Baal was to the Arabs what Zeus was to the Greek and Jupiter to the Romans: the mighty god of the gods, the omnipotent.
The temple of Baal is indeed impressive: huge walls, magnificent carvings and great columns, which were rolled across the desert from the nearest quarry, miles away. A downfallen block of stone shows veiled women – 600 years before Islam.
– This proves that the veil is a part of the cultural heritage from ancient time, claims our guide, an anti-Westerner with a degree in English literature.
– Which justifies our women wearing the veil even though it is not mentioned in the holy Qu’ran.
The temple of Baal was later converted into a church, of which some fine frescos are still visible. Then came the Muslims, then the crusaders, and finally Saladdin, the Arab medieval hero, who wrested the Middle East out of the grip of the Westerners. Brave man Saladdin closed the main entrance to the temple but left most of Palmyra unchanged, as had all the conquerors before him. Today, a deep ditch tells its silent story about important sacrifices made to the gods, when the blood was gathered in the stone channel and led around the temple to the gods’ pleasure.
Today no blood is shed in Palmyra. Well may the locals do their best to twist some pounds out of the many visitors, but there is no danger connected with visiting either Syria or any other of the Middle Eastern countries in this corner of the Mediterranean. On the contrary, people are very friendly, and chances are that at the end of a visit, you’ll be quite tired of sweet tea, offered to you by most merchants and any other Syrian you might run into.
This morning, though, no tea is offered us, as we are quite alone in the desert ruins. That is, of course, with the exception of the Bedouins, who go on with their daily tasks in their camp some hundred feet away. Smoke from the open fire confirms that they have already had their morning tea: the new day has begun for man and beast. They have let out the black goats, which move slowly around columns, leaving behind their black pea-shaped visitors’ cards.
Over Bedouins, goats, columns, temples – and the oasis – the sun rises steadily, first purple, then pink, finally turning orange, before it hangs high above us, yellow-white, burning. The air, which made us shiver from cold, heats up, forcing us to tear off sweaters and jackets, leaving us in our t-shirts. The sunbeams sting our arms and faces, and not much is left of the magic we experienced only minutes earlier. Our shadows, twice our length half an hour ago, now nothing but small, black dots, follow us as we stroll back to the hotel for a quick breakfast and a well deserved nap.
Written in September 1995. Never published.