Magnificent Palmyra

UPDATE: This post was penned in the Spring of 2011 following our visit to Syria in March. We had no idea the direction the conflict would take. When we planned our trip Syria had been undergoing an opening up to tourism. Yes, there were protests while we were there but it seemed like the beginning of an Arab Spring. We naively hoped it might be a positive transformation rather than a descent into chaos.

Palmyra is the most extraordinary Roman site in Syria and has attracted foreign tourists since the 1920s. Built where two mountain ranges meet on the edge of a desert landscape, it was an affluent trading post during the Roman era. Because of the political unrest during our visit Palmyra was relatively quiet, and there were moments when we felt we had the site to ourselves. We arrived at the citadel just in time to see the sun setting over the city;  it was a magnificent introduction to the ruins. What is so wonderful about Palmyra is that, with the exception of the theatre and the Baal Temple, the site is entirely open. This allowed us to walk through the silent ruins by moonlight-- a magical experience.
We had the site to ourselves in the early morning


A small part of the cardo maximus behind me
It is an enormous site and the pictures fail to capture the sheer scale of the city. Walking down the cardo maximus (or main street) really gives the sense of how awe inspiring the city must have been. The double colonnade would have sheltered the walkway in front of the shops on either side of the street. The columns are often highly decorative in distinctive Syrian styles, which interestingly had an impact on decorative motifs in Palladian houses in Britain following the "rediscovery" of Palmyra.
Entrance to the Baal Temple
The conical capitals were sheathed in gold leaf
With my Serbo-Croatian speaking guide at the Baal Temple
Originally the great Baal temple was surrounded on all four sides with columns and the perimeter of the temple area was marked by a wall and a double colonnade with a roof. It was here that supplicants walked around seven times on the yearly feast day, having made suitable sacrifices to the great god Baal. In the picture above I'm standing among the ruins of  the ceremonial colonnaded walkway with the Baal temple behind.
The Baal temple
The Royal family walked the smaller perimeter of  the temple itself (see above). The sense of how these buildings were used for ritual observances is what helps to bring them to life.
Touting for business on the Cardo Maximus!
One of the distinctive elements of the Syrian classical form can be seen on the above left. The elegance of the columns are interrupted by small horizontal shelves which held statues. This is something we haven't seen elsewhere and apparently the statues often commemorated the generosity of individual patrons. In this respect Palmyra was seen to be somewhat ostentatious in it's display of its wealth, and individual patrons were instrumental in the construction of certain public buildings.
Partially restored - but there would have been more seats 
We saw lots of theaters on this trip including wonderful examples at Bosra and  Jerash. What they all have in common is that the permanent backdrop on the stage reminded us of Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, which we visited a few years ago. Designed on the Roman model, but as the first indoor theatre in Europe, the Teatro Olimpico uses a similar backdrop to the one above, although the theatre is covered with a domed roof.  It's a wonderful homage to classical architecture and the beginning of a new modern form.
You get a sense of the streets meeting at a crossroads behind me
Looking up from the stage at the theater
Standing beneath these columns and looking up makes for a magnificent view and a dizzy head! Although most of the stone was quarried nearby, these particular pink marble columns were said to have been brought from Aswan.
Crusader fortress overlooking Palmyra
There would have been shops here


From the main gate
The story of Palmyra is fascinating and even when it was a Roman tributary it was culturally distincitive. Eventually the city declined as trade routes shifted, but in its heyday Palmyra was strongly independent and even defied Rome under their Queen Zenobia. Following the death of her husband and son the Queen declare herself Empress of the East, consolidated power and even conquered Egypt in 269. After she moved into Antioch and took trade routes from the Romans, she was eventually crushed by a superior Roman force and brought back to Rome in chains. Freed by the Aurelian, she was said to have married a Roman senator and lived out her days in Tivoli.
The incredible view from our hotel room
Palmyra was a wonderful stop on our trip.  We enjoyed it because it wasn't too overrun with visitors-- it can be very busy in high season with groups coming by bus from Damascus. Staying overnight gives you the opportunity to see the site in the morning and evening light, visiting when it is quietest. The Zenobia Cham Hotel is right by the ruins, and we were lucky enough to get one of only three rooms  facing the site-- fabulous!


Highly recommended.
Tomb - the camel gives a sense of scale!


The Cardo Maximus  behind on the right

Comments

Anonymous said…
I just arrived at your blog and will spend some serious time here. I am planning a trip next late winter to jordan, syria and lebanon. Thanks in advance for all your effort. IoWaboy
Thanks so much for your kind comment and so glad to hear the blog may be useful. When you start planning, do let me know if I can help with any questions.
Thank you so much for posting nice pictures of our beautiful city.
i left Palmyra 3 years ago, because of the situations.
those pictures they reminded me such a wonderful time i spent it there with my family.
i believe that we will go back someday.
Radwan Abdullatif I have thought of you this week with all the bad news from Palmyra. I've posted all of my remaining photographs, we all feel so helpless in the face of what is happening. Sending you warm wishes, I hope too that you will be able to go back in peace.

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