Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Day 12: Palmyra

We arrived in Syria last night about 11:00pm and were met at the airport by two guys in suits who immediately took our passports and luggage tags, deposited us in a VIP lounge, and disappeared. We waited and waited. Finally they reappeared with our suitcases and our passports, all properly stamped, and loaded us into a late-model black Honda. The driver, a younger fellow more casually dressed than his associates, drove us at high speed to our hotel. Because he didn’t fasten his seat belt, the warning signal beeped most of the way.
Security at our hotel is huge. Before we could pull into the driveway, a guard opened our trunk to check its contents. We were escorted through a metal detector and our luggage, purses, and briefcases were all run through a screening, just like at the airport.
We settled in for a pretty short night’s sleep. Plans were set for us to visit Palmyra (pronounced Pal-me-ra) at 9:30am. Our guide called at 8:30 to ask if we were ready to go. Not quite. Thirty minutes later we were in the lobby.

We set off in another black Honda in the capable hands of our tour guide and a driver for a two and a half hour drive to Palmyra, a beautiful ruin, northeast of Damascus, built in the desert on the edge of an oasis. Along the road, we saw Bedouins tending flocks of sheep and goats, a little greenery from the recent rainy season and miles and miles of sand. At one point we were only about two hours from the Iraqi border. We stopped for a break at the Bagdad Café.
I’ve seen a lot of ruins in my travels and Palmyra is one of the prettiest. The architectural style is Roman but with modifications based on older forms of regional architecture. We walked through the Sanctuary of Bel, an outdoor amphitheater, the bath of Zenobia, the all important market place (the agora), down roads lined with columns and arches. Although Palmyra was settled as early as the 2nd millennium BC, all of the ruins we saw date from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Palmyra was a pivotal and wealthy trading center of perhaps 60,000 people in its heyday, linking the far east trade routes to Antioch on the Mediterranean and from there to Rome. The Romans gave the area a lot of authority and autonomy as long as the goods they desired kept moving through Palmyra toward Rome.

And then Zenobia came to power. She was the beautiful, brave, and ambitious Palmyrene queen who, with her son, took over the rule in Palmyra in 267AD after her husband the Governor of Syria was mysteriously murdered. She was convinced that she and her army, said to number 70,000 or more, could defeat the Romans. Initially she was successful, taking control of Syria and pushing forward into Egypt and Anatolia (Turkey). She had coins printed of herself in Alexandria, declared her son Emperor, and claimed the eastern half of the Roman Empire as theirs in 271AD. Her march to Rome ended, however, when Emperor Aurelian, fed up with the threat to his power, advanced to Palmyra in 272AD, forced Zenobia to surrender, took her to Rome where (stories vary here) she was forced to live in exile, committed suicide, or was executed. No report on what happened to her son. In 273AD Palmyra was sacked by the Romans and never recovered. Zenobia was quite something and I was so pleased to hear her story.

Back in Damascus, we took a walk around our somewhat gritty and shuttered neighborhood (it was Friday, the Muslim day of worship, and most everything was closed) and then had dinner in the hotel restaurant, Al Halabi, and ate, amongst other things, Kabob Karaz, Grilled Lamb in Sweet Cherry Sauce, a specialty of Aleppo. It was a fantastic dish combining the sweet/sour cherry sauce with grilled ground lamb meatballs flavored with dried mint, and strips of very thin bread lining the shallow bowl in which the dish was served. The bread soaked up the delicious sauce. It was so good.

1 comment:

Allison Addicott said...

I just read about your entire Syria/Damascus trip. You really convey, by means of tone and detail, the life of the many places you visited. A sense of antiquity, both its silence and its grace, pervades your writing. It is great. And the food! What seemed surprisingly appealing was the breakfast buffet with beans, onions, etc and then a sweetened cream of wheat-style cereal along with that.

Thanks so much for taking the time to blog so carefully. The historicity of Damascus is huge and I love learning about new places in so much detail. Even as an historian I have never learned of Zenobia.

By the way, Madeleine continues to develop her cooking skills. I am having fun helping her brainstorm with sauces - it is cool that she is more "into" savory cooking than baking.

I am a chair-drawer as well. It is an odd challenge of angle and perspective!

Thanks again for the great writing.