Idols and Ruins in the Syrian Desert

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Trip End Ongoing


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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Leaving the Fertile Crescent town of Hama, with its norias and entering into the heart of Syria's limestone desert, I looked out the bus window as the ruins of Palmyra and its oasis appeared, with the Baal Temple as its centerpiece. Palmyra was thriving at the time of Jesus, when the Romans ruled the Middle East, Greek was the lingua franca, and the Silk Road drew traders across traders.

Palmyra was one of the Stops along the Silk Road, a much-needed break after arduous trips across the yellow limestone deserts between Babylon and Damascus. The women of Palmyra wore embroidered silk from China, with Queen Zenobia as the most famous yet mysterious of them all. She dazzled the world and fought the Romans, before being dragged to Rome with a gold chain around her neck.

Queen Zenobia would have presided over the feasts at the Baal Temple, whose idols would have been the target of the monotheists further to the west in Israel, whose human sacrifices would have appalled any God-fearing man or woman, whose acts of hedonism popularly spread throughout the lands, leading to the wrath of God and the prophets for hundreds of years.

But the people sinned by worshipping Baal, and for this they will die. They keep on sinning by making metal images to worship--idols of silver, designed by human minds, made by human hands. And then they say, "Offer sacrifices to them!"
~Hosea 13:1-2.

On major festivals and feasts, Palmyra's finest would gather at the temple, giving the gatekeeper a terracotta invitation seal. The banquet hall would have been filled with olive oil lamps as the festivities began, with human and animal sacrifices. The animal sacrifices were eaten to transfer the power of Baal to the consumed flesh.

Along the major collonade with busts of rulers, senators, and merchants, shopkeepers sold their wares. A nearby agora was full of traders and tax collectors from the adjacent tariff court, building Palmyra's wealth. The floors were covered in fine mosaics of Mediterranean patterns and gods: Dionysus, Athena, Zeus, Solomon's Chains, Swastikas.

But like anything this thriving city was bound to fall. I talked with a man while sitting out in the cool night air. He said: "This land is old. Empires come and go. Syria was many times rich and powerful. Now look at us. We are poor, but we have ruins left." All empires will eventually fall, yes. We had a good cheerful talk about Syrian-American-global politics after that. I asked him what he would do in Iraq if he were elected president of the USA: "I would pull out the soldiers...but not yet...too unstable."

Outside the ruins of the city were old tower tombs with corinthian capitals and ceilings with painted coffers. The dead were buried in recesses and closed with limestone slabs sculpted with high-relief busts of the deceased. Most of the tower tombs were pillaged, but a salvaged example existed in the basement floor of the Damascus Museum, which I saw a few days later. The Three Brothers Tomb, around the corner, was an underground burial site, complete with vegetable-based frescoes with scenes from the Illiad--Achilles unveiled--and angels along the walls. The bodies were mummified similar to the Egyptians and people believed in resurrection, the rejoining of the body and soul in the afterlife.

Walking around the town, I met a group of elder men chatting and joined them for tea, buying four bananas for breakfast. On my last morning, I walked to the bus station at dawn, walking alongside two children on a donkey. They were smiling and laughing with me, but then stopped. They then went through a garbage bag to find scraps of food. I shared my bananas with them, and they were my inspiration for the day as I left Palmyra for another world.
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