Palmyra - "Bride of the Desert"

Trip Start Sep 09, 2008
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Trip End Sep 15, 2009


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Where I stayed
Citadel Hotel

Flag of Syria  ,
Saturday, April 25, 2009

After a longer than planned stay in Damascus, we finally left and made our way to Palmyra.  Palmyra is a Babylonian city and has existed since the 19th century B.C.  It's an oasis in the middle of a vast desert and was a central spot for a trade route between the Arab Gulf to the Mediterranean. 
 
The city went through 400 years of peace and prosperity before (you guessed it) the Roman Empire came through and Emperor Hadrian claimed ownership over the city.  Even though the people continued to practice and worship Babylon gods, they did adopt much of the Roman temple architecture.
 
Now the city loves to brag about a desert queen who might have descended from Cleopatra named Zenobia who was the second wife of a King of Kings named Odenathus.  The legend goes in 267 AD, she may have had her husband and his sons assassinated which allowed herself and her young son to be the next ruling party.  By 270 AD she conquered the whole of Syria, lower Egypt, and parts of Asia Minor.
 
All these actions really ticked off Emperor Aurelian who was the then Roman Emperor.  His armies defeated Zenobia and she was forced to be paraded around Rome in 274.  Honestly we could really care less about the story but the locals really like to market there shops and restaurants with Zenobia or Aurelian titles.
 
What's left is ruins - and lots of them.  The main colonnades are free and available to walk through and go on for about a mile or so.  But as you can see from the pictures, just a lot of stone that is either incorrectly slapped together or left to return to the desert from which it came.  What survived of the statues and decoration from this area is in the city's museum which unfortunately is not very well-documented.
 
There are some other interesting sites such as the Tower Tombs.  These family crypts basically were 4 story buildings built to house the dead of those who could afford to build such stone boxes.  There is one that is available to the public viewing but only 3 times a day and for an extra fee.  The Elhabel Family's tomb tower housed 300 sarcophagi.  There is an internal staircase and balcony (why you would need a balcony for a crypt I do not know) where you can see Palmyra.  Andrew ventured up the staircase and took some shots of Willa down below.  Just a sidenote for all you old school Eastern Europeans, we got to ride around in our short tour of the Valley of the Tombs in a Skala Zastava 128 circa 1972. The irony about this was that we had seen this car at the ruins and joked about ending up in this car. Well, lo and behold, when we agreed a ride with a taxi driver, we walked with him to his car and it was the stupendous Skala Zastava.  Legendary.
 
The true highlight of this area is the Tomb of the Three Brothers.  This underground burial chamber dates from 160-91 AD.  It housed 50 or more sarcophagi but the real allure to this site is the beautiful frescos inside the tomb.  The frescos are extraordinary unlike anything we have seen in art history or architecture.  The portraits of the dead are painted in a circular frame on a wall next to the slots where the coffins would be slid in.  The faces in these portraits have been scraped away, but the clothes and the backgrounds of these portraits remain.  There is also a beautiful ceiling fresco as well as a fresco of Achilles being asked by Ulysses to fight in the Trojan War on an arched wall.  All the faces have sadly been scraped away. 
 
In other parts of the tomb, painting was used to mimic elements of architecture.  On the walls of the tombs there is perspective painting that tries to mimic horizontal columns where even sunlight is portrayed.  Funny that, considering we were 20 feet underground.      Unfortunately photography is not allowed so we don't have any pictures, but we plan on picking up some postcards of the site.
 
After a couple of days here, we will be heading on to Hama and incorporate a visit to Crac des Chevaliers. 
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