Monday, July 6, 2009

Palmyra by Night

On Monday July 15 I spent the night amid the ruins of ancient Petra, atop the altar of Jupiter in the inner sanctum of one of the largest temples of the Talmudic era. But first, some backstory:

Palmyra is the Petra, the Luxor, of Syria. It is the big kahuna for tourism in the country, a fact immediately apparent by the four-fold rise in prices and the crowds of touts that greet visitors to the oasis in Syria's western deserts. What is Palmyra and why is it such a big draw for visitors?

Any guide book can tell you the basic story: Palmyra, or Tadmor as it is known in Arabic and Hebrew, was a vital caravan city for travelers crossing the Syrian desert. The Romans prized the oasis as an outpost against the Sassanid empire of Persia. But it was in 267 C.E. that Palmyra became known throughout the ancient world when the widow of the assassinated Roman provincial governor took power and declared an independent Palmyrene Empire. Five years later the legions showed up and dragged pretty queen Zenobia back to Rome in gold chains. Not much of a story except that the modern Syrian state has dramatized Zenobia's brief reign as a proud epic in the history of the Syrian nation. So while tourists come to Palmyra for the grand Roman ruins and epic desert landscapes, local guides play up the tale of the lone queen who bravely faced down the western imperialists.

Palmyra is as can't miss as Syrian sights get so I was determined to visit. Especially because the town known since ancient times as the Bride of the Desert may have been founded by none other than King Solomon, the great Jewish monarch who established the First Temple in Jerusalem. The Bible twice references Solomon as founding Tadmor, a fortified town that the Talmudic commentators explain is located in the western deserts of Syria. So in order to see the history of my people in Syria, Palmyra was a must visit.

There are two downers to visiting Palmyra. First, as I mentioned at the start, Syria's main tourist draw is known for its annoying touts and sky-high prices. Second, the small town hugging the ruins has no single bus stop. Instead it has several, none of which have posted times and none of which will sell tickets more than a few hours prior to departure.

Through a mixture of good sense, daring and my usual fortune with transportation I overcame both obstacles. And if you read to the end of this short note, you too can experience Palmyra in such a way that will never leave your imagination.

The first trick is to arrive in Palmyra in the evening. I got dropped off at what qualifies as the main stop for arriving traffic--a random rest stop four km from the modern town-- around 9 p.m. Three hours earlier I had left Damascus, having paid a few dollars for the long ride into the desert. After brushing aside the few touts waiting to gorge themselves on foreign suckers like myself, I dawdled at the rest stop for a few minutes and then joined a Syrian fellow hitching to the nearby town. Modern Palmyra consists of little more than the main drag where all the tourist hotels and restaurants can be found. Two British travelers invited me to join them over the remains of their dinner and our short chat convinced me to follow through on the crazy idea I had been throwing around on the bus ride through the desert. Rather than stay in a dingy hostel and fork over fifty dollars like my British friends, I was determined to nestle down amidst the ruins for the night. Best decision any visitor to Palmyra could ever make.

Ancient Palmyra lies five minutes away from the modern town. The ruins are open at all hours, save for three of the grander remains that can only be visited by purchasing a ticket during regular hours. Night fall does not qualify as regular hours. Instead it is the time when even the most modest thousand year old arch becomes a glorious reminder of another era, bathed in the glow of the stars and well placed floor-lamps. Palmyra may be worth visiting during the heat of the day but at night it is simply enchanting. The desert wind sweeps through the stone causeways. Dilapidated temples glow with a spiritual sheen stored away for the last thousand years. And best of all, the intrepid visitor has the site completely to himself. And so it was that on Monday July 15, Palmyra was all mine for the night.

After contemplating the ancient city for several hours, I directed my steps toward the pièce de résistance, the Temple of Ba'al. The remarkably well preserved temple may have once been dedicated to a who's who list of pagan gods (Ba'al, Jupiter, take your pick, they were all worshiped here at one point). But its the design of the temple that is fascinating to the inquisitive biblical visitor. According to a BBC documentary, the Temple of Ba'al is the successor to a similar temple that predated the Romans by two thousand years. "Its form," intoned the wise British documentarist, "a large stone-walled chamber with columns outside, is much closer to the sort of thing attributed to Solomon than to anything Roman." In other words, for the time being, seeing this temple is perhaps the only way moderns can glimpse a live visual of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem!

I intended to sleep outside the Temple of Ba'al, next to the western retaining wall that more or less serves the same presence here as the famous Kotel (Wailing Wall) once provided to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Instead I ended up sleeping within the inner sanctum of the temple, atop the Altar of Jupiter. My plans changed when my flashlight noticed a draining pipe entering the temple through a small gap in the stone wall. As the main gate was locked until 8 am the next morning, the gap was the only way in. When my shoulders proved up to the task, I squeezed the rest of my body through the crevice and in no time was approaching the inner sanctum, more or less the equivalent of the central sanctuary in the Second Temple of Jerusalem. As I unrolled my sleeping bag on a raised surface, I had no idea that the Altar of Jupiter was serving as my mattress for the night. All I knew was that the bright light of the stars, the ghostly howl of the desert-wolves and the tunes on my MP3 were coming together to make this a night I would never forget.

I woke the next morning before dawn. Once the sun rose, the desert heat and the army of touts would make viewing Palmyra by day a dreadful assignment. Plus I was determined to grab the first bus at 8 AM back to Damascus. Saying farewell to the Temple of Ba'al was simple enough. After checking that the Bedouin guard was still sleeping by the entrance, I squeezed back through the hole in the wall and set out to explore the city by the light of the early morning. A few intrepid folks were already snapping pictures of the inimitable landscape. I had them snap a few of me before setting my sights on the last challenge to conquer in town, the hilltop citadel of Palmyra.

Most of the danger I get myself into is self-inflicted and what happened next is no exception. Instead of following the road that loops around and up the hill to the citadel, I decided to climb straight up the steep incline. The ascent proved far more treacherous than I had anticipated, with the rocks underfoot crumbling down the hill with my every step. Only after throwing my water and sleeping bags back down the hill did I slowly, inch by blistering inch, wedge my way up the rockface and atop the crest of the hill. The citadel, like the temple, remained lock and so after nearly losing my life reaching the main door I was not even able to enter! Some lesson in all this, no doubt.

My last challenge in Palmyra was to get away. After retrieving my bags at the foot of the hill, I ran back to the modern town. A cab driving by offered to take me to the bus station. Of course, since Palmyra does not have a bus station, we proceeded to drive around for twenty minutes, stopping at any number of places in town before finding a bus that was leaving that moment and had exactly one seat remaining! With my luck in place, I paid the driver the only money I had spent during my visit to Palmyra and boarded the bus heading home to Damascus!

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