Palmyra, Syria Travelogue
Friday, November 14, 1998

(via Deir ez-Zur, with a side trip to
Halabiyeh, Duro Europos, and Mari)

Thursday, Nov 13

En-route to Deir ez-Zur, we made an unplanned climb to Halabiyeh – a citadel founded in 272 by Queen Zenobia (the Queen of Palmyra who later had the nerve to defy Rome.) The climb was steep and rocky and many of the more senior members of the group decided to forgo the climb. The sun was setting and we had great lighting and a wonderful view of the Euphrates. At the top, we took a group photo using my mini-tripod but to this day, I have yet to receive a copy of the photo.

By the time we came back down, it was getting quite dark and the bugs were out in force. Our driver had to drive the narrow, twisty road in near darkness. Patrick, our tour leader had forewarn us about the amenities in Deir ez-Zur but in my opinion, it wasn’t all that bad. Some had balconies. We had a what I called a "suite" – a living room and the washroom was fine – except for a rather dodgy shower curtain which threatened to crawl away on its own.

Dinner was on the 4th Floor restaurant which covered the entire floor. There were only two others there when we arrived but by 9pm, the room started to fill up. Perhaps this was the local night hangout or perhaps they came to see the tourists.

Dinner was SP200 ($US4.50). Beer was 100. Tea 35. Someone ordered some Lebanese(?) wine which everyone else avoided. When they passed it down to me, I smelt it and quickly declined. At the second offering, I tried some and it was actually no worse than some prune wine I've tasted before so people were amazed that I would drink more of it.

After dinner, a few of us went for a quick walk. All the young men came to introduce themselves to me… but was more interested in an introduction to the female of the species. We found a little bookstore which carried English lessons… and a Berlitz Guide to London written in Arabic. I promptly purchased it for SP65 (US$1.50) and threatened to stealthily swap it with another group member's Berlitz Guide to the Middle East. Bought some very inexpensive biscuits (SP10 vs SP50 elsewhere) before heading back to the hotel. Unfortunately, the restaurant was indeed the local hangout and it stayed noisy until 2am.

Friday, Nov 14

Early start (6am wakeup call) to Duro Europos – a place of a mix of cultures. The name itself is a combination of names from 2 different languages: the ancient Assyrian name of Dura for wall or fort and from the Selecuids’ name of Europos. It was reputed for its religious tolerance as confirmed by the presence of a church, synagogue and other Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian temples side by side. The plateau drops off some 90m into the Euphrates river. The guard / grounds keeper drove by on his motorcycle and offered to drive people back to the front gates. We were amazed to find Andrea accepting a ride and grasping his rifle firmly for balance.

Next, we headed to the ruins at Mari. En-route, we passed a Syria airforce base and witnessed two fighter planes (MiGs?) taking off. Within seconds, they were both out of view. Here, the French are still excavating. There are several layers of villages and it looks like they have only unearthed two or three layers so far. We scurried around the site and peered into Iraq (only 14km away). We could make out antennas towers, etc. in the distance. For days now, there had been hostilities. UN weapons inspectors were denied entrance to Iraqi sites and they all pulled out in protest. So we were half expecting scud missiles to be speeding overhead towards Israel.

We had our usual picnic lunch at the Bedouin Camp nearby. Flies hovered about by the hundreds and I’m sure many were about to migrate to Palmyra on our bus. After lunch, we doubled back to Deir-ez Zur and then another 2½ hours through the desert to Palmyra. The sun was setting and the oasis reflected the sunset quite brilliantly.

In Palmyra, we stayed at the Orient Hotel which is within walking distance to the old city. After we cleaned up, our bus driver drove us past the old city to the Hotel Zenobia (which is also owned by the tour and bus company). Here, our driver seemed to know everyone and kept going into the kitchen. He even appointed himself as bartender and offered me some araq (a clear alchohol which smells and tastes like cough medicine). Having had some earlier in the trip, I declined without a second thought. We stayed till after 10pm before walking back. The new section of town is probably only less than 10 blocks long with only 3 major ones in the heart of it. We stopped in a local gift store and purchased some film (SP150 for 100ASA and SP200 for 200ASA). The cartons had Arabic on them and freshness date was relatively new.

Sat Nov 15

Breakfast was on the top floor of the hotel. From here, the old city was a site to behold with columns and arches everywhere. Except for the buildings in the way and the angle of the sun, this was the ideal vantage point for a photo. The old city is called the City of Palms or as Tadmor to the locals (from its ancient Semitic name – City of Dates). It was mentioned in tablets dating as far back as the 19th century BC. It was an important link in the Silk road to China and India to the point where in 137AD, an enormous stone tablet was erected with the inscription “Tariff to Palmyra”. It became a Roman colony in 212AD and gradually evolved into a kingdom ruled by Odenthus – the Corrector of the East. After the assassination of Odenathus in 267, his second wife Zenobia took the thrown and declared independence from Rome. Emperor Aurelian then besieged the city and carted Zenobia back to Rome.

We strolled from one end of the main street to the other. At the end closest to the new town and to the Temple of Bel was a small temple (Nabo), the Amphitheatre (where we had a demonstration of Patrick’s Shakespearean skills) and the Agora. The carvings on the caps of the columns still appear as sharp as ever. From here, you can easily see the funerary towers at the far end of the complex and the Arab castle at the distance.

Almost midway along this street stands the Tetrapylons marking the intersection of this road and the other main crossroad. Further North is the Camp of Diocletian with one of its walls still erect. From here, our bus picked us up and gathered the gatekeeper at the museum to head to the funerary towers.

Patrick, had kept deterring people from buying head-dresses until we got to the towers. He said that there was a lovely girl selling good quality ones there. However, today, there was only an rough-looking Arab gentleman there so we rebutted Patrick on his taste in women. This tower had 5 storeys – each originally holding a stack of 5 or more caskets. We made our way to the roof (see the view from the Tower Cam) where the path was about 3-4 feet wide and no walls or rails to prevent a deadly mis-step.

Next, we had a guided tour of the local museum. Lots of good statues and a couple of gruesome looking mummies. After the museum, we headed back to the Temple of Bel. It was enormous complex with many arches and columns. The walls still held some very impressive carvings and there were rows of fallen columns on the ground.

We went back to town at the Spring Restaurant for some great felafels for lunch and a stroll through town before hiring some mini-buses to visit the castle. Patrick had said that he was going to hike up but my roomate was nowhere to be found. To our surprise, he was already on top of the castle taking photos of our arrival. There were many people there and more were still coming up. We scrambled around the remnants of the walls and awaited sunset. The old city itself was a little too far away for good photos and there was huge antenna tower in front of the setting sun but the view of the rest of the mountain range and cliffs was magnificent.

As the sun set and we headed back to our mini-buses, Patrick rode back with us but my mountain goat of a roommate decided to scramble back down in the dark. For dinner, we had a huge buffet at the Hotel Villa Pamyra. SP400 for lots of food.

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