Sunday, January 09, 2011

A Birthday in Ancient Roman Palmyra

Sand blown two lane roads, stretching straight and endlessly into the horizon, sharing scenery only with a flat desert landscape straddling us on both sides, the drive from Damascus to the Roman ruins of Palmyra is something straight out of the final scenes of the film Syriana. In fact my enthusiasm for the window seat on the bus was vindicated only by the occasional highway sign with an arrow pointing right towards another road, this one leading to Baghdad. Our bus did not take this excursion, but continued the journey onwards to our destination, along which I wondered why the Romans built a city in such a remote and barren location. I would shortly find out that the location was not so random after all, but quite logical, with some pleasant surprises of fertility abounding as well.
There are a couple of things to remember when planning the daytrip to Palmyra. First, when you take the taxi to Harasta Bus Station try to make it as clear as possible to your driver that you want to be dropped off at the autobus station for Palmyra. Perhaps say “Pullman bus” to make it clearer. Through no fault of the driver, Harasta is another neighborhood of Damascus, approximately 3 km northeast of the Old City and city center, so it would be the equivalent of telling a London cabbie from Piccadilly to drop you off in Clapham when what you really want is Clapham Junction train station. The other important tip to remember is to take your passport with you! In fact I would highly recommend that if you’re planning day trips anywhere in the Middle East to bring it with you. Our usual instinct is to have it locked securely in our bed and breakfast safe, but it is required when taking buses or entering major sites. Unfortunately we weren’t aware of this when we set out to Harasta bus station and it resulted in what ended up being an intriguing, if not entirely comical, insight into the inner workings of Syrian security forces. 
Upon our arrival at the ticket kiosk, the vendor was alarmed to find out that we did not have possession of our passports. His solution? Have us follow him to the on-site police station so that he could personally explain the situation to the officer on duty, convince him to make an exception and authorize our tickets, and ultimately not lose out on the business of two foreigners who, with their travel experience, really should have known better. To carry on with my film comparisons, and without exaggeration whatsoever (we have two witnesses, our London-based friends, one who is M's cousin's cousin, who travelled with us to Palmyra, but were the wiser to bring their passports), what happened next wass right out of The Wizard of Oz.
In the small, empty police station office, furnished only with two leather couches, a desk with what looked like a knockoff Apple 2e on top of it and a massive picture of Assad hanging from the wall, the only sign of human life was a rustling behind a red velvet curtain from behind the desk. Our ticket vendor was speaking Arabic to someone behind the curtain (our passport-armed friend who was present and who speaks Iraqi Arabic later told us that he was simply explaining our situation) and finally a voice from beyond! “Are you tourists”, asked the Wizard. We confirmed that in fact we were. “You don’t have your passport”, he continued. Again, we confirmed. “Do you have any identification”? We quickly handed our California drivers licenses to the vendor who then passed them through the curtain to the Wizard and when pulling his arm back from the curtain, had in his hand a shirt on a hanger and a pair of trousers. 
 A couple of minutes passed and, not knowing how long this process would take, we decided to have a seat on the bachelor-pad inspired black leather couches. Suddenly the curtain was thrown back and revealing himself for the first time was the fully uniformed police officer who had simply been getting changed with the help of the vendor while inquiring about our situation. He took his seat behind the Paleolithic specimen of modern technology and quickly signed the back of our tickets, handed back our drivers licenses, and with a genuine Syrian smile, wished us a nice journey. We encountered the softer, friendlier side of Baathist authority that day and we were thankful for the favor of not making us go back to our bed and breakfast to collect our passports.
After 3 hours on the bus with almost nothing to see along the way, we were finally in the jurisdiction of Palmyra. The bus is filled mainly with locals, traveling to or from Damascus and stops a few kilometers from the actual site of the ruins, requiring an onward journey via taxi. Upon disembarking from the bus, and if you’re one of the few foreigners among the crowd, expect to be approached by a number of taxi drivers eager to get what might be the only business of the day. It is important to remember that Syria is only just now gaining popularity on the travel map and the government has just begun an aggressive campaign to increase tourist revenue. In Syria, as well as in Lebanon, it is still within the realm of possibility to wander around an ancient ruin which rivals the likes of those found in Luxor without anyone else in sight. In five years’ time, the landscape and experience may be very different.

Currently, your options for transport from the bus stop to the site of Palmyra are limited and you must negotiate a taxi and I would even recommend just hiring the guy for the entire day. The site is fairly large and outside of the Ancient City are the Tombs, the Temple of Bel, and the hilltop Crusader Citadel. 
Temple of Bel:
We negotiated a fair rate for the day with the extremely friendly and honest Ahmed of “Taxi Ahmad” and I cannot recommend him enough. As my sign of mutual respect for those I bargain with I have a very strict code of honor not to reveal the price at which I settle with a vendor when traveling, but the price was cheap, and due to his unexpected hospitality and genuine warmth, we decided to tip him well to show our appreciation. I was sure to get his card and I would recommend pre-booking with him as I’m sure he would love the referral business: “Taxi Ahmad”, Phone: 0988710930: Email: To be fair, from what I could tell, most of the taxi drivers at the bus stop seemed legitimate and we kept running into a few of them and their respective customers while out at the sites.
Ahmad in his Olive Grove:
While Palmyra as an inhabited settlement predates Roman rule, the majority of the city was built and incorporated into the empire by the Emperor Tiberius in the first century AD as a caravan stop along the Silk Road, linking Rome to Persia, India, and China. The city enjoyed a unique tradition of autonomy and cultivated a Greco-Roman culture reflective of its inhabitants and transient visitors, making these ancient ruins some of the most fascinating remnants of the classical world, some of which are more well preserved and more magnificent than those found in Greece or Rome. The sheer size of the site requires an early start out. 
The Great Colonnades:
We took the 8:30 am bus, arriving to the site around noon. Because the last bus to Damascus departs at around 5:30 pm, this leaves about 5 hours to make sure you see everything.
It’s not impossible and you can take it leisurely, but it does require the assistance of a hired driver to get around some of the sights which are further afield. 
The Roman Theatre:
 Camp of Diocletian:
If your driver is up for it and if time permits, he may show you around the beautiful Oasis which is adjacent to the site of the ancient city. Within these olive trees you will find garden after garden of olive tree groves, sheep herders, and casual dwellings where you might even be invited in for tea or perhaps a meal, learning the secrets of how to grow the best olives. One of the things you will have to get used to during your time in Syria is how welcoming and hospitable the Syrian people are. End the day with the hilltop castle built during the crusades for breathtaking views of ancient Palmyra and a desert sunset like no other.
Qala'at Ibn Maan (Arab Castle):
Beautiful Desert Sunset:

Finally after thanking and bidding farewell to Ahmad it was back to the bus stop for the three hour journey back to Damascus. Aside from the gentlemen who kept trying to talk to me despite the fact that I clearly didn’t speak or understand Arabic, it was a mostly comfortable and restful journey home, topped off by a nice low key dinner with our friends to celebrate what I had forgotten was my birthday that day. 

Next we would be heading to Aleppo. -- KV

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