We toured Syria, home to world’s oldest civilizations dating back to 6,600 BC, for three days in an October autumn a few years before the country under President Bashar al-Assad was embroiled in the 2011 civil war further complicated by the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) militants that had tightened grip on the historic city of Palmyra as of 21 May 2015. Although there is no report of catastrophic destruction of the precious ancient antiquities except for a destroyed lion-god statue among many other statues the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has issued a call for international efforts to protect the ancient Roman ruins of Palmyra and its 60,000 residents.
No visit to the Syrian Arab Republic would be complete without a trip to Palmyra to see and explore the Roman ruins, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
The ancient city of Palmyra (“Tadmur” in Arabic), known as the “Bride of the Desert”, is located in the heart of the oasis surrounded by palm trees northeast of the Syrian capital Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.
Once incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, Palmyra gained its enormous wealth from the caravan trade that flourished between the East and the West with the construction of many monumental projects which have stood for 2,000 years.
Best preserved and the most complete structure left among the ruins is the main shrine, Temple of Bel, built on a hill. Consecrated to the most important of the Semitic deities in the Palmyrene pantheon, the rectangular-shaped temple consists of two parts: the walled courtyard called “temenos” and its centre, the temple proper called “cella”. The remains of a basin, an altar and banquet hall could be found in the paved court. It is also evident that animals were sacrifised with the presence of a ramp leading into the temple.
Dating from AD 17 is another temple, the Temple of Ba’al-Shamin, dedicated to the Lord of the Heavens responsible for storms and fertilizing rains. Fronting the temple are six columns on platforms for statues with inscriptions in Greek and Palmyrene. Although permanently padlocked you can still peer in.
A colonnaded sreet along which processions reached the temples crossed the town once flanked by shops, public buildings and facilities. Donors that financed the construction of the colonnades and other monuments were the wealthiest citizens who in return were allowed to place a statue of themselves on the pedestal columns.
In the eastern section of the colonnade is the Monumental Arch, still in good condition and quite fascinating with its elaborate decoration. Constructed as two arches adjoined like a hinge it is built to celebrate Roman emperors’ war victories.
Extensively restored the ancient theatre with five doorways leading behind the stage has the usual facilities for handling the crowd and rooms for the actors.
An open space surrounded on four sides by coloured porticos is the “agora”, where the trading caravans unloaded their wares. The hub of Palmyrene life the agora could also be the city’s most important meeting place. And to the east of the agora stands the tariff court where caravans paid their taxes.