Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra, Syria

adventure travel & photography

Destinations: Pakistan ◦◦ India ◦◦Turkey ◦◦ Egypt ◦◦ Bulgaria ◦◦ Mongolia ◦◦ Bangladesh ◦◦ Jordan ◦◦ Russia ◦◦ Turkmenistan ◦◦ Iran ◦◦ Kazakhstan ◦◦ Japan ◦◦ Hong Kong ◦◦ Greece ◦◦ Ukraine ◦◦ Syria ◦◦ Morocco ◦◦ Italy

Type: Photo stories ◦◦ Places ◦◦ Documentary ◦◦ Black and White ◦◦ Fine Art Prints ◦◦ Seascapes ◦◦ Urban

The story

On our final day in Syria (October 2022), we visited the ancient ruins of Palmyra. At a checkpoint on the way to the city, soldiers offered us coffee, which was a pleasant surprise.

We ventured into the desert, passing by several villages destroyed by war and a large, seemingly abandoned Russian military base.

We drove slowly through the new city of Palmyra, which was almost destroyed. Before the war, it had around 50,000 people, but now only 2,000 or 3,000 remain. The buildings are ruins, the streets are deserted, and destruction is everywhere.

We first visited Palmyra Museum. We could enter the partially destroyed building freely. The scene was apocalyptic: scattered remains of statues, mosaics, and other artefacts. Some of the sculptures had smeared or broken faces. The Museum workers succeeded in relocating most of the artefacts to Damasus before the ISIS attack in 2015, but a significant portion remained.

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A bit later, we entered the ancient city of Palmyra. We had the entire archaeological complex, aside from a few soldiers.

The Greek name Palmyra (Palmyra) is a translation of the Aramaic "Tadmor", which means palm. It is the only significant oasis in the Syrian desert, 215 km from Damascus and 120 km from the Euphrates River. Palmyra was established in the Second Millennium BC and was a major centre of trade and knowledge in the 1st-3rd centuries. Palmyra was an essential stop on the caravan route crossing the Syrian desert in the past. It was destroyed by the Romans in 273 AD.

We meandered slowly through the archaeological complex. Our tour guide recounted the story and highlighted what had been destroyed by ISIS and what remained intact.

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The grand colonnade of Palmyra is a 1,100-meter-long street from the Roman period, connecting the temple of the god Bel to the Diocletian Camp district. Other archaeological remains in the ancient city include the Agora, a Roman theatre, residential buildings, representing some of the best examples of Roman architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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The wealthy inhabitants of ancient Palmyra were buried in majestic tombs outside the city walls. Archaeologists found hundreds of sculptures of wealthy Palmyrans dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC in the vaults, a clear sign of the city's wealth and vibrancy of life.

In 2011, when the government in Damascus lost control of Palmyra, looting began. Many artefacts from the ancient city appeared on antique markets or were seized by Lebanese and Turkish customs officers.

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Palmyra fell victim to the crossfire of the Syrian civil war. On March 21, 2015, the Islamic State took over Palmyra and destroyed numerous monuments of invaluable cultural and historical value. On March 27, 2016, the Syrian army, aided by the Russian Air Force, regained complete control of the city.

During the occupation, ISIS established a so-called Diwan al Rikaz service, which granted permits for excavations in Palmyra in exchange for payment of taxes to the terrorist group. These permits were only for non-human objects; it is assumed that artefacts with human figures had to be destroyed by ISIS fighters. However, the looters only submitted non-saleable items to the service. They had hidden those in good condition, intending to sell them later.

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Much has been written about the city and the consequences of the war. It is impossible, however, to cover everything here. As I slowly walked among the ruins, I thought that history does not only progress; it can also regress. This place had flourished thousands of years ago, yet now it lies in ruins. I recalled an article about a new theory of time suggesting that the past, present, and future co-exist in the universe. Despite its controversy, I believe this theory might explain some situations and experiences I have had during my travels, including the story of Palmyra (1).

I believe the destroyed buildings in the ancient city, such as the Temple of Bel, should not be restored. Despite the destruction, Palmyra retains its grandeur, and many monuments, buildings, columns, roads, and tombs can still be seen. On whether you should visit Palmyra, my answer would be an absolute YES; it is worth it, without hesitation.

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We had lunch in a partially destroyed restaurant that the owners had restored to some degree. It was delicious, but also quite strange to eat there. I'm still trying to comprehend the experience. Palmyra is one of the most peculiar places I've visited.

(1) Does time pass? Philosopher Brad Skow’s new book says it does — but not in the way you may think.

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