adventure travel & photography
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Tours/Expeditions: List with all our scheduled tours and expeditions
On our final day in Syria, we visited the ancient ruins of Palmyra. While passing through a military checkpoint on our way into the city, soldiers unexpectedly offered us coffee. We then drove through the desert, passing villages destroyed by war and an abandoned Russian military base. The ruins of Palmyra soon came into view, rising out of the sandy landscape.
We drove through the ruins of Palmyra, a city that had been nearly destroyed by war. Once home to 50,000 people, now only 2,000-3,000 residents remain. Buildings are in disrepair, streets are empty, and destruction is widespread.
We visited the partially destroyed Palmyra Museum. Inside, the scene was apocalyptic: scattered statues, mosaics, and artifacts, some with smeared or broken faces. Although most of the artifacts had been relocated before an ISIS attack in 2015, many significant pieces remained. The museum workers had successfully moved most of the artifacts to safety in Damascus, but a notable portion was left behind.
A bit later, we entered the ancient city of Palmyra. Aside from a few soldiers, we had the entire archaeological complex to ourselves.
The Greek name for Palmyra (Palmyra) is a translation of the Aramaic word "Tadmor", which means palm. Located 215 km from Damascus and 120 km from the Euphrates River, Palmyra is the only significant oasis in the Syrian desert. Established in the second millennium BC, it was a major center of trade and knowledge in the 1st-3rd centuries. In the past, Palmyra was an essential stop on the caravan route crossing the Syrian desert. However, it was destroyed by the Romans in 273 AD.
We meandered slowly through the archaeological complex while our tour guide recounted the story and highlighted what had been destroyed by ISIS and what remained intact.
The Grand Colonnade of Palmyra is a 1,100-meter-long street from the Roman period. It connects the Temple of the god Bel to the Diocletian Camp district. Other archaeological remains in the ancient city include the Agora and a Roman theatre, as well as residential buildings. These structures represent some of the best examples of Roman architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The wealthy residents of ancient Palmyra were buried in grand tombs situated outside the city walls. Archaeologists discovered numerous sculptures of affluent Palmyrans that dated back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BC within these tombs, indicating the city's prosperity and lively atmosphere.
However, when the government in Damascus lost control of Palmyra in 2011, looting began. Numerous artifacts from the ancient city have since surfaced on antique markets or been confiscated by Lebanese and Turkish customs officers.
Palmyra became a victim of the Syrian civil war when it was caught in the crossfire. 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 service called Diwan al Rikaz, 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 artifacts with human figures had to be destroyed by ISIS fighters. However, looters only submitted non-saleable items to the service, hiding those in good condition with the intention of selling them later.
Much has been written about the city and the consequences of war, but it is impossible to cover everything here. As I slowly walked among the ruins, I pondered the fact that history does not always 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, which suggests that the past, present, and future coexist 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 that 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. As for whether you should visit Palmyra, my answer would be an absolute YES. It is worth it without hesitation.
We had lunch at a restaurant in Palmyra that had been partially destroyed, but the owners had restored it to some degree. The food was delicious, but eating there was quite strange. I'm still trying to process the experience. Palmyra is one of the most peculiar places I've ever visited.
Does time pass?
In his new book, “Objective Becoming,” from Oxford University Press, MIT philosopher Bradley Skow details the “block universe” theory of time, in which time passes — but not in the way you may think.
Travel to Syria
I organize and lead small groups to Syria through my licensed travel agency "Thousand Voyages" Ltd.
You can find out more about the guided tours here.
A list of all scheduled tours can be found here.