The Silk Road, China

Friday, 13 April 2007

Palmyra - Syria old & new

We did not expect to gain insight into contemporary Syria at a former Silk Road caravan town which, predating Damascus and Aleppo, was so prosperous that it dared to challenge the Roman Empire. But thanks to another example of Syrian hospitality - this time of a French teacher we met on the bus to Palmyra - we ended up staying in the home of four teachers. Of similar age to us, they showed incredible generosity and taught us more about what it is like to be Syrian in two days than we have learnt in our trip so far.

But first, ancient Palymra. Its setting alone, near an oasis in the middle of the desert about 150 miles east of Iraq is breathtaking. The town (previously known as Tadmor) was to provide a vital stopping point for the caravans of spcies, perfumes and silk from the East as early as the 19th century BC.

When Rome invaded Syria in the 1st Century BC, the Empire's trade poured through Palymra, and the city enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and a degree of autonomy thanks to its remote location. It was at this time that the awesome site, much of which is visible today, was constructed: including a colonade one kilometre long ending in a huge arch, and impressive amphitheatre and a vast temple built to honour the Babylonian equivalent of Zeus.

At sunset we climbed up to an imposing (and more recent) citadel, which was perched on top of steep hill and offered stunning views over the site and the desert beyond. We both agreed that the place somehow created the most vivid picture of its former self than anything we had ever visited. The stunning Roman columns glowing in the sun perhaps contrasted with the town's harsh setting to convey a sense of opulence - the carefully constructed water and drainage system must surely have been like paradise to the caravans as they pulled into the enormous marketplace after an arduous journey through the desert.

Brimming with confidence, Palymra made a bid for independence. The city rose up against the Persians and finally against Rome under the intriguing Queen Zenobia, who in her rein took back all of the Syria which had been lost. Rome retaliated however, and in 274 Aurelian's army brough Palmyra under heel. It was never to fully recover, later being ecclipsed commercially by Damascus and Aleppo.

These ruins were undoubetedly the highlight of the trip so far. Yet we were also lucky enough to experience a glimpse of Syrian culture too, thanks to our hosts Yasser, Nassan, Feras and Belal - the first a French teacher, the others teachers of religion. Showing incredible generosity, they housed and fed us and walked around the sites with us when they had finished work. All of them worked in Palymra during the week, returning to their family homes in Homs (2.5 hours west) at the weekend. Despite their modest house (we slept on the floor, having refused to take their beds when offered) their would neither allow us to leave after the first night nor to take them out for a meal.

Through them we discovered a national obsession with mobile phones, but not yet with the internet (although email was beginning to take off). They told us that we both should be married by now (!), but were keen to compare their lives with ours as dating in Syria is a no-no and living with female friends unheard of. We found that Arabic was indeed quite tricky and our woeful pronunciation hilarious. It was obvious how much their faith permeated throughout their language and every aspect of their lives. It was also clear that they dervied real pleasure in hospitality; we were very lucky to have spent time with such kind, genuine and well educated people. Hopefully they learnt something from us too - about our culture and about our language... There was no doubt that they loved the two cards games we taught them - playing Blackjack in Syria with peanuts as chips to the sound of "Hit me" in sploken a thick Arabic accent is not something I will quickly forget.


1 comment:

William said...

I think you should both get married too. Although you might have to wait until Iran to get the civil partnership thing sorted.

Ha ha!

Apparently, Turkish is really hard. I suggest you concentrate on some really key phrases. Such as "No officer, it was HIM" and "No I'm not heading for the Iranian border, I'm just waiting for the sunrise".

For your interest, the view from the 6th floor of TV Centre hasn't changed a bit. No roman ruins, but plenty of deserted buildings.

jealous, jealous, jealous