As part of a tour of Syria I embarked on in 2008 that included Aleppo, Damascus, and the Krak des Chevaliers Crusader castle, the UNESCO site of Palmyra was a highlight and one of the most important cultural sites I have ever visited.
Palmyra [the Roman name] is known as Tadmor to the Syrians. Both mean the same thing – date palm. The name comes from the lush oasis adjacent to the city, which is home to some million date palms. It is the only oasis in Syria. Palmyra sits on the standard tourist trek around Syria and is one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the Middle East, if not in the world. The major tourist attraction of the area is the magnificent ruins – the most famous and well preserved of which are the Temple of Bel, the colonnade, the funerary towers, the hypogeum of 3 brothers, and the Arab castle on the hill. My tourist bus was a particularly interesting remnant of decades past.
At the time of my visit there was no entry fee and no opening hours for the ruins, although three sites [the Temple of Bel, the Theatre and Elahbel, one of the funerary towers] did have set hours and required an admission fee. The scale of the site required at least a day to explore. Palmyra was Syria’s most popular attraction and tourism reached near 200,000 per year before the start of the Syrian Civil War.
Temple of Bel
Bel was the most important of the gods in the Palmyrene pantheon, and the Temple of Bel is the most complete structure left in Palmyra. Once inside, you’ll see that the complex consists of two parts: a huge walled temenos [courtyard], and at its center, the cella [the temple proper], which dates from 32 CE. Just to the left of the entrance into the temenos is a sunken passage that enters the temple from the outside wall and gradually slopes up to the level of the courtyard. This was probably used to bring sacrificial animals to the precincts. The podium of the sacrificial altar is on the left, and beside it are the foundations of a banqueting hall. Inside the cella is a single chamber with adytons [large niches] at either end. The earth-colored building by the Temple of Bel was originally the residence of the Ottoman governor of Palmyra, which later became a prison.
Formerly connected to the temple by a colonnade, the monumental arch across the road now serves as the entrance to the site proper, and it’s one of the most striking sites in Palmyra. The arch is interesting as it’s actually two arches joined like a hinge to pivot the main street through a 30-degree turn. This slight direction switch, and a second one just a little further west, is evidence of the city’s unique development – a crooked street like this would be quite unimaginable in any standard Roman city.
The section west of the arch is quite beautiful. This section lies at the heart of the ancient civic center and gives a very clear idea of how the city must have appeared in all its original grandeur. The street itself was never paved, probably to save damage from camel caravans, but flanking porticoes on either side were. Each of the massive columns has a small, jutting platform about two-thirds of the way up, designed to hold the statue of some rich Palmyrene who had helped pay for the construction of the street.
South of the main colonnaded street is the city’s theater, which was buried by sand until the 1950s. Since its discovery it has been extensively restored.
About one-third of the way along the colonnaded street is the beautiful, reconstructed tetrapylon, a monumental structure that marked a junction of thoroughfares and marks the second pivot in the route of the colonnaded street. Its square platform bears at each corner a tight grouping of four columns. Each of the four groups of pillars supports tons of solid cornice. A pedestal at the center of each quartet originally carried a statue. Only one of the 16 pillars is of the original pink granite, likely brought from Aswan in Egypt.
The agora was the hub of Palmyrene life, the city’s most important meeting space, used for public discussion and as a market where caravans unloaded their wares and engaged in the trade that brought the desert oasis its wealth. The central area was once enclosed by porticoes on all four sides and the pillars carried statues. Adjoining the agora in the northwest corner are the remains of a small banqueting hall used by Palmyra’s rulers.
Temple of Baal Shamin
After the detour to the agora, the main street continues northwest, and another smaller pillared street leads northeast to the Temple of Baal Shamin, a small shrine dedicated to the god of storms and fertilizing rains. Beyond the tetrapylon, the main street continues for another 1500 feet or so. This stretch is littered with tumbled columns and assorted blocks of masonry and the views up towards Qala’at ibn Maan [fortress on the hill] are quite lovely as the sun nears the horizon. The road ends in the impressive portico of a 3rd-century funerary temple.
Camp of Diocletian
South of the funerary temple, along the porticoed way, is the Camp of Diocletian, erected after the destruction of the city by Aurelian. It was possibly on the site of what had been the palace of Zenobia, although excavations so far have been unable to prove this. The camp lay near the Damascus Gate, which led on to a 2nd-century colonnaded street that supposedly linked Emesa [Homs] and the Euphrates.
To the south, at the foot of some low hills, is a series of tall, freestanding square-based towers known as the Towers of Yemliko. These were constructed as multi-story burial chambers, stacked with coffins posted in pigeonhole-like niches. The niches were sealed with stone panels carved with a head-and-shoulder portrait of the deceased; many of these can be seen at the National Museum in Damascus.
The spine of ancient Palmyra and one of its most iconic views is a stately colonnaded avenue stretching between the city’s main funerary temple in the west and the Temple of Bel in the east, and covering a distance of almost a kilometer. Unlike the typical Roman model, Palmyra’s main avenue was far from straight, pivoting decisively at two points – a result of piecemeal growth and improvisation.
Where the modern asphalted road slices across the ancient way is an imposing monumental arch. Dating from the reign of Septimius Severus, when Palmyra was at its peak, the construction is actually two arches, joined like a hinge to swing the street through a 30-degree turn, aiming it at the Temple of Bel. The section of street between the Bel temple and the arch has largely vanished, with just a few sparse columns to indicate the route the colonnades once took, but the section west of the arch is magnificent. This section lies at the heart of the ancient civic center.
Hypogeum of the Three Brothers
In addition to the many funerary towers at the edges of the site, Palmyra boasts a second, later type of tomb, the hypogeum, which was an underground burial chamber. As with the towers, this chamber was filled with loculi fitted with stone carved seals. The best of the fifty or more hypogea that have been discovered and excavated, apart from the Hypogeum of Yarhai, is the Hypogeum of the Three Brothers. The tomb dates from the first or second century CE. It is very modest in size but contains some beautiful frescoes, including portraits of the three brothers in oval frames. There are also three large sarcophagi topped by figures reclining on couches.
In part three of this series I will recount the warm welcome I received from the locals, along with some strong shisha in a very large hookah.