Staying in Tadmur, the modern town next to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, was quite an experience. I was there in January so the nights were quite cold, and stayed at the Citadel Hotel, a small local hotel with basic amenities. I remember that several times a day the power went out in the town, and if you were lucky enough to be in a small hotel/hostel that had its own generator you were in good shape. Otherwise, you were thrust into an experience akin to Syria in the nineteenth century. The town of Tadmur itself was not more than 50,000 strong in 2008, prior to an influx of refugees from other parts of Syria in more recent years.
Walking along the streets of the town was a pleasure, with locals having tea outside their shops, children playing soccer, and other pleasant activities one would find in any town. On many an occasion I was invited to have tea with a local merchant or townsfolk as they were all quite happy to have tourists come to their town and support not only the UNESCO site of Palmyra, but also contribute to the local economy.
The entrance to the ruins of Palmyra were a twenty minute walk away, but the Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle or Palmyra Castle was quite a hike away. The castle is thought to have been built by the Mamluks in the 13th century on a high hill overlooking the historic site of Palmyra, and is named for the Druze emir Fakhr-al-Din II, who extended the Druze domains to the region of Palmyra during the 16th century. As I began the long trek up the castle with a few other tourists, a local saw us hiking and asked us where we were going. He was in an old, rusty pickup truck. When we said we were headed to the castle, he said, “get in” – and we jumped in the back of the truck. In ten minutes we were whisked to the top of the hill. The local Syrian man wanted nothing in return, only the satisfaction that he had made a connection with people from far away places and could show the pride he felt in the archeological gems his town had to offer.
That day was a Thursday, which is the Islamic Friday, meaning the locals in Tadmur were ready to enjoy life and party late into the evening. On the road to the ruins there was a restaurant – the only structure between Tadmur and the entrance to the ancient site of Palmyra. As I walked by with a few tourists we were invited in. The experience quickly became something out of a film, as the three of us [two Aussies and me] were treated like special guests at a family celebration. A variety of desserts and some very strong alcohol of some sort were being offered to us every other minute. Then, the piece de resistance – a giant hookah was brought out and was placed in front of us.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, a hookah, also known as a water pipe, is a single or multi-stemmed instrument for vaporizing and smoking flavored tobacco called shisha in which the vapor or smoke is passed through a water basin before inhalation. The origin of the water pipe is from the time of the Safavid dynasty in Persia from where it eventually spread to the east into India during that time. The hookah also soon reached Egypt and the Levant during the Ottoman dynasty from neighboring Safavid Iran, where it became very popular and where the mechanism was later perfected.
As I am not a smoker to begin with, the experience was foreign from the start. At the insistence of our gracious hosts, we began the process of inhaling the flavored tobacco [apple shisha if I recall correctly]. Repeating this process a few times I started to become so dizzy I wondered whether or not this shisha was simply just shisha, or contained a bit of other elements that may or may not have been illegal in Syria. Given my need for retaining control over my wits, I slowed my intake to a stop, “faking” it every time our hosts would inquire as to how it was going.
The local Syrians sat with us and talked about their lives, work, families, country, history and their hopes for the future of their country.
A few hours or so later and the three of us were quite ready to leave, but the party was clearly just getting started. With genuine hugs all around our Syrian hosts thanked us for visiting their town and wished us safe travels back to our countries and on the path of life that lay in front of us. I was energized by the experience [once my head cleared] and the thought of recreating this type of interaction with the locals has driven many a future travel.
Sadly, in light of recent events, many if not all of the local Syrians that were so gracious to us: the tea sellers, hotel workers, tourist bus drivers, children playing in the streets, women at the market, etc., are likely either no longer in Tadmur or have been killed or executed in the recent ISIS incursion. Their fate, if true, is even more of a loss to humanity than the destruction of any stone structure.
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In my minimalist living room at Flyingnorthblog International Headquarters, I have only a few things hanging on the wall: six antique maps [17th to 19th centuries], and two pencil drawings. One of these drawings, hanging there for over ten years, is a page from a mid-nineteenth century history book that includes a pencil drawing of Palmyra with the description, “View of Palmyra, from the Grand Collonade, showing the Castle in the Distance.” This drawing and the mystery that it represents drove me to travel to Syria to see Palmyra in person. At this point the seriousness of the threat to this magnificent site is clear. I can only hope that this site has many more centuries of life in it.