Palmyra: pearl of the desert

by John Gaye

With its magnificent ruins, Palmyra is not just Syria's most visited site, but one of the finest tourist destinations anywhere in the Middle East. Best of all, it hasn't yet been over-exploited

Palmyra sits on an oasis in the middle of the Syrian Desert, about equidistant between the Euphrates and the Orantes rivers. This location explains its vital importance over thousands of years to many different civilisations and to traders moving their goods between the Orient and the Western world. Both the Silk Route and the Spice Route passed through ancient Palmyra, and thus was created a hugely wealthy city.

First impressions

I arrive in Palmyra having driven through the desert from the Euphrates River. Constantly changing scenery and the odd herd of camels being watched over by their friendly Bedouin owners enlivened the three-hour journey. My arrival is, as intended, just before the evening light starts to change the colours dramatically. First visit is therefore to the citadel, which sits high above the desert site, dominating everything for miles, to watch the sunset.

For the first time in two weeks of travelling 3,000 kilometres round Syria, I find a cluster of souvenir sellers touting their wares, and as dusk approaches, it becomes obvious why: every tourist in town is being bussed up here for the sunset. Elsewhere in the country, I've seen hardly any tourists but then this is Syria’s principal tourist attraction. Fortunately, as becomes apparent next day, it is also so large that it often gives the impression that I have the entire place to myself.

Palmyra is vast. It covers about 10 square kilometres and, unlike other important Syrian sites, no development has taken place on top of it over thousands of years. The modern town of Tadmur sits adjacent to it, although my excellent and good value hotel, the Zenobia Cham Palace, is quite sensitively sited right on the edge of the ruins and provides a wonderful dining experience overlooking the floodlit colonnades.

I spend the evening with my Bedouin fixer and guide, Mohammed, who shows me the best spots and eventually takes me to his cousin’s restaurant, Mohammed’s Restaurant, in Tadmur’s main street. There is an authentic Bedouin tent on the roof of the kitchen, where we eat traditional, and delicious, mansaf (lamb stew with yoghurt and rice) with our fingers (although forks were available),while sitting cross-legged or, in my case, stretched out like a Roman emperor. This wonderful meal for two costs me about US$15.

Among the ruins

The next day I am up before dawn to catch the morning light with my camera, and am quite surprised to find others have the same idea. But there is so much to see, it is of no concern. Because this is an open site, there is no entrance fee apart from one or two specific places, such as the tombs or the amphitheatre, to which entrance can be controlled. Indeed, it is so open a site that the locals use it as a short cut on their motorbikes, to avoid the cobbles of the main road that runs around it. There are no car parks in the formal sense, so cars can be driven and abandoned close to where the driver wishes to go.

The tombs are massive affairs - many generations of families were entombed in ‘pods’ on various levels, which makes them resemble 30ft-high filing cabinets for rich dead folk. And there are so many of them. The amphitheatre is impressive, albeit quite small. Apparently, in Roman times this was the scene of various bizarre activities involving both human beings and wild animals. It has been well restored and is now used again today for more conventional entertainments during special events in the town.

The centre of the site consists of various impressive ruins and running throughout are  colonnaded streets or avenues. All are amazingly well preserved, despite the perceived lack of formal controls that we have come to expect in UK sites such as Stonehenge or Bath’s Roman baths.

At the eastern end of the main site is the Sanctuary of Bel. This temple is huge and inside it rather resembles a vast building site, with Roman stones and columns scattered liberally around, ready for someone with the skills of an expert jigsaw-puzzler to work out where they all feature in the grand scale of things and put them back together again.

No visit to Palmyra would be complete without a trip to the museum. Although much of the most important material from the site has been removed to Damascus, London, Paris or New York, there is still so much available that this very human scale museum has a fascinating display of artefacts going back way before the Romans pitched up in the area. This being Syria, some of the interpretation could be improved upon, but it is still a really worthwhile visit, allowing you to see at close quarters just how much fun the excavators and archaeologists must have had over their many years of work.

Palmyra is rightly known as the 'pearl of the desert'. It has been at the centre of so much vital trade, which 2,000 years ago opened up the Orient and Asia to Europeans. Today, it is still regarded as the premier site to visit in Syria and although there are larger sites and older ones, it is still the most impressive.

John Gaye

I have three great enthusiasms- writing, photography and travel. Thus being a freelance travel writer and photographer and contributing to magazines and newspapers both in the UK and abroad seems to my friends hardly to be work, apart of course from the time spent in airports, in cataloguing my images or having to wait for hours for that special light in some remote landscape. I have in my past also been a soldier, a land agent and a farmer. My enthusiasm is for independent travel in the less visited places of the world. Deserts and jungles are very special to me but then so also is much of the UK, particularly my home county of Dorset. Why not read more about me on my website at which also includes my blog.