Watching the sun set over the vast ruins of Palmyra, an ancient wonder miles from anywhere, in the middle of the Syrian desert, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience
Mounting one of a million strewn pieces of broken column scattered about the site, we gazed out over the Palmyra ruins in wonder, struck by their sheer size and beauty. Situated next to an oasis of palm trees, the original city and its inhabitants benefited richly from the many caravans travelling through on the Silk Route and later from Roman occupation.
From the majestic monumental arch at the entranceway to the main colonnaded street, the site stretched out in front of us for as far as the eye could see. Thousands of years ago, this was a huge town, but today the only reminder of civilisation is the small township of the same name that exists beside the ruins, supported by the tourism industry. The modern town is ringed by lush palm tree groves, where many local people live in properties surrounded by traditional mud-brick walls.
We set off exploring by entering the large complex of the Temple of Bel (to the side of the main site), where worship of three gods (Babylonian, Greek and Roman) took place at different times in its history. Its columns and walls were huge, and it was easy to imagine worshippers entering the dark, incense-soaked air of the inner chamber. Next, we strolled down the Great Colonnade (the main street), with large columns either side, where ancient Palmyrians would have walked and gone about their daily lives. Taking a left turn from the Colonnade we entered the theatre of Palmyra, taking a seat and gazing down upon the beautiful stage façade, lit up prettily in the evening light.
Early next morning, we got up early and set off across the site for a hike around the Valley of the Tombs, a complex of grave towers dotted across the low-lying hills behind the main site. One in particular, the enormous Tower of Elahbel, was strangely eerie on entering. Stretching up four floors, it held a large series of empty compartments in a grid pattern, where the sarcophagus of a dead individual would have been slid in beside a deceased family member. The view from the top of the tower across the valley was quite spectacular.
To escape the heat in the middle of the day, we visited the Palmyra Museum and saw hundreds of funerary tombstone heads with uncanny portraits of the dead. In the late afternoon, we finished our visit by taking a taxi up the hill to Qala'at ibn Maan, a Muslim fortress that has stood overlooking the ancient ruins of Palmyra for hundreds of years. From this vantage point, we watched the ruins below turn a rosy shade of pink as the sun set - a romantic way to conclude our time in Palmyra.
Top tips for Palmyra
- One and a half days (two nights) is enough time to visit the whole site. We saw the main bit of the ruins on the first afternoon (about five hours walking through it all) and walked to the tombs (across the main site to the hillside) the next morning. We then returned through the ruins again for a third time in the afternoon, on the way back from the tombs.
- The best time to see the ruins is in the early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is not so strong and the site is quiet.
- If you are interested in seeing the Tower of Elabel, on the hillside behind the main site (about a one-hour walk), turn up at about 10am (the same time the official museum tour turns up) and you can buy tickets there for 75 SYP.
- The taxi to Qala'at ibn Maan for sunset is about 300 SYP or less for the return trip (spending one and a half hours up there).
Take a bus from the Harasta bus terminal (also known as the Pullman Terminal) in Damascus to Palmyra. The journey will take around three hours. The bus stops on the outskirts of Palmyra, outside a large pink hotel, so you will need to get local transport the rest of the way (about five minutes - 30-50 SYP is fair).
Where to stay
Opting for a central location, we booked into the Ishtar Hotel, a moderately priced place in the middle of town. Our ensuite double with breakfast cost US$30 per night (about 1380 SYP). The Ishtar offered online booking through Hostelworld, which made it convenient. A friendly reception guy met us at the door and prepared us a quick lunch of hummus, tomato and cucumber salad, and bread, while we waited briefly for our room (which was clean, tidy and modern).
Where to eat
Casa Mia Restaurant & Hotel, a relatively new restaurant in town, was a surprise find in the backstreets off the main street. The camel steak was a deliciously meaty and spicy dish; the stuffed courgettes were also pretty good. Prices range from 250-400 SYP per person.
The Traditional Palmyra Restaurant (Main Street, front of Hotel Villa Palmyra; 591 08 78), located a block down from the Ishtar Hotel, is another good choice. It offered a strange lemonade drink covered in mint, which was very refreshing in the intense heat. The restaurant served a good range of grilled lamb, chicken and beef dishes. It also seemed to specialise as a type of pancake house. Prices range from 250-300 SYP per person.