My bus casually rolls through Palmyra, an ancient town lying against a backdrop of a fertile oasis and Roman ruins dating back centuries. It’s located in Syria’s central desert and flies the flag to a prosperous history as a major caravan stop along the Silk Road trade route.
My bus chugs up a steep incline, makes a quick u-turn and unexpectedly stops. Passengers, who are just as bright-eyed as I am, are instructed to walk the remaining stretch to reach the cliff-face alongside Qalaat Shirkuh, or Palmyra Castle, before the sun quickly disappears. I race to the Castle, clamber across rough boulders and face the horizon. The setting sun paints a stark palate of pink and orange across the sky.
I set off to locate the entrance to Palmyra Castle and become overwhelmed by an imposing, almost forbidding tone in the air. I wander through towering corridors and stumble over cobblestones where horses and caravans once stood. I arrive at the Castle’s higher-most sanctum to experience a windswept view. I seat myself on the outer walls and I feel small and vulnerable by the sheer drop below. I survey the Valley of the Tombs. Dusty towering tombs stick up from the desert sand to capture the last slice of sunlight before disappearing eerily into darkness. Their blackened portholes hide the stories of deceased souls who were laid to rest inside so many centuries before.
Gritty wind bites at my heels as I make my way back to the Monumental Arch of Palmyra’s Roman Gate. Prolific golden columns stand above me as I look high to view the crumbling arch and a smattering of stars across the sky. I can hear the sound of palm trees rustling in the breeze and I start to conger up a vision of what the street ahead might’ve been like in its heyday. Caravans would’ve rolled along Main Street to unload precious cargo of aromatic spices, perfumes or frankincense. By day, the street may have been the epicenter of Palmyra trade; a rambunctious scene of travellers as they assert their wares and prices onto the ever-keen bargaining prowess of Palmyrene society over hospitable glasses of strong tea. By dusk, camels would be kneeling in the sand as traders bunker down next to an open fire. Weather-beaten scarves would be strategically wrapped over their heads to protect faces from sand in the air. Weary traders would discuss their day of successful sales and whether their optimistic stop in Palmyra resulted in prosperity.
In the afternoon Palmyra heat, I experienced the antiquity of this remote city. Yet, by night, I achieved something subliminal. In my mind, I transported myself to another time, drank welcome tea, haggled for highly-prized spices and wiped the desert dust from my eyes like Silk Road traders did many moons ago.
J de Jonge