08.04.2010 - 09.04.2010 25 °C
My next stop in Syria, was Palmyra, an ancient Aramaic city about 215 km northeast of Damascus and only about 120 km from the Iraqi border.
Typical desert landscape along the road from Damascus to Palmyra
The ruins of the ancient city are right next to a newer town of the same name, and it is here where all the hotels, restaurants and stores are located. After jumping off the bus I went directly to a budget hotel recommended to me by an American guy who I'd met in Damascus. Unfortunately, the American guy had been there a couple of weeks before I arrived and since then the high season had started so the amount he had payed for a single room had jumped from 400 to 1500 Syrian Pounds (NZ$ 13 to 47) - that's quite a hike! As I stood at reception considering my options, a young German guy walked in who also received the bad news. He had already been to a few hotels in the area and the prices there had been similar. At this point the hotel owner suggested we might share a twin room thus we could go halvesies. After a brief chat, we both agreed and decided to check-in.
Bed at hotel room in Palmyra - And the prize for the ugliest headboard goes to...
Now the German guy, who I learnt was called Chris, got his second shock of the day: there are no ATMs in Palmyra (quite ridiculous considering it is one of the prime tourist destinations in Syria). He had enough cash for the room but not much left over to live on or even for transport out of Palmyra. The hotel owner told Chris that his only option was to pay a visit to his friend down the road who ran a souvenir store and there he could use his credit card to get a cash advance for a "small" undisclosed fee. We both headed over to the store and Chris was able to get some cash but not without paying an extortionate 20% fee for the privilege.
A slight altercation took place while Chris was getting his money - as the man entered the amount Chris wanted into the credit card machine, he made what appeared to be joke about entering ten times the amount. From where Chris was standing, he could see the screen and the amount on the screen did seem to indicate that the man wasn't joking after all. At this point Chris told him he didn't think it was very funny and that he better cancel the transaction. The man didn't do anything and just started smiling so Chris reached over him and tried to press the cancel button himself but the man blocked him and said, "It's ok, it's ok". Chris did eventually manage to hit the cancel button but it was too late because the transaction had already gone through. After Chris reviewed the receipt, it turned out that the amount was correct. Strangely enough, even though I suspected that Chris was almost ready to punch the guy in the face, the man was still smiling, perhaps not quite understanding how annoyed Chris had been.
After this strange little episode we headed across the road to a restaurant for a late lunch. Not long after we sat down the man from the souvenir store also came over and handed Chris his credit card which he had accidentally left behind. It was good to see the man was nice enough to return it despite him being an extortionist with a strange sense of humour.
After eating, we headed over to the ruins so we could wander around while it was still daylight and be there at sunset, which according to Lonely Planet, is one of the best times to experience Palmyra.
It was nice to see (for once) that there was no entry fee and no opening times to see the ruins (though three of the sites within the ruined city do require a small fee). Chris was only staying in Palmyra one night, so we headed straight to the Temple of Bel which is the largest and most intact buildings in Palmyra. The Temple of Bel is a large complex consisting of a large walled courtyard with the cella (the temple proper) at its center.
The corner wall surrounding the huge courtyard at the Temple of Bel
The cella at the Temple of Bel
The doorway of the cella and one of the local residents at the Temple of Bel
We were treated to an unobstructed view of the Temple of Bel with only a handful of other tourists wandering the area - it was perfect timing because not long after we left, a couple of buses arrived carrying tour groups and they immediately swarmed the area.
Not far from the Temple of Bel was the Monumental Arch which is the gateway to the Great Colonnade.
The Monumental Arch at the start of the Great Colonnade
The Qala'at ibn Maan (citadel) on hill top taken from the Great Colonnade
Sunset behind the Tetrapylon
After the glow of sunset had diminished, we headed back into town to hunt down dinner. The restaurants in the main street were predictably pricey, and a bit of a problem for Chirs who only had limited funds. We decided to walk a few blocks away from the main touristy area in search for food that would be more reasonable. It wasn't long before we found a small local restaurant and we ordered some shawarmas. Shawarmas are a fast-food staple across the Middle East. They come in the form of a sandwhich wrap (usually pita bread) and can contain most types of meat and salad. In Syria they generally contain chicken, salad, chips (french fries) and large doses of mayonaise.
Earlier, when we were leaving the ruins, we'd noticed that some men were setting up some lights around the columns of the Great Colonnade so after dinner we headed back to check out what they looked like all lit up. Only the Monumental Arch and a few columns along the Great Colonnade were lit up, and they did look impressive but it was quite difficult to get good photos.
The Monumental Arch by night
The next day, Chris left Palmyra early in the morning, but I had always intended to stay a couple of nights so unfortunately I had to bear the entire brunt of paying 1500 SP for the hotel room. It was definitely worth staying though because the ruins cover a huge area and there were lots of parts that I hadn't explored the day before. I spent most of the day wandering the ruins by myself trying to stay away from the crowds - which not difficult because everything was so spread out.
The Towers of Yemliko
At the end of the Great Colonnade, near the Funerary Temple, I came across a little girl who tried to sell me a keffiyeh (checkered head scarf). She was very smiley and didn't bother me too much after I told her I didn't want to buy one. She even posed for a photo without asking for money which was good because I didn't have any small change on me that day.
Bedouin girl selling keffiyehs
As I arrived at the Funerary Temple I spotted a Bedouin family sitting on the steps, selling trinkets and other souvenirs. The man walked up to me and persistently offered to pose for a photo. I told him, "No thank you. Have no money. No backsheesh" (Backsheesh means tip/bribe and is actually from Egypt but the word is known throughout the Middle East). So he says, "Ok" and proceeds to pose. I try to make make sure he understands. "No backsheesh. No backsheesh. Ok?", He responds with, "Ok. No backsheesh", but still he proceeds to pose for a photo. You can probably guess the first thing he did after I took his photo. He extends his hand out and says, "Backsheesh?". I smiled and walked away. I wasn't even being cheap, it's like I mentioned before, I really didn't have small change with me.
Bedouin man about to demand backshees at the Funerary Temple
I don't know how many kilometers I walked that day, but it was a lot and I didn't get out of there until it was just about dark. My problem was that every direction that my eyes gazed, looked like a prime photo opportunity. The place was truly impressive at sunset as the light illuminated the columns with a rose-orange tint. I had to stop myself from taking photos after a while otherwise I would have filled my camera with hundreds of similar shots that would have somehow diminished the experience. I'll let the photos do the talking for a while...
A view of Palmyra from tower near the Funerary Temple - You can see the ring of palm trees in the background (Palmyra was built within a desert oasis) - The large structure in the background is the Temple of Bel and the row of columns at the center is the Great Colonnade
Agora (market and meeting place) at sunset
Theatre seen from entrance archway
The Great Colonnade at sunset
Sunset over columns in Palmyra
And so my journey through Palmyra had ended. The place was amazing and due to the large area that it covers, it was never difficult to get away from the tourist crowds which mostly congregated around the Temple of Bel and the Monumental Arch.
I walked out of the ruins just as hundreds of Syrians started pouring in. It was Friday and in the Middle East that is their day of prayers so it's basically like Saturday in the west. It appears as though the ruins were a popular family picknicking spot for the locals during Friday evenings and they were definitely out in force that day.
One strange thing I noticed as I was walking, was that there are lots of ginger haired people in Palmyra - actually, there were lots of ginger haired people in Syria in general - which is not something you'd expect to see in an Arab country.
Well, once again I had been wowed by the Middle East and it was time to get moving again.
Until the next episode!