This is a piece adapted from something I wrote for a travel writing competition; and lost. So, since they are not sharing it, I will. While I could write thousands of words on my love for Palmyra, my fear for its destruction, and my concern for its inhabitants, this is only a very short extract of my thoughts.
Should the unreachable be forgotten? As of 2010 it has not been possible to visit Palmyra. As of last week the city has been under threat of destruction. Perhaps next week it will be gone forever. Dramatic, yes, but bear with me, I have a story to tell.
Social media has exploded in a debate of ruins versus people; and both sides have excellent arguments. What is the point of convincing anyone of the breath-taking beauty of this ancient metropolis? And I do mean breath-taking. Once a meeting point of civilisations, Palmyra now lies abandoned in the middle of the Syrian desert. I am certain the point is to remember. Travelling has many definitions and physical presence is not always a requirement. So, travel with my words now:
While the dry air might feel hot, beware the fine desert sand is the true challenge. It is the kind of hot that will genuinely burn bare feet, so please do not wear flip-flops. Better to walk on the magnificent marble road which remains amidst its Roman colonnades. It is never truly busy, which means it is possible to hear the muted echo of your footsteps on the stones. This is my favourite sound in the whole world; while Pompeii is ok and Petra is fantastic, the sound of Palmyra beats everything else. Columns stand tall on either side, bearing not only bi, but tri-lingual declarations. On the outside the town appears conventionally Hellenised; however, the peculiar grave towers of the Necropolis and the Assyrian adornments on the astonishing Temple of Bell betray a mysterious mix of cultures. It is no wonder that this city once defended itself as an Empire – even if it was only for a few short years. Palmyra has survived destruction more than once already.
For now, I leave it at this summary. I can write a novel about those inscriptions (and in fact, other people already have). So, what about transport? Palmyra is only reach-able by car (and technically by foot or camel of course, but good luck). Accommodation? There is not much choice (but a very fancy ‘hotel Zenobia’ which I can obviously only endorse). However, for food I have two recommendations. The first is the restaurant across from the museum, which kindly served ‘masluka batates’ (boiled potatoes) in aid of the food poisoning that had traveled with me from Damascus. The second is the Palmyra Pancake House, whose lemon pancakes I am still trying to re-create. I cannot tell whether it is the desert heat, my general love for Palmyra, or simply great cooking; but the balance of sweet and sour strongly resonates in my taste-buds. The entire restaurant is adorned with pictures from visitors, and flags; the staff welcome newcomers and always have time to chat. They gave me a picture, which still hangs on my noticeboard in-between a poster of the Library of Alexandria and Petra ad-Dayr. It reads ‘1922’. If anything, I sincerely hope that these places and their owners will rise from the ruins once more. I will let you know if and when they do, so you can hear your steps on those stones, and taste those lemon pancakes.
Way back in 1877 L. Double wrote about Palmyra too – and I know this, because it is sticky-taped to the wall besides my desk: “… and there is nothing to be heard but the sand which cries beneath our feet, and the wind which moans afar among the ruins, […] it is then that a man feels himself to be small and, despite himself, meditates on the presence of that mighty ruin as on a mighty sorrow.”