After 16 centuries the caravans are coming again to Palmyra.
They are not the caravans of old—composed of heavily-laden camels stalking ponderously over the Syrian desert with the silks and spices of the East. They are made up of automobiles and buses speeding swiftly across the sands from Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Instead of the treasures of the East they carry visitors from the West—visitors anxious to see and explore the ruins of what, for a short time 1,600 years ago, was the central city of one of the most powerful states in the Middle East and the greatest of the "caravan cities" that rose along the ancient trade routes.
Palmyra—the "City of the Palms"—was the name given by the Romans to a small oasis village called Tadmor. The village had been founded about 2000 B.C. and for a thousand years had existed in peaceful obscurity. Sometime between 972 and 932 B.C. the famous King Solomon recognized its strategic and economic potential—it lay on the shortest possible route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean—and began to pour money into fortifications and expansion. With the rise of Rome and Parthia, Palmyra, conveniently located between them, began a swift climb to prominence as the point where the two hostile powers could peacefully exchange goods. Later Palmyra was taken under the Roman wing as a tributary state, became, under the Emperor Hadrian, a "free city" and, in 212, achieved the preferred status of "colony," which meant that Palmyra was regarded as a trusted friend and, perhaps more importantly, could profit substantially from its flourishing trade with China and the Indies. It became a commercial and financial center of great importance and a city of 30,000 inhabitants known throughout the region for fine temples, roads and villas.
In the latter half of the third century, however, things changed. Zenobia, the famous Arab queen, an intelligent, beautiful and, above all, ambitious, woman, came to power and unwisely challenged Rome by sending her armies to conquer Mesopotamia, Syria and, with Zenobia herself leading them, even Egypt. Emboldened by success, she proclaimed her son an emperor, a step that soon brought Roman legions to Palmyra's gates to capture her, crush her armies and reduce Palmyra to the status of a Roman garrison.
Zenobia's rule marked the apex of Palmyran glory. With her defeat and exile—to a pleasant pensioned life in Rome—Palmyra began to decline. As the years went by the city was shaken by the collapse of its caravan trade and then by the subsequent fall of the Roman Empire itself. The city knew moderate prosperity under the Muslims but after the 15th century, when savage Mongols under Tamerlane sacked it, and after several earthquakes, it slipped into obscurity and vanished under the sands, its only inhabitants a few farmers and some Bedouins who made their camp in what once had been the great court of the temple of Baal.
Today's visitors are usually surprised by Palmyra. Lulled by the monotonous miles of desert—it is more than 200 miles from both Damascus and Aleppo—they are seldom ready when, without warning, a line of 150 funerary towers 70 feet high breaks into the horizon. These towers, located in Palmyra's Valley of the Tombs, are one of three kinds of structures built by the Palmyrans for their dead. The other two are underground mausoleums and temple tombs, one-story structures above the ground.
The funerary towers mark the location of the city, but visitors soon realize that there is much more to see. Spread out on an arid plateau that tilts toward a range of low hills nearby, Palmyra's ruins comprise a vast area of broken stone and heaps of fragments in which, clearly, there once stood a city of remarkable beauty. In a large square court, 200 by 210 yards square, stands the great temple to the Babylonian God, Baal, that was built in the first century and has, at various times, served both as a Christian church and a mosque. Not far from the Hotel Zenobia, where visitors to Palmyra can stay, is a smaller but much more beautiful and better preserved temple that was dedicated to Baal-Shamin, a god of Phoenician origin. The beginning of what was once Palmyra's main boulevard is marked by a huge triumphal arch halfway between the two temples. The boulevard itself, 1,200 yards long by 12 yards wide, is lined with 150 splendid Corinthian columns, each 28½ feet high, the remnants of the original 375 columns which marked the boulevard and one of the most striking of the antiquities of the Middle East. It was on to those same columns that desert chieftains, in 1813, attached brackets to hold hundreds of lovely Arab dancing girls as a spectacular welcome to the famous Lady Hester Stanhope.
Off the boulevard are the ruins of other public places and buildings: the public square, once decorated with busts and statues of Very Important Palmyrans; a theater—unusual in that it was built in the heart of the city rather than on the outskirts, as was the practice—and the sites of houses and villas. There are also the remains of a military camp built by Diocletian in the 3rd century and an aqueduct built by Justinian in the 6th century.
Palmyra has been ranked by many experts as one of the two most exciting sights in the Middle East, the other being Petra. It may well be. With its location in the midst of the empty desert, beneath the ruins of a castle built by a 17th-century Lebanese amir, it is a sight to recall many times after the towering columns have vanished over the horizon and the new caravans have returned to the cities from which they came.
Jan van Os is a staff writer for Aramco World.