Syria“Not been to Palmyra?” said my friend with incredulity. “How long have you been coming to Syria?” I muttered something inaudible and left trying to hide my embarrassment. I had travelled all over this beautiful country but had never visited its most important historical site. With an empty weekend approaching, I had no excuse this time.

Two days later, we leave the swarming suburbs of Damascus behind us and veer eastwards towards the Syrian Desert, a vast expanse of uninhabitable land. A road sign indicates Palmyra, Deir ez Zhor and Iraq and the landscape suddenly changes to scrubland and high plateaux. A vast limestone steppe stretches to the horizon. The road is remarkably quiet with only a few, heavily laden trucks heading for the border.

Mention Syria to most people and they immediately think of “ axis of evil” and a cold, dangerous and hostile state run by fanatics. Mention Iraq, and there is a look of total shock and horror. Put the two together and most people think that you’re mad to even consider visiting Damascus let alone venture forth into the barren desert anywhere near Iraq.

I turn to my driver and ask if the road is secure.

He nods, smiles and clenches my hand.

“Everything fine. Syria, very safe country.”

We pass an intersection and a small group of tourists have stopped under a sign pointing to the right “ Iraq 140 kms “ and are having their photographs taken, scarfs wrapped around their faces. The local police look on and smile. We turn north.

“Need to stop?“ asks the driver.

I nod, as a small cluster of buildings appears in the distance followed by a sign “Bagdad Café.” Memories of Percy Adlon’s film set in the Mojave Desert come to mind and I expect Jack Palance to appear from one of the old caravans behind the café with Marianne Sagebrecht performing her magic tricks.

They say that the Syrians lack entrepreneurial skills but here in one of the remotest spots in Syria, the owner had built a thriving business. Tea is served in small glasses with mountains of sugar. Warm bowls of foul and plates of hummus, yalange, labni and baba ghannouj appear and the smell of hot, unleavened bread permeates the tiny restaurant at the back of the building.

Most importantly of all, the toilets are clean and hygienic. No holes in the floor, no flies, no open bins stuffed with used toilet paper and an electronic dryer. Sheer luxury. We leave as a cavalcade of coaches suddenly arrive, disgorging an array of Japanese, Italian and German tourists with their cameras snapping at anything that moves.

One hour later, the skyline changes from brown to green and we approach the town of Tadmor with the ancient ruins of Palmyra straddling the side of the road. Palmyra reached its zenith under Queen Zenobia, immortalised for her stunning beauty and bravery in defeating the Romans and extending her Empire to the Mediterranean and modern day Jordan and Egypt. Her victory, however, was short-lived and the Roman response left the city devastated and Zenobia carried off to Rome in chains, paraded in front of its baying citizens and eventually committing suicide.

Its rapid decline into obscurity only came to an end in the 19th century when it was rediscovered and became a focal point for ardent tourists willing to take the 4-day trek there.

You cannot help but admire the beauty of the place set alongside an oasis filled with date palms and understand why it became a flourishing caravan city linking the Roman Empire with Syria and Mesopotamia in the East. Its beautifully preserved Sanctuary of Bel, the long colonnaded streets leading to the roman amphitheatre and the ancient tombs all conjure up an image of a thriving desert city.

But to really appreciate it, you need to drive up to the castle –Qalat ibn Maab –dominating the skyline. From its parapets, you really grasp the scale and magnitude of the place. Vast deserts stretch out before you; small, elevated tombs emerge from the hillsides and the imposing impregnability of the place conjures up images of Saladin’s army rebuffing the advance of the Crusaders intent on recapturing the Holy Land.

We leave as the intensity of the sun softens and join a convoy of 4wheel drives filled with families and ladened with furniture, suitcases, washing machines and TVs.

“Iraqis.” says the driver.“ Syria welcomes all. 3 million in Damascus. We are very kind people.“

The outline of the city emerges in the distance as he suddenly swerves to the right. Ahead of us are group of men dancing with her arms interlocked around their shoulders. They perform a sort of shuffle and turn in a circle shouting and stamping. Nearby, a group of young girls in brightly coloured dresses clap in rhythm and wail loudly.

“A wedding,“ says the driver, unfastening his seatbelt.“Come!”

We hesitate not wanting to intrude. A large face appears by the window, toothless and smiling and beckons us forward. We get out and are surrounded by a mass of young boys and elders who wave us towards some chairs. They point at my camera and line up in front of me.  They blink as the flash hits their eyes and laugh loudly as their image appears on the screen. The leader points towards the young girls but they run inside and hide from view.

The circling continues, hot tea and cakes are served and we are asked to stay for the wedding feast. We decline despite their protestations and move to leave. All shake our hands, stand together for one last photograph and then escort us to the car. They wave and clap loudly; the men resume their dancing and we set off on our final leg to Damascus glistening in the early evening light.

“ Ma’a salama,“ they all shout,”

“ God go with you. “

© Graham Walker 2012