“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…