THE BRIDE OF DESERT, Palmyra, Syria
Khaled al-Asaad, the most renowned archaeological expert on Palmyra, has devoted his whole life studying, promoting and protecting the ancient city. Spent 40 years (1963 – retirement in 2003) as the head of antiquities and main custodian of Palmyra, the 82-year-old archaeological consultant played a major role in evacuating the content of the city museum as Palmyra was fallen into the hands of ISIS. He was captured by the terrorist group, interrogated for a month on the whereabouts of hidden golden artefacts, refusing to give in despite brutal tortures, and beheaded publicly by the ISIS at the museum square. His mutilated body was then brought to the ruins and hung from one of the Roman columns. Asaad was loyal to his passion and destiny until his very last breath. In his decades long career, Asaad organized archaeological expeditions in Palmyra, worked with different archaeological missions from around the world, curated exhibitions of Palmyrene artefacts, and promoted Palmyra to become a UNESCO’s World Heritage site.
Literally means “city of palms”, Palmyra was often referred to as the Bride of the Desert. For ancient caravans, Palmyra was a vital stop along the Silk Road. Palmyra lies on an ancient trade route between Homs and Dura-Europos. From Homs merchants could go further west to Tyre, a large Lebanese port city connected to the Mediterranean; and from Dura-Europos, trade routes would extend eastwards along the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf, where access to the Indian Ocean and China could be made. Palmyra gained significance after the Nabatean Empire collapsed in AD 106, where earlier trade routes between Arabia and the Mediterranean would converge in Petra. In the first century AD, Palmyra became part of the Roman Empire and one of the wealthiest cities in Near East. Palmyra was named by the Roman Empire a “free city” with tax exemptions for trading. Merchants of Palmyra flourished along the Silk Road and in the Roman Empire, bringing a large amount of wealth back for construction projects. The desert oasis became a melting pot of cultures from east and west due to international trading. Art and architecture of Palmyra blended influences from Greece and the Roman Enpire in the west and Persia and further beyond in the east into its unique culture. In the 3rd century AD, Queen Zenobia conquered parts of the Eastern Roman Empire and established the short-lived Palmyrene Empire. The legacy of ancient Palmyra is such an important world heritage that its cruel destruction by the ISIS was particularly painful to see.
Given the severe damages to the site, unstable security conditions in the region and the constant risk of landmines, it could take many years before the World Heritage Site can regain its former popularity as Syria’s top tourist attraction. In 2006, we spent a fine morning at the archaeological site of Palmyra. To avoid the desert heat, we get up 05:30 in the morning, and left Citadel Hotel to spend three hours in the ruins, checking out its temples, colonnade, theatre, road intersection, etc. We left the ruins at 08:45, and headed to the post office to send postcards. We dropped by the Palmyra Museum to see the mummies, and stood outside Pancake House to wait for our prearranged transportation for the closest bus station. To our surprise a pickup truck came instead of a mini-van. We all sat down at the back of the truck for a 5-minute journey in the desert. The truck dropped us off at a local tea-house, where we hopped on a regional bus bounded for Damascus. After 3.5 hours we finally arrived at the renowned Syrian capital, Damascus.
Built in 3rd century AD, the Funerary Temple no. 86 was the only tomb erected inside the ancient city.
Beyond Funerary Temple no. 86, the majestic Palmyra Citadel or Tadmur Castle stood proudly above the horizon. Despite severely damaged, the castle is considered repairable by the Syrian government.
In 1950s, the Roman Theatre of Palmyra was cleared of sand and extensively restored. Before the civil war, the theatre would host folk music concerts during the annual Palmyra Festival.
Labelled as a “war crime” by the UNESCO, the magnificent central proscenium was purposely damaged during the ISIS occupation.
In 27th of May 2015, the ISIS used the theatre stage to execute 25 captives.
Adjacent to the Roman Theatre stood the Senate Building.
Outside of the Senate Building stood the Tetrapylon. Further down the Great Colonnade, the 13th century citadel overlooked the entire ancient city from a distance.
Palmyra contains all kinds of components of ancient Roman architecture.
Exquisitely carved portico could still be visible at a number of buildings.
Tetrapylon is a type of Roman monument built on a crossroads. The Palmyra Tetrapylon was once the icon of the ancient city.
Unfortunately, during the second ISIS occupation in 2017, out of the four groups of pillars two were completely destroyed and the other two severely damaged.
The 1.1km Great Colonnade is also another iconic feature of Palmyra.
Named by UNESCO as one of the Palmyra’s most complete structure in 1980, the Temple of Baalshamin was blown up by detonating a large quantity of explosives inside the temple by the ISIS in August 2015.
The Roman Arch of Septimius Severus or the Monumental Arch was also destroyed by ISIS with dynamite in October 2015.
After the Syrian government recaptured the city, plans were made to restore the Monumental Arch.
Based on a 3D model from Oxford University, a 6.1m replica of the arch was carved in Italy and temporarily installed in London’s Trafalgar Square, then New York, Geneva, Washington DC, Dubai, and finally back to Syria to commemorate its existence before its brutal destruction.
Built in the 3rd century, the ruined Monumental Arch was restored in the 1930s and soon became one of the main highlights for the visit of Palmyra.
TOMB TOWERS & TEMPLE OF BEL, Palmyra, Syria
Deep in the Syria Desert stood one of the most splendid cities in the ancient world. Due to its strategic location on the Silk Road with Persia, India and China on one side, and the Roman and Greek world on the other, Palmyra was a significant cultural and economic hub in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. In 273 AD, Palmyra was razed to the ground by the Romans, and had never fully recovered since then. The archaeological wealth from the ancient city was Syria’s most prominent tourist attraction and UNESCO’s World Heritage site. Palmyra faced its biggest nightmare in May 2015, when the ISIS launched a huge offensive attack to capture the desert oasis. Between mid 2015 to March 2016, Palmyra was controlled under the notorious terrorists when precious treasures and artefacts were looted or destroyed. The Temple of Bel, Temple of Baalshamin, seven Tomb Towers including the Tower of Elahbel, and the Monumental Arch were blown up to pieces. Uncounted artefacts were looted and smuggled into the black market. Archaeologists were beheaded. Before they were forced out by the government army, ISIS planted thousands of landmines and bombs in the ruined city. On 15th April, 2020, two children were killed by a landmine in Palmyra, four years after the ISIS was driven out. Despite the de-mining effort since 2016, Palmyra remains a dangerous place to visit and an endangered World Heritage site seven years in a row. Memories of our 2006 visit seems so far far away:
At around 14:30 we finally arrived at Palmyra, the ancient desert metropolis since the times of Alexander the Great. We checked in at Citadel Hotel. The hotel staff arranged a car for our visit to the funeral towers. The staff asked if we wanted to hire a car to visit the tomb towers. At the village museum we bought the admission tickets for the tomb towers, and sardined ourselves (6 of us) in the little red car for the journey.
Our hired guide from the museum waited for us at the entrance of the Tower of Elahbel. He told us some history of the towers, unlocked the door of Tower of Elahbel and led us in. Many tomb towers in the valley were badly damaged by earthquakes throughout the centuries. The Tower of Elahbel was an exception. Inside we could see the slots on the walls where coffins were once placed. We walked up to the third level, saw a number of sculpted busts of the deceased, and the beautiful fresco of stars and constellations on the ceiling. After, we visited an underground tomb with well preserved frescoes. I was able to recognize scenes of the Trojan War with Achilles and Odysseus from one of the wall paintings.
After the necropolis, we moved on to visit the Temple of Bel. It was the largest building in Palmyra, and one of the largest temples in the Classical world. Bel was the main god of Babylon. The temple was erected in the first century, with influences from Classical Greece and Rome, Ptolemaic Egypt, and ancient Syria. We walked through the main gate into a huge courtyard that was once surrounded by Corinthian colonnades. At the centre stands the ruined Sanctuary of Bel, where we could admire the exquisite relief carving of the ruined building.
Tomb towers at Palmyra are unique examples of Classical necropolis. Some tower tombs dated back to the Hellenistic period. Most were found in the Valley of the Tombs below Umm al-Bilqis Hill.
Inside the towers, dead bodies were placed on landings and stacked stone shelves, marked with a sculptural bust.
Before its brutal destruction in August 2015 by the ISIS, the Tower of Elahbel was a great place to learn about funeral architecture of Palmyra. Inside the tower there was a narrow staircase reaching the upper floors.
Some of the larger towers could hold up to 400 corpses. Chinese silk yarns dated to 1st century AD were discovered in the tomb towers, revealing the evidence of Silk Road trading two thousand years ago.
The Temple of Bel was the largest ancient temple complex in the Middle East. Built upon pre Roman temples, the Temple of Bel was founded in 32 AD. The temple was later converted into a church and then a mosque.
Most of the Temple of Bel has been blown up by the ISIS. Now it has become a large pile of rubble.
Magnificent carving of the temple are probably gone even if archaeologists can restore the general structure of the building.
Walking around the enormous temple complex was a great pleasure.
Ceiling details were particularly well preserved at the Temple of Bel.
Beautiful relief and rows of Corinthian columns once stood in the temple courtyard.
Some of the relief carving of the central sanctuary were on display in the temple courtyard.
Handsome Classical columns stood proudly in the courtyard before the destruction.
Our guide gave us a little talk on the temple’s history at the courtyard.
Outside the temple walls, we could see the palm trees east of the ruined city.
Along with sone other destroyed buildings, the government is planning to restore the Temple of Bel using original materials from the existing debris.
At last, our little red car drove us up to the citadel behind the ruins of Palmyra, where we could watch the sunset. The citadel also suffered major destruction by the ISIS.
Up at the citadel we could fully appreciate the scale of the barren landscape in all directions.
Seven Tomb Towers are lost forever.
The Temple of Bel, the enormous walled complex east of the Great Colonnade of Palmyra, was almost completely destroyed by the ISIS. As satellite images showed, there was hardly anything standing at the Temple of Bel.
BEEHIVE HOUSES OF TWALID DABAGHEIN, Syrian Desert, Syria
In February 2017, an Reuter’s article covered the story of displaced Syrians staying at Aleppo’s Jibreen shelter. Coming from “beehive” villages in the countryside, these villagers fled their home when their villages were sandwiched between the forces of Assad’s government and the ISIS. Having a hard time leaving their homes behind and staying in warehouses at an industrial neighbourhood of Aleppo, many displaced villagers have already longing for a return to their beehive houses, the traditional vernacular dwellings famous for the natural thermal qualities, and to their former rural life. Many of the beehive villages were damaged in the war. Effort would be needed for returnees to restore these unique structures and reestablish their lives centred at sheep and goats. In 2006, we got a chance to visit one of the beehive village on our way to Palmyra.
Our second stop in the Syrian Desert was Twalid Dabaghein, where we visited a family staying in one of the beehive houses. The conical beehive houses are made with mud bricks being laid in a spiral configuration. The mass of the masonry and the high volume of the dome works well to keep out the desert heat. Traditional beehive house has no window openings, except the entrance door and ceiling oculus. At the house, our host and we sat in a circle for a brief chat (with our guide as translator). Chickens and sheep wandered in front of the house. Our host showed us his guest-book and offered us mint tea. As we passed around the sugar and tea pot, I noticed the decorations on the white wash walls, including a poster of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and a few textile works. At the very top of the spiral brickwork hung a cooling fan. As I finished putting my comment in the guestbook, the host’s neighbour and his young daughter joined us in the house to chat with us. I took out my sketchbook and let the old man and his daughter to write something down. I showed them a photo of Hong Kong and they showed great interest and appreciation. We had some pleasant moments in the beehive house, which was actually quite cool despite the late morning sun outside.
The conical beehive houses have been around since the 6th century BC.
In the Syrian Desert, clusters of beehive houses make up many beehive villages. Villagers lead a peaceful life with their domesticated animals.
The beehive houses are famous for their “warm in winter and cool in summer” thermal quality. The thick mud walls serve well as insulation to keep out the sun.
Bricks are laid in circular orientation, with mud and straw applied on the interior and exterior. Rain, if any, would shed off the house easily with the conical form, reducing the chance of erosion.
With their domesticated Awassi sheep, many villagers engage in the wool business.
The Awassi sheep is the most common type of sheep in the Arab countries.
They have adapted well to the desert climate and environment.
Chicken and turkey roam free around the beehive village.
At our host’s home, we could appreciate the circular layout of the bricks.
Some beehive houses would have an oculus at the very top for daylight. Our host preferred to have his blocked.
Traditional decorations were hung on the interior walls. Maybe it was a “model home” to greet tourists, but the setting was actually quite simple.
The textile decorations stood out perfectly from the white background.
QASR IBN WARDAN, Syrian Desert, Syria
Covering 500,000 square kilometers in the Middle East, and spanning across parts of Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the Syrian Desert (Badiyat al-Sham) is home to Bedouin tribes, ancient trade routes and ruined cities. Parts of the Syrian Desert and other deserts in the Arabian Peninsula are considered to be some of the driest places in the world. Yet, some Bedouin tribes continue to live nomadically with their livestock (goats, sheep and camels) in the area. From Hama, Cairo Hotel arranged a van to take us into the Syria Desert towards the ancient city of Palmyra. On the way, we stopped by the Roman ruins of Qasr Ibn Wardan and a village of vernacular beehive houses.
In the middle of the desert where ancient Romans marked their eastern boundary, Emperor Justinian built an enormous complex in the 6th century AD attempting to impress the desert nomads. A mixture of local materials and Byzantine architectural styles imported from Constantinople created a magnificent building complex that once encompassed a palace, church and military barracks. To the Romans, Qasr Ibn Wardan was a beacon at the border that separated the their empire and the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian dynasty. Stripes of dark basalt and yellow bricks create a strong sense of horizontality against the desert horizon, connecting the structure with the imposing desert landscape and expressing the grandeur of Roman Empire in the middle of nowhere.
Although the original dome was long gone, the impressive remains of the church at Qasr Ibn Wardan has stood prominently against the desert horizon for 1500 years.
The palace is the largest remaining structure, with rooms distributed on two floors surrounding a central courtyard. An inscription dated the building to 564 AD.
In terms of architectural technologies, the Byzantine style of the complex must have been quite fascinating for the locals 1500 years ago.
The basalt and yellow bricks should be considered high quality in the 6th century.
The lintel at the church’s main entrance also contains Greek inscriptions.
The Greek inscriptions “All things to the glory of God” was carved onto the lintel of the palace south entrance.
Many archaeologists believed that the columns used at Qasr Ibn Wardan came from the ancient city of Apamea.
The church of Qasr Ibn Wardanis a fine example of Byzantine architecture.
The dome is supported by pendentives sprang from an octagonal drum.