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.
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.
From Aleppo we took a morning bus to Hama, a laidback little city between Aleppo and Damascus. Under the morning sun, the combination of shading palm, olive and fruit trees, centuries old stone houses and winding alleys, Hama looked like a photo perfect Middle Eastern town. At first we had trouble orienting ourselves. A taxi driver came by and helped us for the right direction towards town centre and Cairo Hotel. Cairo Hotel was clean and the staff was friendly. We joined one of the tours they offered for the Crusade castles and archaeological ruins nearby.
Our first stop was the massive ruins of Apamea. From the 2 km-long Great Colonnade, we could truly appreciate the enormous scale of the ancient city, which was once a major trading hub with a population of up to half a million as some researchers estimated. After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Apamea was ruled under the Seleucid kings before the Roman arrived. Because of its strategical location on the trading routes, the city continued to flourish in Roman times. For all the wrong reasons, Apamea made news headlines in recent years as satellite images revealed the Luna landscape like destruction of the site due to massive looting. Irreversible damages, especially along the famous Grand Colonnade area, were discovered after the government army regained control of the site. During the civil war, thousands of holes were dug in the ground by treasure hunters. Mosaics and all kinds of precious artefacts were brutally removed and sold in the black market by amateur treasure hunters, including desperate civilians from nearby communities who might not have other economic means to survive the war. It was a story of how a local warfare would lead to a terrible loss for the entire humanity. In the 21st century this should never have happened, but in reality these kinds of tragedies have never ceased to exist in our history.
Apamea withstood different challenges in the past two thousand years, but the recent destruction would probably be proven too much for the ancient city to bear. “Once a great city, now just empty holes” was how University of Glasgow recently described the site in an article titled Count the holes: the looting of Apamea, Syria.
From the conquest of Alexander the Great to the Romans, Apamea thrived as an Hellenistic city, then a provincial capital during the Roman times.
Many remaining structures are dated to the Roman era.
Anything decorative or with artistic values are probably gone by now.
The 2km Great Colonnade was one of the longest in the Roman world, but sadly it also suffered the most damages during the civil war. Thousands of holes were made in the area for treasure hunting. Uncounted artefacts have been stolen, including many priceless mosaic floors that have gone into the black market. Since 2012, Interpol has been involved in searching for the looted items.
It would take a long time to even comprehend how extensive the actual destruction was.
Ancient Roman Latin inscriptions and detail carvings might be gone.
Google aerial views reveal the site is now filled with holes all over. Many of the unexcavated treasures hidden from our sight in 2006 are gone by now.
Let’s hope the tragic story of Apamea would not repeat again somewhere else.
After breakfast, a staff of Homeros Pension drove us to a bank for money exchange before dropping us at the world renowned archaeological ruins of Ephesus (Efes). Ephesus is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Turkey, thanks to its close proximity to the cruise port and airport in the resort town of Kusadasi. The magnificent facade of Ephesus’ Library of Celsus is the signature image of Classical ruins in Turkey. Two thousand years ago, Ephesus was one of the greatest Greek and Roman cities in Asia Minor. Founded in the 10th century BC by Attic and Ionian Greeks, Ephesus reached its peak after the Roman takeover in 129 BC. From 52-54 AD, Paul the Apostle stayed in Ephesus and probably wrote his Gospel in the city. Ephesus was named as one of the seven churches of Asia in the Book Revelation, indicating Christianity was quite popular back then. In the Byzantine era, major earthquakes, shifting of trade routes, and sacking by the Arabs all contributed to the downfall of Ephesus. Its glorious past was eventually forgotten, and Ephesus was eventually abandoned in the 15th century. Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the magnificent Library of Celsus and the 25,000 seat theatre exemplify the former grandeur of the city. Already in ruins since 401 AD, the Temple of Artemis has little remained except a restored column. The restored facade of Library of Celsus remains as the biggest draw for visitors.
Seats for up to 24,000 spectators, the splendid great theatre of Ephesus was the first impressive building that we encountered in the site.
It was the time in the year where poppies flourished.
Right by Celsus Library, the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates was a arch of triumph built in 40 AD during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor and the great nephew of Julius Caesar.
Popular with tourist advertisements, the facade of the Library of Celsus is the most famous image of Ephesus. Named after Celsus, a Roman consul in Rome and later the provincial governor of Asia, the library was built by Celsus’ son Aquila and filled with over 12,000 scrolls of reading materials acquired by the money of Celsus left behind.
From 117 to 262 AD, the Library of Celsus served as an important public space in Ephesus for 145 years, where people came to read the rare scrolls under natural light at the main floor. In 262 AD, the library was destroyed by fire caused by earthquake or Gothic invasion.
The statues at the library facade symbolize wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and valor.
Episteme, the Greek philosophical term of “knowledge”, was depicted as one of the statues at Library of Celsus.
The imposing Library of Celsus is the most popular photo spot in Ephesus.
After the destruction in 262 AD, the facade survived for another 800 years or so until the tenth or eleventh century. Lying in ruins for about a thousand years, the facade of Library of Celsus was restored in the 1970s.
As an important Roman city, Latin inscriptions can be found all over Ephesus.
Beyond Mazeus & Mithridates Gate, a Corinthian colonnade marks the Agora, the former commercial heart of the ancient city.
Paved with marble stone and flanked by colonnade, Curetes Street was one of the main treets in Ephesus.
Along the street, there are lots of interesting architectural details for all visitors to discover.
The Odeon was used for political meetings, concerts and theatrical performances.
Roman relief of the Memmius Monument
Nike, the goddess of victory, was depicted on a marble relief.
Arch with relief sculpture at the Temple of Hadrian.
Headless Roman statue at Curetes Street.
The Hercules Gate at Curetes Street marked the separation between uptown and downtown.
Beautiful frieze at Hadrian Temple revealed the high craftsmanship of the Roman builders.
At 19:00 we bid farewell to the hostel staff and left Sultan Hostel of Istanbul. We took the T4 bus from Hagia Sophia to the Taksim Square. We headed over to the office of Kamil Koc and waited for the departure of our first night bus in Turkey. At 09:00 the next day we arrived at Izmir, where we transferred to another bus for Bergama, the town where the famous Classical Greek city of Pergamon once stood in the 3rd century BC. We hired a taxi from Bergama’s otogar (bus station) to the acropolis archaeological park. I was quite excited for arriving at the ruined acropolis of Pergamon, largely due to my 2003 visit of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where the Great Altar of Pergamon was restored and displayed for the past 90 years. Seeing the Great Altar of Pergamon in Berlin’ three years prior to the trip was probably the main reason why I chose to stop by Bergama on our way to Selcuk from Istanbul. In the archaeological park, the acropolis where the high altar once stood was pretty much in ruins. A few notable structures, including the Trajaneum (where a headless marble statue in Roman armor stood in a courtyard) and the Greek Theatre, claimed to be the steepest theatre in the ancient world, represented the highlights. Near the base of the theatre lower, we stopped by the ruined Temple of Dionysus to pay a little respect to the God of pleasure and wine.
As the capital of Kingdom of Pergamon during the Attalid dynasty (281-133 BC), Pergamon was one of the major cultural centres in the Greek world. After 133 BC, Pergamon became part of the Roman Empire, and assigned as the capital city of province Asia. As trading routes shifted to Constantinople during the Byzantine era, the once Greek and Roman metropolis was transformed into a medium size city, but maintained its religious importance as it was mentioned in the Book of Revelations as one of Seven Churches of Asia. Then came the Ottomans who transformed Pergamon into a Turkish city with mosques and bath houses that we know today. From the first visit of German engineer Carl Humann in 1864 to WWI, the Germans had made numerous expeditions and archaeological excavations at Pergamon. Most of their findings are now on display at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. After WWI, artefacts found on site were being restored and exhibited at Istanbul or the Bergama Museum.
Probably the most famous Classical artefact in Berlin, the Great Altar of Pergamon has been moved to and reconstructed in the German capital about a century ago.
The statue of Athena Parthenos was found in the ruins of Library of Pergamon in 1880.
Today, the most prominent remaining structure at the Acropolis of Pergamon is the Greek Theatre. With a seating capacity of 10,000, the theatre was the steepest in the world.
Below the theatre lies the town of Bergama.
Off to the side at the base of the theatre once stood the Temple of Dionysus.
Looking up the theatre from the Temple of Dionysus allowed us to fully appreciate the scale and steepness of the theatre.
A series of stepped walkways allowed the ancient audience to disperse efficiently.
Fragments of classical cornice and frieze could be found all over the archaeological park.
One of the most remarkable structures in the acropolis is Trajaneum, the only Roman building on site.
Completed by Emperor Hadrian, the Trajaneum was used to worship Zeus as well as Emperor Trajan, Hadrian’s predecessor.
Occupying the summit of the acropolis, Trajaneum sent a clear message to the citizens of Pergamon that the Romans were fully in charge of the once Hellenistic city.
The Corinthian column capitals still look spectacular after 2000 years.
It was a pleasure to wander around the ruined acropolis and looked for the remaining architectural details.
The statue of Hadrian could still be found in the acropolis.