CLASSICAL FINALE, Athens, Greece
After reunited with my two travel buddies in Cairo, our homeward odyssey official began. From Cairo, we flew to Athens, then to Zurich, before crossing the Atlantic back to Canada. In Greece, our plan was to spend a few hours to visit the Acropolis, had supper, and took a bit of rest before heading out to the airport. We expected to see some crowds at the world famous Acropolis, but watching hundreds if not thousands of cruise ship tourists wearing the same cap marching up the citadel hill right below us was still a shock. Despite the crowds, seeing one of the most recognizable icons of Western civilization was definitely an impressive experience.
The Acropolis is home to some of the most recognizable Classical Greek structures: the Parthenon, Propylaea, Erechtheion, Temple of Athena Nike, etc. Most of the Acropolis was constructed under Pericles during the golden age of Athens in the 5th century BC, the century that saw Athen’s victory against the Persians. The Acropolis was a magnificent collaborative work by architects including Iktinos, Kallikrates, and Mnesikles, and sculptors such as Pheidias, Alkamenes, and Agorakritos. This iconic hill was also the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and theatre art of the Western world.
After seeing the Classical ruins, we headed down the northern slope to the Plaka quarter, a colourful and lovely neighbourhood full of lively restaurants, souvenir shops, and eye catching street art. In the evening, we picked a cosy restaurant for dinner. With English menus in hand, we ordered our dishes and I chose sirloin steak. The server tried his best to match our selections from his Greek menu. Somehow my sirloin steak was lost in translation and I ended up getting a whole grilled squid. It was a pleasant surprise and I had zero intention to swap it back to beef. The Mediterranean squid was fresh and delicious, and lived long in my memory. If it was a typical steak dinner, I would definitely not remember a single thing from that particular meal after all these years.
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.
THE TRAGEDY OF APAMEA, Hama, Syria
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.