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.
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.
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.
In the city of Hama along the Orontes River, 17 splendid medieval norias stand as reminders of the city’s medieval past, when large norias were built to transport 95 litres of water per minute uphill to irrigate farms. A looted mosaic from Apamea dated back to 469 AD depicted a large noria among with buildings and daily scenes of people suggested that norias have been around since at least the 5th century. The oldest surviving norias in Hama dated back to the Ayyubid period in the 12th century. These norias have no practical use today after modern pumps and piping have been installed. As the icon of Hama, their presence is mainly for aesthetic and touristic purpose, maintaining the unique identity of Hama and attracting people to visit the City of Norias. In fact, the norias of Hama are so famous in the country that they have appeared on Syrian stamps and banknotes.
Before the civil war, Cairo Hotel and Riad Hotel were two
Exploring the medieval alleyways in Hama was an absolute delight.
At 6:30 in the morning, we headed out to visit the famous norias of Hama. We followed instructions from the hotel staff to Um Al Hasan Park, one of the most popular spots for see the norias.
After a 10-minute walk, we reached Orontes River and the majestic Noria Mamouriya.
In 1900 there were more than 50 norias in Hama. Now only 17 still remain standing today.
A “noria” is actually a type of water wheel that raises water from a river to a higher level.
The Mamouriya Noria is a popular spot for local children to hang out.
Noria Al-Jabiriya and al-Sahiuniya, and the adjacent Nur al-Din Mosque together form the iconic picture of Hama.
Decreased water level due to population growth has increased the risk for preserving the norias. When water level is low, the norias would cease to operate. The longer the wood stay out of water, the more it becomes vulnerable to cracking and shrinking.
The norias of Hama have been submitted to UNESCO’s list of Tentative World Heritage sites.
Much of the old city of Hama was destroyed during the 1982 Hama Massacre, when the Syrian Arab Army and Defense Companies besieged the city for 27 days in order to crush an uprising by the anti-government Muslim Brotherhood.
Hama has always been a battle ground between the ruling Ba’ath Party and the Sunni Islamists since the 1960s. In the 1982 Hama Massacre, tens of thousands of people were killed. Since the, the government of Hafez al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s father) relied more on suppression for his ruling of Syria.
On 1st of July 2011, more than 400,000 protestors demonstrated on the street to stand up against Bashar al-Assad. By August, over 200 civilians had been killed by the government force.
It was hard to tell the violent past from the tranquil streetscape of Hama.
We passed by a building named “Institu de Palestine.” There was a statement and a map of the Palestine marked on the wall.
With a significant population of Sunni Muslims, it was not surprising to see a show of support for Palestine in Hama.
Just a few kilometres north of the Syrian and Lebanon border, atop a 650m hill in the Homs Gap between the Mediterranean and the Syrian interior stands one of the world’s best preserved Crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers. Proclaimed by Lawrence of Arabia as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world,” Krak des Chevaliers was built by the Order of Knights Hospitaller, Saint John of Jerusalem, in the 1140’s after capturing an earlier fortress on the spot during the First Crusade. Housing 3,000 knights to protect pilgrims and trading caravans in the Roman Christendom, the castle remained as the headquarters of the Knights Hospitalier until 1271 when it fell into the hands of Sultan Baibars of the Mamluks, and then to the Ottomans from 16th century onward. The castle was abandoned in the 19th century, and soon the locals established a small village inside the complex until 1927, when the French bought and restored the castle. Before the civil war, Krak des Chevaliers was a popular tourist destination for international tourist groups, cruise groups, independent travelers, art and architecture students, etc. During the civil war, the castle was taken by the rebels in 2012, and was used as a military command centre, weapon storage and a transit base for Lebanese fighters. The government force recaptured the castle in 2014 and allowed UNESCO and foreign press such to assess the war damages: blackened walls in the Knight Hall, bullet holes, graffiti, rubble allover the inner court, but the biggest loss was the destruction of the main stair. After a series of ongoing restoration, the castle has reopened recently for visitors again.
Before reaching the castle gate, our van stopped by a roadside lookout for a distant view of the famous Krak des Chevaliers. Even from a distance we could already appreciate the intact outer walls and well preserved guard towers. The castle was protected by two layers of wall. We entered the castle through an entrance on the lower level, then walked through a vaulted ramp, and reached the inside of the fortress. Another ramp led us up to the core area, where the Knight Hall and Gothic church (later converted into a mosque) stood. We climbed the guard towers one by one to check out the surrounding scenery. Krak des Chevaliers was certainly the day’s highlight.
From a distant look, Krak des Chevaliers stands as the perfect Crusade castle out of a fantasy movie. Situated in the Homs Gap between inner Syria and the Mediterranean, the castle location has always been strategic for the region.
The moat, imposing walls and talus of Krak des Chevaliers survived the civil war.
Inside the complex, the main Medieval stair is gone forever due to damages from the civil war.
The Knight Hall is one of the world’s best preserved example of Crusader architecture.
The gallery facade of the Knight Hall suffered damages from the war as well, including burnt walls and broken arches and columns.
The inner court of the castle was littered with rubble in 2014 when the castle was recaptured by the government army.
In 2006, the castle’s inner court was largely peaceful and intact.
Seen from the southeast tower of the castle, the village of Al-Husn dominated the scenery below the castle. The word “Al-Husn” literally means “The Castle.”
Covered ramps connect the inner court is with the outer areas and main entrances.
Before leaving, we had one last photo of the castle. The image lived long in my memories, especially when I acknowledge how delicate political situations could become in this part of the world, such that a 900 year old cultural heritage could be gone forever upon a few brutal missiles.
After Apamea, our van took us to Musyaf Castle, the legendary headquarters of the Order of Assassins. Known to the Crusaders as “Old Man of the Mountain”, Rashid ad-Din Sinan led the Syrian branch of the Nizari Ismaili sect, or what commonly known as the Order of Assassins, from Musyaf Castle on a 20m high plateau 40km west of Hama. In the 12th century, Rashid ad-Din Sinan controlled a part of northwestern Syria from Masyaf Castle. Rashid and his followers were famous for imposing the military tactics of assassinations in the region. In fact, the Order of Assassins was the origin of the modern word “assassination.” Sultan Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty who controlled a kingdom stretched from Syria and Yemen all the way to Egypt and North Africa, was Rashid’s primary enemy. A truce was made between the two simply because Saladin feared for the danger of assassination from Rashid’s network. In 1191, Rashid was involved in the successful assassination of Conrad of Montferrat, the King of Jerusalem. Musyaf Castle was later occupied by the Mamluks and Ottomans. After an extensive restoration in 2000, the legendary Masyaf Castle of the Assassins continues to dominate today’s skyline of the town of Masyaf.
Thanks to legends and folklore, books, graphic novels and video games, the mysterious Order of Assassins still lives long in people’s imagination after 800 years.
Funded by the Aga Khan Trust, extensive restoration of the castle was undertaken in the early 2000’s.
Appeared in the Assassin’s Creed game series as the base of the Assassin Order, Masyaf is actually a small peaceful city.
With a population of 22,000, Masyaf was inhabited since the 8th century BC. The Crusaders first knew of Masyaf and its castle in 1099 AD, 41 years before the castle was conquered by the Nizari Ismaili force.
In the Syrian Civil War, Israeli air strikes hit an Iranian associated missile production facility in Masyaf.
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.