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.
Next to the Pigeon Valley was the White Valley. Soft like silk and smooth as water, the undulating rocks of White Valley were probably some of the most beautiful we had seen in Cappadocia. After hiking the White Valley, it was time for us to move on from Goreme. At 20:15, we left Goreme for Kayseri, where we switched to another bus for Antakya in the province of Hatay. From Antakya, it would be a little over 2 hours of bus ride away from Aleppo of Syria. Our journey was about to enter the second part, Syria.
Back in 2006, crossing the land border from Turkey to Syria was popular for backpackers. Back then, we could never imagine how the situation of Syria would eventually become in a few years’ time. It was a hot and dry night as we waited for the bus in Antakya. Back then, no one would aware that the heat of 2006 was part of a severe drought that lasted for 5 years in Syria. Some said the drought has forced desperate Syrian farmers migrating into cities and towns, fueling a public anger that ultimately led to the rebel uprising. In that particular night of 2006, despite the tiredness from our hikes in Cappadocia, we were all excited for about to enter Syria.
Before we left Cappadocia, we stopped by the White Valley.
Looking from afar, the White Valley seemed like a series of white waves topped with a green carpet.
Both the top and valley floor were filled with lush green vegetation.
The slope of the White Valley looked as smooth as curtains.
and as soft as vanilla ice cream.
At different times of the day, the moving shadows play an crucial role in defining the appearance of the valley.
The white “waves” come from both sides of the valley.
Zooming into the white slopes offered us uncounted compositions for photographs.
It was interesting to see horizontal markings on the slopes.
The rocks appear like an abstract sculpture shaped by the nature.
Caves and pigeon holes could be seen near the valley floor.
Centuries ago, pigeon droppings or manure was a valuable commodity in many parts of the world. Since 5000 years ago, humans began to domesticate pigeons and collect their nitogen-rich manure. Compared to manure from other farm animals, pigeon manure is considered to be much better quality for making fertilizer. Some even suggest that places where domesticating pigeons was a common practice would lead to better agricultural development and ultimately more advanced societies. Apart from providing manure for fertilizer, pigeons were also a source of food, entertainment and message carriers. In Medieval times, the value for pigeon manure soared even higher as saltpetre from the manure was used to make gunpowder, while its ammonia was used for leather making. In some cases, guards were even assigned to protect dovecotes from potential thieves.
From the earliest dovecotes in Egypt and Persia, the round and white columbarium of the Romans, to the distinctive pigeon towers across Europe, Asia and North Africa, dovecotes had been an integral part of village communities and a common type of vernacular architecture. In Cappadocia, man made pigeon holes can be found from villages to river valleys. Similar to other cave dwellings in the region, dovecotes were carved out from cliffs or rocks. A short hike in the Pigeon Valley is the best way to take in the unique landscape, search for the pigeon holes, and imagine how humans and pigeons coexisted and being relied on each other throughout centuries.
Lying between the village of Uchisar and Goreme, the trail of Pigeon Valley is about 4km long.
The fortress of Uchisar marks as the destination of the trail if one begins from Goreme.
The scenery of Pigeon Valley and the surrounding valleys was breathtaking whenever we arrived at a high lookout.
No fence and no signage, we had to rely on simple maps to find our way.
The valley floor was relatively lush green, with dovecotes and occasional small dwellings carved into the cliffs.
Rock cut dwellings in strange rock formations are everywhere in the valley.
Man made pigeon holes are found on many rock towers in Pigeon Valley.
Many dovecotes are no longer in use, although some local villagers continue to keep pigeons as pets.
Villages like Uchisar or Goreme is never far away from Pigeon Valley.
The Pigeon Valley hike is one of the most rewarding short walk near Goreme.
Spotting out the dovecotes as we walked in the valley was also an interesting pastime during the hike.
At 09:30 we joined a local bus tour organized by a company called Greenline. The first stop was the famous underground cities of Derinkuyu. With 11 levels and roughly 85m at its deepest, Derinkuyu is the deepest underground city in the region. The guide explained that since the Hatti and Hittite period, inhabitants of Cappadocia had recognized the unique properties of the region’s volcanic rock and began to dig and carve out rock-cut structures. Underground cities were developed over many generations and expanded to their greatest extent during the Byzantine era. Inhabitants sometimes were forced to stay underground for months during wartime. Ventilation shafts, food storage, kitchens, churches and other essential amenities were found in the sophisticated sub-terrain network.
After Derinkuyu, the tour moved on to an 1.5 hour hike in Ihlara Valley, a lush green river gorge with some rock-cut churches and pigeon holes carved out on the cliff at both sides. At the end of the hike, we visited a cave church, and then headed our way to a local restaurant for lunch. After lunch, we arrived at the village of Yaprakhisar, which is often mistakenly claimed as the filming site of one of the Star Wars movies. Whether it was part of a Hollywood film set or not really makes no difference. The scenery of Yaprakhisar was phenomenal: local women and children in colourful clothing, shepherds and their herds of sheep, historical stone houses, cave dwellings and bizarre looking rock formations. Not sure about the others, but for me it did somehow resonate with my imagination of the landscape of a strange planet in a galaxy far far away.
A herd of sheep and their shepherds crossed our path as we entered Ihlara Valley.
We followed the herd for a little while before turning into the valley.
We entered Ihlara Valley from the high point and gradually walked down.
Other than shepherds, we hardly saw any visitors in the valley.
For most of the short hike we were walking along the river.
We stopped by a sleepy village for lunch.
Perhaps due to tourism in the area, even a small village had some decent carpet vendors.
The village of Yaprakhisar offers us a peek into the peaceful rural life with a dramatic backdrop.
Pigeon holes can be found on cliffs in Yaprakhisar.
The bizarre landscape in the surrounding is what makes Yaprakhisar famous.
With or without the unique rock formations, Yaprakhisar is a picturesque little hillside village.
Dramatic rock formations tower up the sky along the perimeter of the village.
For centuries, caves and pigeon holes were carved out from the cliffs of Yaprakhisar.
We had a brief moment walking around the peaceful village.
A brief encounter with the locals on the slope was definitely the highlight experience.
Despite we didn’t speak the language, we could feel the friendliness and peacefulness of the villagers.
Unlike Goreme or other touristy villages in Cappadoica, Yaprakhisar offered us a glimpse of the rural life of the locals.
A short hike to the east from Goreme brought us to the Love Valley, a little valley with bizarre fairy chimneys – rock pillars capped with dark basalt. Compared to the ones in Goreme, the fairy chimneys in the valley are much slenderer. We pretty much had the valley all by ourselves, except a few occasional hikers. There wasn’t much signage so we had to find our way on our own. Back then, there weren’t any smartphone with us too. We ended up reaching the White Valley and the village of Uchisar towards the end of our walk.
It was impressive to see all these fairy chimneys in the Love Valley.
The trail first took us to a higher ground to appreciate the rock pillars.
It isn’t hard to figure out why the place is called Love Valley.
Despite the somehow arid climate in the area, the valley was quite green at certain places.
It was hard to imagine from the first glance that the pillars were carved out from eroding the surrounding ground, instead of extruding out from earth.
As we walked to other areas, rock formations changed gradually.
There are actually numerous valleys around Goreme that we could visit: Love Valley, Rose Valley, White Valley, Red Valley, Pigeon Valley, etc.
Thick clouds gathered in the valley as we approached the village of Uchisar.
Equally stunning, the rock formations of the White Valley resemble a sea of white waves.
Day 6 (1of 3).
“Steeply up the hill” was what many tuk tuk drivers referred to when they heard us mentioning the name of our guesthouse. Every time we head back or out of Villa Rosa would be an exciting uphill or downhill tuk tuk journey. High above Mahaweli River, Villa Rosa was more than a tranquil retreat of several spotless rooms with amazing views of the river valley. Sitting on our private terrace looking over the river valley in search of returning flying foxes in early morning, having a fine Sri Lankan dinner at the outdoor patio in a breezy evening, resting in the airy bedroom surrounded by traditional wood furniture, these pleasant moments would live long in our memories.
Greeted by friendly staff and three dogs, we were glad to arrive at the entrance foyer of Villa Rosa after the car journey from Dambulla.
Flanked both sides by guestrooms, the entrance foyer, upper living room, and the courtyard bisects the complex of Villa Rosa.
Accessed from a covered veranda, our room was situated at a corner on the upper level.
At the upper living room, we spent a short period of time flipping through an architecture book on Geoffrey Bawa, one of the most famous architects in Sri Lanka.
Our room was spacious and spotless. The ambience was relaxing and the river views from the terrace was amazing.
Even the bathroom revealed a tropical sense.
Sitting at the terrace to enjoy the river scenery was a delightful morning activity.
After heavy rain at night, a rainbow emerged for a short period of time in the second morning during our stay.
The 335km long Mahaweli River is the longest river in Sri Lanka. It passes by the valley right below Villa Rosa.
The courtyard offered views to the river valley and the dense forest beyond.
In the courtyard, small lily ponds and sculptures are put together in perfect harmony.
The courtyard is a well tended garden for all guests to enjoy.
Another classical sculpture somehow goes well with the surrounding tropical vegetation.
Despite their size, the dogs were pretty friendly. The staff was helpful too. We were especially thankful that they were able to get us two reserved train tickets for from Kandy to Ella, something that had been sold out online 1.5 month prior to our arrival in the country.
One of the dogs has its own resting mat in the foyer.
The dogs play together every morning.
We had two breakfast and one dinner at the patio facing the river valley. Fruits were always served during breakfast in Sri Lanka.
For dinner, we had local prawns as one of the main dishes.
And tuna steaks for the other main dish.
Fine details at the veranda reveal some lovely touches from the owner. Staying at Villa Rosa for two nights was truly a remarkable experience.
The closest thing to Tibetan pilgrimage that we experienced in Lhasa was our visit to Ganden Monastery (དགའ་ལྡན་ 甘丹寺). Slightly after 5am, we left the hotel and walked to the street intersection of Yutuo Road and Duosenge Road near the Jokhang Monastery. Several locals had already gathered at the street corner waiting for the public buses designated for different monasteries around the city. The bus for Ganden Monastery soon arrived and we were told to get on with the pilgrims. Foreign tourists were not permitted to take these pilgrim buses. As visitors from Hong Kong we were allowed to join the locals. Before departure, a vendor get on the bus to sell prayer flags. We picked a five-coloured one that costed 50 RMB. Before leaving Lhasa, the bus stopped by a security checkpoint where all passengers were required to register with our identity cards, and a local bakery where the majority of the passengers including us went down to get some bread for breakfast. Soon our bus left Lhasa into the countryside northeast of the city. After a two-hour bus ride, our bus finally arrived at Ganden Monastery on Wangbur Mountain at about 8am.
Just like our Drepung visit, we decided to walk the kora pilgrim route around the monastery before visiting the actual buildings. From the parking lot, we followed a sloped path heading up the hill behind the monastery. After making a turn in front of a small security station, we soon arrived at the hilltop overlooking the monastery. A pilgrim stood by an incense burner surrounded by myriad of prayer flags. We took out our 5-colour prayer flags, tied it to the flag cluster, and made a wish for a smooth journey ahead of us. We continued onto the winding kora path along the slope. The path soon split into two: the upper and lower. We followed the upper path and passed by a number of small shrines. We took out the bread we bought and sat down beside the path for a brief rest. Beyond the scenic valley of Lhasa River, layers of mountains extended as far as the eye could see. Further down the slope there were more prayer flags, small shrines and probably a small platform for sky burials. We followed several local pilgrims to finish the latter half of the kora and arrived at the monastery at its far end.
We passed by the forecourt of Jokhang Monastery at around 5:30am. Pilgrims were burning some sort of plants at the incense burners.
After arriving at the parking lot Ganden Monastery, we walked uphill along a path heading to the trailhead of the kora pilgrim route.
At the hilltop, the view of Ganden Monastery was spectacular.
A local dog followed us from the parking lot all the way up to the hilltop.
At the hilltop, a local pilgrim was preparing offerings at the incense burner.
We tied our 5-coloured prayer flags at the hilltop overlooking Ganden Monastery.
The kora path continues beyond the prayer flags to the backside of the hill.
We soon reached the first shrines along the kora path.
Below the kora path, the Lhasa River passed through the valley behind the Ganden Monastery.
Also known as Kyi River, Lhasa River is a tributary of Yarlung Tsangpo River.
Farming terraces occupy a valley below the Ganden Monastery.
The kora path split into a few footpaths along the slope, connecting a series of pilgrim shrines.
The kora offered us a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains.
There were many violet wild flowers on the green slope along the path.
Some pilgrims took the lower kora route along the green slope.
Towards the end of the kora path, we once again passed under a series of prayer flags.
After the prayer flags, a few more Buddhist shrines came to sight, as we approached the Ganden Monastery at its far side.
At the incense burner near the end of the kora path, we could see the winding vehicular road that our bus first arrived.
The winding road where our bus zigzagged up earlier in the morning looked wonderful from a distance.
We entered the monastery compound from its far end.
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More blog posts on Tibet 2017:
JOURNEY ABOVE THE CLOUDS, Tibet 2017 (西藏之旅2017)
DAY 1: TOUCHDOWN ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, Lhasa
DAY 1: TRICHANG LABRANG HOTEL (赤江拉讓藏式賓館), Lhasa
DAY 1: KORA AT BARKHOR STREET (八廓街), Lhasa
DAY 2: FIRST GLIMPSE OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 2: KORA OF DREPUNG MONASTERY (哲蚌寺), Lhasa
DAY 2: DREPUNG MONASTERY (哲蚌寺), Lhasa
DAY 2: JOKHANG MONASTERY (大昭寺), Lhasa
DAY 2 : SPINN CAFE (風轉咖啡館), Lhasa
DAY 2: NIGHT VIEW OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 3: POTALA PALACE (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 3: SERA MONASTERY (色拉寺), Lhasa
Day 4: KORA OF GANDEN MONASTERY (甘丹寺), Lhasa
Day 4: GANDEN MONASTERY (甘丹寺), Lhasa
DAY 4: TEA HOUSE AND FAMILY RESTAURANT, Lhasa
DAY 5: ON THE ROAD IN TIBET
DAY 5: MORNING IN SHANNAN (山南)
DAY 5: SAMYE MONASTERY (桑耶寺), Shannan
DAY 5: SAMYE TOWN (桑耶鎮), Shannan
DAY 6: YAMDROK LAKE (羊卓雍錯)
DAY 6: PALCHO MONASTERY (白居寺), Gyantse
DAY 6: WORDO COURTYARD (吾爾朵大宅院), Shigatse
DAY 7: ROAD TO EVEREST BASE CAMP (珠峰大本營)
DAY 7: EVEREST BASE CAMP (珠峰大本營)
DAY 7: STARRY NIGHT, Everest Base Camp
DAY 8: PANG LA PASS (加烏拉山口), Mount Everest Road
DAY 8: SAKYA MONASTERY (薩迦寺)
DAY 9: TASHI LHUNPO MONASTERY, (扎什倫布寺) Shigatse
DAY 9: ROAD TO NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 9: EVENING AT NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 10: SUNRISE AT NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 10: LAST DAY IN LHASA, Tibet
EPILOGUE: FACES OF LHASA, Tibet