Destination: Palymra, Syria
Number of Days Spent: 2 days
Where we stayed: Al-Nakheel Hotel (1000 lbs; $22) Breakfast inc. Friendly staff, all the mod cons, and decorated in a fun Bedouin tent style.
Best restaurant: Sounds unlikely but the pancake house had the best lemon juice with mint ($2) we had in all of the Middle East and the owner was very generous with refills. The pancakes are also yummy and big enough to split (but a bit pricey for Syrian standards - $4).
Best of: Ancient tombs, Roman ruins & the desert combined along with copious amounts of super sweet tea with various Bedoin characters including the legendary camel racer, Hussein Al-Shael, winner of last year's 10,000 euro prize at the Palymra camel races. He also arranges camel trip into the desert (contact info: www.shaelcameltrips.info & firstname.lastname@example.org).
Worst of: Stranded at the bus station (well, not really...we just had to wait a long time) while the local people from the desert & Saudi Arabia stared at us in open fascination (we were the only tourists in the station and on the bus to Damascus). How to the women stand those black outfits (it's ridiculously hot here - between 100 and 110 degrees+) and how do the men keep their whites so white?
Most Memorable: Tracy had great time shopping here. She honed her bargaining skills the traditional way, over 3 cups of tea, and walked away with 3 pairs custom made camel leather sandals (from Zanubia Leathers - look for the shoes outside the shop, the name may only be in Arabic), 2 long sleeved embroidered cotton shirts (a must for women traveling in nontouristy parts of Syria) & perhaps a bit too much Bedoin silver (but we have no regrets). The shoes fit great and were a terrific value at $6 per pair, the shirts at $7 each a great traditional souvenir & a welcome long sleeved addition to Tracy's wardrobe & the silver, well it wasn't needed but she likes it anyways.
The ancient, dusty outpost of Palmyra sits practically in the middle of the desert along the old silk route. The city reached its height of importance when Queen Zenobia took over control of the city in the 3rd century and defeated the Roman forces sent to crush her. Not content with just stopping the Romans, she set out conquering all of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. When word got back to Rome that she was even minting her own coins, Rome sent a larger force and eventually recaptured the city along with its queen. With the queen gone, the citizens of Palmyra again led a rebellion killing a group of 600 Roman archers. The emperor had had enough and the response was brutal, leaving the city in ruins and had the city burned. The city was little more than a military outpost after that and its last additions (the impressive castle on the hill)were made by the Muslims in the 17th century).
We arrived in town in time to take the afternoon tour out to the two kinds of burial chambers. This can easily be arranged just outside the museum on your own, but negotiate hard. We finally got the big guy here in the little van down to about $3 per person (100 lbs) to drive us out there as well as take us to the castle for sunset.
The first kind of burial chamber are the Towers. The multilevel square towers are filled with tiny burial chambers along the walls. Climbing to the top provides a pretty good outlook onto the surrounding ruins. The other kind of burial chambers are known as Hypogeums. This later style of tomb was underground and contained beautiful frescoes that still survive today.
The Temple of Bel would have been the most important Temple for the people of Palmyra as Bel was their equivalent to Zeus. The ancient temple is well preserved with several columns still standing. The temple complex is protected by a wall, built by the Muslims in the 12th century when they converted the space into a fortress.
The Castle is the most recent addition to the area, dating to the 17th century. It's best to visit at sunset as there is not a lot to see in the castle itself, but the views from top are great...provided you don't have a sandstorm like we had!
That night we stumbled across the Camel leather shoe store where Tracy was in heaven. The man even made Tracy a pair of shoes that fit her foot exactly. While browsing and sipping copious amounts of sweet tea, a group of Saudi women paid the store a visit. One lady spoke excellent English and had a conversation with Tracy. She even posed for the picture!
The next day, we got up early to finish our tour of Palmyra ruins. With so few visitors to begin with and the time of day, we had the whole place to ourselves and wandered down the streets soaking in the years of history.
After the morning tour of the ruins, we had more sweet tea with the Bedouin camel racer at his shop before making some last minute purchases. After a long wait out at the afore mentioned bus stop, we were on our way to Damascus!