When in Palmyra...

So two weekends ago I decided to leave Damascus again and explore more Syria. This weekend it was again the turn of Palmyra, the ruinous Roman City next to an Oasis in the heart of Syria. I have been there twice before on two separate trips but only had time, or been well enough, to see a small part of the ruins. However this time I was determined to spend as much time as I could there and have a proper explore of the site. I travelled up by bus to Palmyra with three friends and checked into a great little hotel with super friendly staff when I arrived on Thursday night. After unpacking, it was out to sample the nightlife of Palmyra in the pancake house, a great restaurant on the main street that doesn’t just do Pancakes. In it we had a traditional dinner of rice, chicken, lentil soup, humous and bread and after dinner met a friend who is from Palmyra in the café. We chatted for some time, as he has just come out of military service, about what he was going to do now. After the café became empty we all moved to a nearby hotel bar (the only place you can drink really at night in Palmyra) and chatted some more there. It seems that at night there is little to do for locals, apart from stare at the foreigners in the town. They did in two ways, the first cowardly way was by motorbike, riding past staring and maybe shouting something, and the second way by more heroically standing and hanging around on the street corners staring and maybe saying something. However, once inside the restaurants and cafes you receive a very friendly welcome, like you are a long lost relative!

On a side note, it is funny how the phrase “Luvly Jubly” managed to travel around the world as I have heard it a number of times as a response when people find out I am from England. I like to think there was in the past, a cockney somewhere who was having a bit of joke, saying it was official for something and because of that it got transported around the world. After waking up at 7 we took breakfast on the rooftop with early morning views of the ruins just temping us to go in and explore. Following this, we set off and began walking into the huge area that the ruins of Palmyra occupied. We started at the bottom of the colonnaded street and walked up it exploring, stopping to take pictures and climbing on the extensive remains. It was magical, especially in the early morning light, our only company seemed to be the occasional camel herder asking us if we wanted a ride.
When we reached the end of the street we climbed up to a tomb/temple of Zenobia to look round. At the back of this temple was a small tower, which we climbed up and were treated with great views of Palmyra. It was a bit scary with the top only being about 3 by 3 meters with no railings! We then walked out of the city through the still impressive city walls and we found ourselves in the Valley of the Dead, an area where a large number of mausoleums have been built for previous Roman dignitaries and other notables. As we got closer to the hill they have been built around, it became apparent how monumental they were. They were probably a good 20metres high if not more and after walking round the back of one, my friend and I climbed up to a doorway 2 metres off the ground just to have a look. A grill covered the doorway presumably to stop people getting inside, but a friend and myself were thin enough to squeeze through the gap in between the metal bars and get inside. So we spent 15 minutes looking in several different floors of the tower feeling a bit like we were the first to set foot inside the tomb. It was quite spooky inside with the darkness and silence but eventually after climbing up and up the stairs we came out on top of the tower. From there we had panoramic views of the valley of the dead and the city of Palmyra around. It was incredible. After we came down we scaled up the small hill behind the towers to be treated with the same kind of view as on the top of the tower but we could see more mountains and hills in the distance as well as more of the oasis that surrounds Palmyra,
Then it was back to the ruins to meet our Palmyrian friend for lunch. While we were waiting a few scarf and necklace sellers came up to us to ask for our custom. We replyed to them one after another “La Shukran (No Thankyou)”. This was until one replied angrily “I don’t speak Arabic!!” in English. We thought that was a bit strange considering he was living in Syria, and the Arabic speaking Middle East but we moved on. However half an hour later he spotted us again, obviously did not recognise us and said “Scarf, you want to buy a scarf”? “La Shukran” was our response and again he responding with “I don’t speak Arabic” slightly more angrily! So we responded to him “Well we don’t speak English, no thankyou” in Arabic to which he looked surprised, but seemingly understood us and walked away! After visiting the ruins we went and had a late lunch and early dinner in an oil camp. The company was Polish and was moving out of Palmyra in 3 weeks so the camp was very empty but it was interesting non the less. We had been invited by them when we met them the previous night in the hotel bar, we arrived in a taxi in the middle of nowhere to a camp made of porta cabins surrounded by a wire fence. After driving through the gate without any check on whom we were we came upon a table full of food surrounded by plastic chairs in the middle of the camp. The two polish guys who had invited us were smoking atop one of the cabins and invited us to join them to look at the view. It was quite amazing with the mountains around. Then after eating, chatting for sometime and watching the sunset, it was a quick taxi ride back to the hotel to get our bags and the last bus to Damascus. At least this rushing around was giving us a taste of the busyness of Damascus that we were heading back too.

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