In 2006, Simon Loftus travelled with Rufus Reade to Syria.
Palmyra, a lament
In the Tower of Elahbel, in the Valley of Tombs, it was cool and dim, with only a shaft of sunlight slanting across the threshold. Tall pilasters crowned with fronds of acanthus (waving in a phantom breeze) framed stone shelves on both sides of the chamber. I reached into the dark recess above one of those shelves, stretching towards the fragment of a pale bowl. It was almost weightless, smooth and rounded on the outside, delicately fissured within. With a sudden shock I realised that the bowl was bone, the crown of a skull. Gently, carefully, I placed it back where I found it, deep in its slot in the wall, and made a wordless prayer for the dead.
The tower originally contained three hundred of these funerary pigeonholes, each of them designed to hold a single corpse - a condominium for the departed. One of many such towers on the edge of this ancient city, it was built two thousand years ago as a place of eternal rest for the wealthy citizens of Palmyra. Their rest was disturbed many times - robbed of jewellery and other valuables, long ago - and then the archaeologists arrived and looted the sculpted portraits (which had once sealed each slot) and sent them to museums around the world. But that fragment of a skull survived through the centuries, until the tower was blown apart in August 2015, less than ten years after my visit.
Palmyra had a long history of devastation, being attacked and ruined, re-built and shattered by earthquakes, before eventually it was abandoned to the winds of the desert, which covered much of it in sand.
It was ‘rediscovered’ towards the end of the seventeenth century by English merchants based in Aleppo, and a panoramic engraving of the ruins was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, in 1695. The leader of this expedition, William Halifax, described his first sight of the place, gazing down across Palmyra from an Arabic castle on a high crag to the northwest – as I did three centuries later, looking over his shoulder from the castle, with the setting sun throwing long shadows across the sand dunes, of colonnades and towers and a jumble of honey-coloured stone – a deserted city, silent, empty, breathtakingly wonderful. The next day at dawn (with a pale moon in the sky) I explored the ruins alone, and imagined I was the first for a thousand years.
Later, as the sun rose and a few boys with camels arrived and sellers of souvenirs, the illusion faded, but the sense of time foreshortened persisted. The 12th century Arab walls surrounding the sanctuary of Bel seemed a barricade against imminent attack, with sections of Roman columns hastily piled on rubble from the ruins. The sanctuary itself (dedicated to a Mesopotamian god in 32 A.D.) was later used as a church, and then as a mosque, and the pattern of its coffered ceiling (published by Robert Wood in 1753) served as a model for some of the great houses of 18th century England. On fallen stones nearby, carvings of vines and leaves, crisp as if done yesterday, evoked an immediate delight in fruitful abundance, while an image of veiled women following a camel laden with a small palanquin (also heavily veiled) was resonant with mystery. On the walls of the Tomb of the Three Brothers names of the deceased were painted in red, in fluent brush strokes that resembled Japanese script. It was in fact Aramaic, a ‘dead’ language that I had heard spoken as a living tongue in the hill village of Maaloula, two days earlier, when I bought a couple of bottles of sweet red wine from the local priest, Father Toufic. Made from semi dried grapes, the wine was a distant cousin of those enjoyed in Palmyra, in classical times.
And then there were the date palms.
The Roman name Palmyra, and its older name, Tadmur, hint at the palm trees that surrounded this oasis, four or five thousand years ago, and still do today. Hidden springs gave water and the dates provided sustenance for caravans carrying goods across the desert, on trade routes from the East to Rome. Palmyra acted as host and entrepot, and levied taxes on everything that passed. It grew enormously rich, and powerful enough to defeat the Persian emperor. Then its queen, Zenobia, challenged Rome itself. She was forced to surrender in 273, taken captive and died in exile. The city declined, new caravan routes were established and the trade on which it had prospered dwindled and vanished. But the dates survived.
Carrying his nargileh (water pipe) - as he did wherever we went – our bus driver Adnan shouted for us to follow as he roared off on the pillion of a motorbike, steered by a local date farmer. The farmer’s brother led us along a dusty track, between crumbling mud brick walls that bordered the patchwork of small plots which subdivided the palm groves. Eventually we arrived, to discover Adnan seated in the shade, smoking his pipe (tobacco scented with rose petals) beside a trestle table laden with sacks of dates, a few of the twenty different varieties cultivated at Palmyra. Each was named as we tasted it, and then a small boy was sent to shin up a nearby tree and cut down a bunch from the golden clusters that gleamed above our heads. These, we were told, were Ibrahim dates – lighter in colour than most, slightly less sweet, but with a delicious nutty flavour that I preferred to all the others.
I bought a bag of them, munched them throughout the rest of my time in Syria and took some home to Suffolk. The taste of these dates was what I remembered most vividly from Palmyra. That distinctive flavour, with a hint of the dry desert air, seemed a direct link to the ancient past of this city, alive, evocative, cutting through history. It was the taste of the caravanserai, when Palmyra was young.
Then came news of the catastrophes that overtook Syria, the destruction, the killings, the savagery of fanaticism and its repression. So now, when I think of Palmyra, I remember the Bedouin woman (two small children clutching at her skirts, and pregnant with a third) who tried to sell me souvenirs at the Tomb of the Three Brothers, and our driver Adnan with his water pipe, and the date farmers. And I wonder with dread what happened to them.
And I think of the old barman at Baron’s Hotel in Aleppo, and the hotel itself, almost unchanged since T.E. Lawrence shot wildfowl from the terrace - where I drank whisky, sunk in a leather armchair, dreaming of a past that I never knew. And of the family celebrating a wedding in a famous restaurant in the city, who invited me to join them and plied me with wine. And the Druze children, waving to me as I strolled through the Roman city of Shahba. And the young bakers at Deir es-Zur, on the banks of the Euphrates, who gave me a taste of unleavened bread, blistered by the heat of the oven, late at night. And the veiled girls, graceful as gazelles, harvesting cotton stalks in a field near Halabiyeh. And the baby asleep in an improvised hammock, slung from an olive tree outside the ‘dead village’ of Kfer al Bara, as three generations of her family gathered the olives and piled them into sacks. And the men travelling to work in the back of a builder’s truck in Damascus, who grinned as I passed, early in the morning on my first day in Syria. And Yusef the shoeshine boy, who haggled with me for quadruple his usual fee, as he polished my shoes on the pavement, on my last day.
In all that destruction, did they survive?