Our bus casually rolls through Palmyra, an ancient town lying against a backdrop of a fertile oasis and Roman ruins dating back centuries. It’s located in Syria’s central desert and pays homage to its prosperous history as a major caravan stop along the Silk Road trade route. Palmyra is also one of those towns that can fascinate you by day and surprise you with an entirely new experience by night.
Our bus chugs up a steep incline, makes a quick u-turn and unexpectedly stops. We’re instructed to walk the remaining hundred or so metres to reach the cliff-face alongside Qalaat Shirkuh, or Palmyra Castle, before the sun quickly disappears. We race to the Castle, clamber across rough boulders and face the horizon. The setting sun paints a stark palate of pink and orange across the sky to the delight of onlookers.
We set off to locate the entrance to Palmyra Castle and become overwhelmed by an imposing, almost forbidding tone in the air. We wander through towering corridors and stumble over cobblestones where horses and caravans once trodden. We arrive at the Castle’s higher-most platform to experience a panoramic view of the scene below. We seat ourselves on the outer walls and I feel small and vulnerable by the sheer drop below. I survey the Valley of the Tombs. Dusty tower tombs stick up from the desert sand to capture the last slice of sunlight before disappearing eerily into darkness. Their blackened portholes hide the stories of deceased souls who were laid to rest inside so many centuries before.
A gritty wind bites at our heels as we make our way back to the Monumental Arch of Palmyra’s famous Roman Gate. Prolific golden columns stand above us as we look high to view the crumbling arch and a smattering of stars across the sky. We can hear the sound of palm trees rustling in the breeze and I start to conger up a vision of what the scene might’ve been like in its heyday. Caravans would’ve rolled along Main Street to unload precious cargo of spices, perfumes or frankincense. By day, the street may have been the epicenter of Palmyra trade; a rambunctious scene of travellers as they assert their wares and prices onto the ever-keen bargaining prowess of Palmyrene society over hospitable glasses of strong tea. By dusk, camels would be kneeling in the sand as traders bunker down next to an open fire. Headscarves would be strategically placed over their heads to protect faces from sand in the air. Traders would discuss their day of successful trade and whether their optimistic stop in Palmyra resulted in prosperity.
In the afternoon Palmyra heat, we successfully experienced the antiquity of this remote city. Yet, by night, I experienced something subliminal. In my mind, I transported myself to another time, drank tea, bought highly-prized spices at a decent price and wiped the desert dust from my eyes like Silk Road traders did many moons ago.