From Qadesh we travelled by bus a few hours away, east, into the desert. There is a stillness in the desert as I have found in no other environment on Earth and its harshness challenges me. There is magic in the desert. When I was a little kid, I used to think the people who wanted to go into the desert must be mad, but once I visited the American Southwest and had the first taste of what quiet truly sounds like, I knew better.
The desert of Syria is famous because it is the northern tip of a much larger desert extending south, which once separated the ancient and modern societies further east, from those that line the Mediterranean. The traditional path between these two regions is to travel the Euphrates River and go around the top, along the middle of the Fertile Crescent. Following the domestication of the camel, however, things began to get more interesting. When trading organizations were no longer interested in paying tariffs to the various powers that controlled the Euphrates, they could hire caravans to cross the desert. It is in this way that the desert became more than just a wasteland. Of all the sites associated with the rise of the camel caravan, few sites, indeed few ruins on Earth, are more famous than Palmyra.
Palmyra is located at a large oasis roughly halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia (Modern Iraq), at the heart of the primary desert route that cuts through the northern tip of the desert. This placed it in a powerful position to exploit various economic circumstances and during the 2nd century AD, while the Roman Empire was at its height, Palmyra became extraordinarily rich providing access to goods from Persia and further east. The rise and fall of the city are an important part of Roman, as well as Syrian, history, and the famous queen Zenobia has been one of my favourite characters of all time.
We travelled to Palmyra by bus, arriving at the hottest point of the day. One must experience the height of desert heat in the summer to understand truly the definition of the word hot. After that valuable reminder, and checking into a hotel, we went up to the nearby hillside to watch the ruins at sunset. It is said that the ruins are most attractive during the sunrise and sunset hours and it is hard to disagree after having seen it. The next morning we woke before dawn and spent the rest of the morning touring and exploring the ruins and museum. It was not nearly as physically challenging as some of the other sites we had seen, but then, there is an entire town there catering to the tourists’ needs.
Palmyra was indeed, very beautiful, but it was beautiful in the way mass-tourism sites typically are. It looks just like everyone else’s pictures of it. I did not have any expectations for my visit there, but I had few genuine surprises as well. Some of the magic is taken out of a place when one has been pre-conditioned by so many images of it. Regardless, a beautiful place is still beautiful and I am very glad to finally have had the opportunity to see my queen, Zenobia’s, city.
We departed Palmyra by bus and travelled east to Deir ez-zur, the easternmost city in Syria.
The bus driver politely dropped us off at the police station upon our arrival. This was hardly surprising, so we answered their questions and they wished us well on our journey. You see, Deir ez-zur is on the Euphrates, and it is the last major settlement before one arrives in Iraq. Entering the small city, I noticed several things that made this place different from all the other places we had been. The Arabic dialect was noticeably different, Nora explained that it is much closer to the Bedouin dialects, and I have read of heavy Iraqi influences. The people are different as well. They seem more rural than in the west – like life was slower and simpler. There is a large hinterland of small “suburbs” up and down the Euphrates where people farm the land, and the city is basically a glorified trading post for these settlements. We saw a noticeably large military and police presence throughout the city, and in the souq, we came face to face with a great many Iraqis. The imprint their faces left me will stay with me the rest of my life. Deir ez-zur is not like the other places I have been.
So I made it to the Euphrates, the glorious Euphrates, one of the two arms that held our civilization in its infancy, and one of the centrepieces of my studies. She was larger and more beautiful than I had expected her to be, and she flows much faster than I expected. We watched some local children who were jumping into the river. I spent more than a few minutes staring into the water and dreaming of the ages that have looked upon it with the same reverence.
The following morning we rode out to Dura Europos, Mari, and Terqa, three sites along the Euphrates to the south. Dura Europos is a Hellenistic site that rose to prominence in the same age as Palmyra. Mari is an exceedingly important site from early Mesopotamian history, while little Terqa was another Mesopotamian city but one far less distinguished than Mari. Each site had its own character but the Euphrates played an unmistakable role in each of them.
Dura Europos was certainly the most attractive archaeological site I visited in Syria. A ruined citadel sits atop a ridge overlooking the river and a large city wall that is still defined in several places bounds the entire site. Numerous temple remains dot the site but virtually nothing remains of any of them, with the notable exception of the Christian church, which I was able to find. This is rather exciting because it is the oldest church of certain date in the world. Overall, the site is really quite impressive, and aesthetically, it was my favourite ancient site in Syria.
Mari was amazing but for completely different reasons, and it certainly the ugliest site I visited in the entire country. The city once had a ziggurat, two enormous palace complexes, and several temples in two different religious sectors, but today, it looks like a great big pile of mud. I travelled hundreds of miles across Syria and the desert, endured daily temperatures in the upper 30’s (c), in order to stare at, yes, a pile of mud, and it made me very happy. Two generations of work have been done at the site and we have learned volumes from their labours. Restoration efforts are better in some areas than others, but to the casual visitor, I doubt they could make sense of most of what they saw. Personally, I learned much from the visit but little that is of general interest. Having the opportunity to walk the halls of both the Third Millennium and Second Millennium palaces was a special experience, as was climbing the mound that remains of one of Syria’s only ancient ziggurats. Most of all, the greatest impression I was left with was the simultaneous reverence for both the age of this ancient place, and the amount of work done to understand it.
Terqa was a cute site that we stopped to see on our return trip to Deir ez-zur. The site itself was not especially notable but the exploration of the site was a great bit of fun. There is a modern town in the middle of the excavation and several local children came out to help us find everything we were looking for. Their excitement was contagious and they did make it much easier to find everything. Terqa was largely forgettable, but it was useful for me to identify its location along the Euphrates.
We returned to Deir ez-zur from our excursion south and made a dash to see the city’s museum before closing. We made it with time, but the staff had closed for the day for reasons I did not quite catch. Fortunately we made sad faces and said please enough that they reconsidered and we were allowed to briefly tour the galleries, and what a surprise! Yet another minor museum that turned out to be in better condition than the great national museums in Damascus and Aleppo. The museum in Deir ez-zur was my favourite for its presentation of information and the broad range of its ancient collection. I highly recommend it.
Thus, the nomadic part of our journey concluded. We purchased train tickets in Deir ez-zur to ride a train all the way back to Damascus. The trip took an entire day but was comfortable and pleasant.