The ruins are spectacular and are overlooked by a 16th century Arab castle from which you should go to view the ruins at dawn or dusk.
Although the only similarity with Ephesus is the fact that they are both well-known Roman sites and on many people’s ‘must see’ lists. Palmyra was one of the cities of the Roman Decapolis, a line of ten cities which marked the border of the eastern empire. It is in the desert, and only after driving along a two-lane asphalt highway for about an hour do the ruins suddenly come into view.
As well as being a Roman garrison city, Palmyra was also a trading hub and the brackets you see half way up the columns originally held statues of local notables. In total there must have been thousands of statues.
When Lady Hester Stanhope, a Victorian woman who travelled widely in the Middle East visited Palmyra in the middle of the 19th century, young dancing girls were placed on all the brackets and she entered the city by riding her camel between two rows of ‘living statues’.
The ruins are spectacular and are overlooked by a 16th century Arab castle (see picture above) from which you should go to view the ruins at dawn or dusk. As it has been blowing a gale for the whole of our visit with occasional rain showers, we shall have to imagine the famous view from the castle – or make sure we next visit at a time of year when the weather is more benign.
The most famous ruler of Palmyra was Zenobia, who took over after her husband and elder son were murdered in Cappadocia where they were leading a campaign on behalf of the Romans, whilst her other son was still too young to rule. She eventually took control of the whole of Syria, south as far as Egypt and west well into Turkey.
It seems she dreamt of splitting the Roman Empire – she would rule in the east leaving the western part of the Empire to Rome itself. In 272 the Emperor Aurelian decided enough was enough and led his army across Anatolia, recapturing key cities en route, and finally attacked and took Palmyra. Zenobia fled across the desert on a camel but was caught whilst trying to cross the Euphrates, and paraded in Rome as part of Aurelian’s triumph, draped in golden chains. She was then kept in captivity near Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli.
Palmyra continued after the fall of the Roman Empire as an Arab stronghold. The Arabs fortified the Temple of Bel, the most impressive structure remaining on the site, and later built the castle which still overlooks the site today. But by the time the Ottomans reached this area the ruins had been allowed to almost disappear under the desert sands.
Today Palmyra is almost totally dependent on tourism, and in early February tourists are thin on the ground. The minute you arrive the hassling starts with Arabs wanting you take their taxi, stay at their hotel (or the hotel that will give them a commission for delivering you), eat at a certain restaurant or buy their trinkets. It is tiresome, and in sharp contrast to all the other places we have visited in Syria.
Everything costs more here because it has to be trucked in across the desert.
In fact our verdict on Palmyra has to be ‘amazing ruins, shame about the people.’
The only answer would seem to be to visit as part of an organised tour group, or come in spring or autumn which are peak visiting seasons, when with luck there will be sufficient tourists around to keep all the touts busy and happy.