The driver has put his feet down and we are now racing along. The sun is beginning to set and there is a good vantage point for a sunset – we just have to get there on time. I wonder what the rush is for. And then, after a dash up a hill there it is. Now I understand.
The sounds of the gathered crowd have faded into the background and I am transfixed. The sun is highlighting the architecture as if someone has sprinkled gold dust on it – the decomanus, Temple of Bel and the Amphitheatre. It may not have been built by the Romans but they have left their mark.
The setting sun is now glowing amber on the stone – a last hint of warmth before the cold desert night.
I am looking across Palmyra – a desert city which became an important stopping point on the Silk Road because it connected Persia in the East to Turkey in the West. The springs of Palmyra created an oasis in a barren land. Looking across the desert I imagined how travellers of old would have felt seeing Palmyra in the distance. Finally, after what must have been a long and dangerous journey, safety was in sight.
The next day I find myself in the Amphitheatre.
The acoustics never disappoint and this one is no different. I imagined the plays and the music that would have drifted all the way up and out to the desert beyond. This wasn’t just a Silk Road version of a motorway service station – providing food, water and shelter but a city of culture where people sang and danced.
It was also a place of war. The guide tells me a story of Queen Zenobia being captured, trussed in gold chains and carried off to Rome on a chariot. Palmyra has a unique aura as if the thousands of years of history are hanging in the air and I find myself believing that this story is true.
I arrive at the Temple of Bel – the marks on the side are where gold panels were once fixed – if you were lost in the desert the glint of gold could guide you to safety. Imagine trudging across the barren land of the desert, water running low, food running out and then you see the glint of sun hitting metal. Safety is within reach.
Today the gold has gone and many of the buildings turned to dust. Palmyra isn’t the first city to fall victim to war and I like to think that in the not too distant future, the weapons of war will fall silent, the people of Syria will find peace and Palmyra will rise from the ashes and, once again, be a beacon shining in the desert.