The ruins of Palmyra.
“All the sacred Mysteries of Asia, with their strident music, served now to add to this voluptuous unrest … I felt only disgust and abhorrence for all such subterranean and sinister cults.”
—Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian, on the emperor’s stay in Palmyra, Syria, 129 CE
My son Charles and I may have been the last Americans to walk among the Roman ruins at Palmyra.
A classical oasis in the Syrian desert, Palmyra was recently captured by the Islamic State (sometimes called ISIS or ISIL) from a coalition army that included soldiers still loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
An outpost of the Roman Empire that remains vibrantly intact, the city is about a three-hour drive (134 miles on dodgy roads) east into the Syrian desert from either Homs or Damascus. Carry on another nine or ten hours, and you will arrive in Baghdad.
Dedicated to creating an Islamic state in western Iraq and eastern Syria, ISIS brutalizes the population in its conquered areas and has destroyed unnumbered artifacts from earlier civilizations. Although it has yet to take down the ruins at Palmyra, it has committed shocking atrocities in Iraq against such UNESCO sites such as Nimrud, Hatra, and Nineveh—beheading statues, much as it has the local opposition to its extreme Sunni rule. Erasing historical complexity is as important a weapon in its arsenal as an AK-47.
In recent days around Palmyra, ISIS blew up several Muslim tombs (located just outside the city) and, according to some reports, might have laced land mines in or around the ancient Roman city.
Propaganda is a large reason for the ISIS attacks against archaeological sites. The British newspaper the Guardian reported: “Taking bulldozers and sledgehammers to irreplaceable Assyrian antiquities is just another way for ISIS to attract attention or a PR novelty after its beheading and immolation videos.”
The Roman emperor Hadrian visited Palmyra in 129 CE and laid out the plans for it to thrive as a “free city” of Hellenistic designs and disposition. Too bad he didn’t leave some legionnaires behind to protect it.
In 2010, not long before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in Deraa—until then famous only as the place where, in the film Lawrence of Arabia, a Turkish bey has his way with the blue-eyed British guerrilla soldier—my son, then fourteen, and I decided to spend his Easter break from junior high school riding the so-called Baghdad Railway toward Damascus. (The real one was never finished.)
Hard as it is now to believe, in 2010 Syria aspired to the status of a tourist destination. At a travel convention in Berlin, I met a man who had proudly obtained the Europcar franchise for the country. When he heard about the train trip to Damascus I was planning, he beamed with enthusiasm and offered us a special rate if we would use one of his Europcars to drive from Aleppo to Damascus. This way, he implored, on the drive to the capital, we would be able to detour to Palmyra (sometimes in Arabic called Tadmor, but off the rail network) and its matchless Roman ruins.
Although I thought nothing of taking my teenage son a flight to Istanbul or on the night train to the Turkish border city of Adana, I had some misgivings about driving a rental car across the Syrian desert.
My new Europcar friend kept saying it would be “no problem,” but I had my doubts about whether my son could figure out the road maps—GPS was not an option—and whether I had the driving skills to steer us 400 miles across the Crusader spine and deserts of Syria. Most of the country lives on a north-south axis from Aleppo to Damascus; the terrain was likely to be sparsely populated, perhaps dangerous.
We didn’t make up our mind to take the rental car until we crossed the Turkish-Syrian border near the frontier town of Reyhanli.
The night before, our Turkish train had left us in Adana. There we hired a taxi driver to take us forty kilometers down the coast to Iskenderum, once known as Alexandretta, a city Churchill hoped the Allies would seize in 1917 after the failures at Gallipoli.
One of the highlights of the trip to Palmyra came on the waterfront of Iskenderum. After midnight, sitting in a seafront café, what felt like half the city’s population of older men crowded around our table and coached both my son and me in what turned out to be an epic game of backgammon. To the delight of our new Turkish friends, my son won the game.
The next day we took a public bus to Hatay—the modern name for the Biblical city of Antioch—and in a market square parking lot entered a scrum to secure passage in a shared taxi across the Syrian border. Every driver in the parking lot wanted us as his fares to Aleppo. At one point a shoving match broke out among the drivers, many of whom seemed to be grabbing at our passports.
We retreated to the backseat of a taxi we chose for the meek appearance of its driver, a man we nicknamed (after his favorite expression) “Mr. Inshallah.” Many of the other drivers looked like they were moonlighting as gunrunners.
Mr. Inshallah cleared our passports with the dispatcher’s office, and off we headed toward the Syrian border, my son squeezed in the backseat between me and a leather-jacketed third passenger; the front seat of the taxi was equally crowded. The music on that ride could have been “Adagio for a Dying Chicken,” that Arabic taxi melody that can sound like a remix of a pulsing hip-hop concert with the sounds of the bazaar and calls to prayer.
Mercifully, we could have the windows open, and the countryside outside Hatay—near the caves of Antioch that were host to St. Paul and the fractious early days of Christianity—glittered in the early spring sunshine.
The border crossing in Syria was a two-hour affair that began in a duty-free shop. Mr. Inshallah asked my son and me to put about seven cartons of Winston cigarettes into our luggage. I had watched him buy them from the shop and later checked the cellophane wrappings, to be sure there was nothing else inside.
He didn’t ask that we pay for them—simply that we pack them away until we got across the border. I made jokes with my son from the movie Airplane! (“Well, we picked the wrong week to give up smoking”) and then had a more serious conversation with him about the predicament. St. Paul had his own “incident” at Antioch, about circumcision and Judaic dietary laws—ours was less dramatic.
Had we refused Mr. Inshallah—and maybe others in the car, part of his Cross-Border Taxi Cigarette Cartel and Friendship Society—we would mark ourselves as priggish Americans and could quickly run out of friends on the Turkish-Syrian border, a no-man’s land comprised of a long line of parked trucks on the road from Iran to Germany. Besides, who knew what the rules were for duty-free goods on the Syrian border? We took comfort in the fact that everyone we saw seemed to be smoking.
With the Winstons buried in our backpacks and my briefcase, Mr. Inshallah parked the taxi in front of Syrian customs. To cross into Syria, everyone in the car got out of the car with their luggage, which was arrayed on a low cement bench. Eventually a border guard came to inspect us. When he saw my son and me, he waved his hand dismissively at our passports and luggage, which Mr. Inshallah returned to the taxi in an instant.
For the rest of the passengers, the customs officer went through each of their bags, as if looking for heroin, although most of what he found were baby clothes, polyester men’s shirts, and cassette tape players, all of which were taxed at the prevailing rate. I wondered if the common currency was Winstons.
Mr. Inshallah drove about a kilometer past the Syrian frontier, where he stopped to collect the cartons of cigarettes that were scattered about the car. Other passengers, too, had picked the wrong week to give up smoking.
An hour later, when we got out of the taxi in Aleppo, there were still a few cartons left in my briefcase and in Charles’s backpack. By then we had formed a bond with Mr. Inshallah and his son. Throughout our stay, he would call us on the telephone to see how we were doing.
Today I wonder if he has survived the fighting.
We got out of the taxi on a street corner in Aleppo and took a roundabout route (meaning, we got lost) to the famous Baron Hotel, where T.E. Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Charles Lindbergh, David Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, Yuri Gagarin, and Kemal Ataturk all stayed.
Lawrence’s hotel bill from 1911 was in a dusty lobby cabinet—he was probably there to spy on the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway—and we were assigned Dame Agatha’s favorite room, number 203, where she conceived her famous murder on the Orient Express.
The Baron had the feel of a rundown Crusader palace, and there wasn’t enough hot water for two quick showers, but we ate our best meal of the trip in its dining room. During odds hours in Aleppo, we read books on the terrace and drank tea in the shade of palm trees.
We also made friends at the Baron with one Lucine Sanjioghlu Soghikian, known as Lucy, when she kindly went through the archives of the hotel and found some old envelopes that I gave to my ninety-year-old father, for his collection of hotel stationery. Lucy also talked to us about the Armenian genocide, during which her own grandfather, not much younger than my son at the time, walked from Lake Van, Turkey, all the way to Aleppo. He was one of the few survivors from a caravan of thousands. Telling his story, she wept.
We left early the next morning on a roundabout route to Palmyra, having decided to drive south to Krak des Chevaliers, the Crusader castle, and then east to our destination.
First, we had to escape the clutches of the Aleppo police. They stopped us just outside the city—for reasons of incentive compensation. I was driving carefully and slowly, and wasn’t in the mood to pay up. But the cop wasn’t in the mood to book us either, so the roadside encounter ended with a friendly wave—the kind of tolerance that, I imagine, has long since vanished from the Syrian street.
Glad to be free of the local authorities, we headed first for the Dead Cities, relics of Byzantine rule, which lie between Aleppo and Homs. There we climbed among ruins of oddly-angled fragments that were toppled in an earthquake, and imagined long vanished cultures about which little is known. Spread out before us was a Dead Sea in broken marble.
At Apamea—now known as Afamia—we had the colonnaded Greek ruins virtually to ourselves, save for some local touts who stalked our progress, trying to sell us fragments of Roman pottery. After Palmyra, Apamea is the oldest classical site in Syria, and I have no doubt that the relics they were selling were authentic. But we wanted no part of their business.
Driving across the valley of the Orontes River, a wide reach of cultivated and irrigated farms in an otherwise dry country, we retraced the steps of T.E. Lawrence, who, while a student at Oxford in 1909, tramped to many of the Crusader fortresses that are scattered across Syria, then a province of the Ottoman Empire.
We spent that night at Krak des Chevaliers, decorated as though the Crusaders had left in 1959 rater than the twelfth century. The Syrians had made some effort to block off dungeon wells, and a B movie about Queen Cleopatra was improbably being filmed in one of the inner halls, made to look like a Pharaoh’s boudoir. Otherwise, Krak des Chevalier was as Lawrence would have found it, one of the finest castles in the world, much like the looming presence of Edinburgh castle, or so many others across France.
We met some friends that night in the hotel who wanted to come along the next day on the ride to Palmyra. Directions, at least in Syria, means a series of educated guesses. My son used an array of maps, deciphering place names in French and Arabic. I remained behind the wheel for the three-hour tack into the desert. On our way we drove through the city of Homs, at the heart of the Civil War, passing through a lively market square that has since been destroyed.
A long road through the desert connects Homs to Palmyra. Only some gas stations interrupted the bleakness of the rocks, dirt, and sand. We stopped for water at a place called the Baghdad Café, owned by Iraqi refugees. Perhaps recognizing two Americans, they whispered that the situation in their home country was “very bad”—an early indicator that the rosy assurances of President Obama and General Petraeus were optimistic.
Just before sunset, we arrived finally in Palmyra. To visit the colonnaded main street, we parked randomly and began strolling under the marble. If we bought tickets, I don’t remember now. Somehow I think it was just open to the public, like New York’s Central Park, and about the same size as the ruins. It took more than an hour to walk from one end to the other.
Few ruins evoke the reach and might of Roman power as does Palmyra, which is more intact than the Forum in Rome and more expansive than Olympia. Carthage, by comparison, looks like a paved city park.
When and where did I first get the idea to visit Palmyra? It might have been in Lebanon, when I hired a taxi in Beirut and drove out (through numerous checkpoints) to Baalbek, the incomparable Roman ruins in the Bekaa Valley. That gave me the taste for Roman ruins in the Middle East.
It could also have been from my high school Latin teacher, and now lifelong friend, Peggy Brucia, that I first heard about Palmyra.
Although I took only two years of Latin with her in high school, since then I have tried to make up for my sophomoric attitude toward Ovid by spending countless hours tracking down Roman and Greek ruins in places like Carthage, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Pergamon, Troy, and Ephesus—always with Peggy in mind.
What interests me about these classical sites are their stories of modern “rediscovery.” After the Roman Empire fell, around 454 CE, and after the Muslim invasions of Arabia in the seventh century, Palmyra was forgotten. Eventually it was buried under the blowing sands. Not until 1678 was the old city rediscovered. Two Englishmen living in Aleppo trekked across the desert to make notes about rumors of a lost city.
In 1753, Robert Woods’ Ruins of Palmyra was published in London, putting the site on the maps of Middle Eastern explorers. The serious excavations, which were mainly German and French, did not begin until early in the twentieth century. For this reason, relics from Palmyra can be found all across Europe—though the city’s true spectacle is its triumphant line of columns in the sand, not the busts in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.
One of the first Americans to see Palmyra was the popular historian and Cincinnati professor, Philip Van Ness Myers. He wrote of his visit in the 1870s:
As it was raining, and our soldiers were unprovided with tents, we remounted, and rode all night through a severe storm, which at times swept the desert with snow and hail. In the gray light of morning we discovered the tower-tombs of Palmyra, standing like specters in the pass.
On his many wanderings across the Syrian desert, Lawrence only went once to (or just near) Palmyra, on a scouting mission from the Hejaz to Tadmor in June 1917 that, unfortunately, has largely been washed from the Lawrence record. Perhaps because the mission tied into his intelligence work, he left no mention of Palmyra or its in ruins in his memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, although for sure he would have lusted to see them. He noted in a margin of a sketched map, “private journey of my own, for intelligence purpose,” which could have been the story of his life.
About the same time he also wrote of the ceaseless struggles in that part of the world (yet again present in our current age): “To be of the desert was, as they knew, a doom to wage unending battle with an enemy who was not of the world, nor life, nor anything, but hope itself; and failure seemed God’s freedom to mankind.”
My son and I spent parts of two days climbing among the ruins. At sunset and sunrise we walked the colonnaded avenues, stopping here and there to peak into temples or climb the steps of a theater. Built at the base of a sweeping valley, the Palmyra views through the columns of distant arches and temples remain as dramatic as those from the Parthenon in Athens or those that can be seen along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.
How fragile are the Roman ruins at Palmyra? Very, I would say. A company of soldiers with explosives and some excavators could pull down, with the force of a local earthquake, the remaining Roman columns. To be sure, at their base, the columns are the size of Sequoia tree trunks, but what holds them in place is as much a faith in the past as Roman engineering.
Recently, to destroy (and no doubt insult Shiites around the world) the tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali—a companion of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Imam Ali—ISIS used explosives to scatter his burial site.
When it has bulldozed other classical sites into the ground, ISIS has spoken of “year zero,” of rejecting links to past civilizations, at least those that are non-Muslim. As the Guardian reported: “Strikingly, the ISIS department responsible for destroying antiquities is called the committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice – the same name as the official Saudi body charged with enforcing morality.” Why should Palmyra be spared from its death sentence?
For ISIS, Palmyra represents the ideal hostage for Western civilization. The city otherwise holds little commercial or strategic interest. (The Assad regime used the modern city of Palmyra to imprison its political dissidents.) The classical city took shape on the caravan routes to Constantinople and the Mediterranean, but absent those trade flows (the caravans shifted north), it exists only as an oasis of the mind. As the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of other classical ruins:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
From Peggy, my high school Latin teacher, Hadrian has always among my favorite Roman emperors, in part for his ability to express himself so eloquently in stone. One of his biographers, Elizabeth Speller, writes: “He used art to bind his empire with his own past and an unknown future.”
Wondering what he might think of Palmyra’s impending fall, I fell upon Memoirs of Hadrian, a 1954 novel by the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, in which Rome’s greatest architect-emperor says:
Our life is brief: we are always referring to centuries which precede or follow our own as if they were totally alien to us, but I have come close to them in my play with stone. These walls which I reinforce are still warm from contact with vanished bodies; hands yet unborn will caress the shafts of these columns. The more I have meditated upon my death, … the more I have tried to add to our lives these virtually indestructible extensions.
As much as I hate the idea of Palmyra ground into marble dust, I do take comfort in Hadrian’s imagined words. Although he wanted his Greek and Roman stones to speak to future generations, he was also enough of a realist to know that the ideas of man outlive the buildings where they were conceived. He also would have known how to deal with fractious tribes on the frontier.
In writing about the end of the Roman Empire, the classicist Edith Hamilton whose books The Greek Way and The Roman Way I often carry when I travel toward antiquity, writes:
It is worth our while to perceive that the final reason for Rome’s defeat was the failure of mind and spirit to rise to a new and great opportunity, to meet the challenge of new and great events. Material development outstripped human development; the Dark Ages took possession of Europe, and classical antiquity ended.
Certainly to lose Palmyra as we know it would be a triumph of darkness, but even as a pile of fragmented marble, Hadrian’s city will speak more about his reverence for the past, and will endure longer, than will the nihilism of ISIS and its rage against the future.
All photos © Matthew Stevenson
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author, most recently, of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and Whistle-Stopping America. His next book, Reading the Rails, will be published in 2015. He lives in Switzerland.