Today we drove from Damascus to Palmyra, stopping at the Bagdad Cafe near the Iraqi border. Palmyra (Tadmor) was an Assyrian Caravan town 4000 years ago (built on an oasis 200km from the Euphrates River, vital as a watering hole in the desert crossing), and an important outpost in the Greek Empire. It was annexed by Rome in 217 CE, and became amazingly wealthy through taxing trade, with a population of over 200 000 people. As the most eastern part of the Roman empire it was only tenuously held, and when Zanobia became ruler of Palmyra in 267 CE after her husband Odenathus suspiciously died, she claimed descent from Cleopatra and rose up against Rome. She had early success, but the city was sacked by Emperor Hadrian in 273 CE, and has since been buried in sand.
We first visited Fakhredin al Maany Citadel, which was built only 800 years ago after the Islamic conquest of the region. It was a lovely little castle, I wandered around it by myself, poking into small passageways and admiring the view over Palmyra from the highest towers, cheering me up a lot. The castle was extended about 300 years ago, by a noble with visions of independence from the Ottomans. He made peace with them eventually, and the Sultan invited him and his sons to Constantinople to seal the peace, then hung them.
The city itself was amazing. It isn't strictly Roman, being rather Nabataean under Roman rule, with the Nabataean fusion of styles. It was an enormous city, with a 6km wall surrounding it, and a 1.
3km main street, lined with columns (many of which are still standing). Only 30% has been uncovered from the sand, with the work still underway, but they have already revealed a Senate, bathes, temples and a small theatre. We saw the columns with Zanobia's titles carved on them, with one of her titles (Empress?) removed by the Romans after her defeat. The main street has an unusual double arch at the end, where the street needs to turn to the Temple of Bell (Roman architecture likes straight streets, so two archways were built, each perpendicular with the road they faced, and slight askew from each other, to give the impression of a straight road).
Temple of Bell was very impressive, still largely intact. Bell/Baal was the most important God in the Palmyrene pantheon), although Zanobia was also a convert of Mani, the Babylonian prophet (210-276 CE) who formed the major religion Manichaeism which tried to peacefully fuse together Christianity, Buddhism, Judaisim and Zoroastrianism into a pacifist religion (which lasted a thousand years before dying out). The Temple was converted to Jupiter under Roman rule, and later used as Church and Mosque, with fresco of Gabriel and St George, and a mark cut to indicate the direction of Mecca. The temple gate was impressive, carved with olives (the symbol of fertility), grapes (the symbol of immortality) and poppy (the symbol of medicine). The whole complex looked pockmarked, as the Ottomans cut out the rock to extract the bronze dowls used in the construction. A really wonderful site...