Into the Desert



In December 1960, right before Christmas, my husband Dave and I launched our little Volkswagen into the Syrian Desert. We did this without a road. According to our guide book, there was an unpaved trail passable by all vehicles.

We were following the tracks of small trucks that used this shortcut between Damascus and the ancient city of Palmyra, but the markings were not distinct. When we couldn’t see any tracks in the black rocks of the stony desert, we steered between two distant mountain ranges.

This route was more than 60 miles shorter than the normal way: namely, going north to Homs and taking the paved road. It took us seven hours to cover the 130 miles, but it was definitely an adventure.

Alone in a wide, dry landscape, we saw mirages ahead that looked like pools of water. As we reached each one, the water disappeared and the ducks on the surface turned into desert plants. The camels we met in a caravan, however, were real.

Mile after mile, we worked our way toward an oasis on the southern edge of the sandy desert. There, in the last fold of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, a perennial spring gave rise to a civilization dating back to the 19th century B.C.

Always a way station for desert crossers, the city of Tadmor (city of dates) was originally founded by Arab tribes. It was renamed Palmyra (city of palms) during Roman times, with Roman architecture superimposed during the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.

A few miles from Palmyra, we connected with the macadam road from Homs and drove on into the ancient city, one of Syria’s archaeological treasures. The setting sun turned the limestone columns of the ruins a glowing red. We rounded the temple of Bel-Shamin and arrived at the one-story Hotel Zenobia hidden in its shadow.

It was a cold winter evening. We were welcomed and invited to take a place near the pot-bellied stove that sat in the middle of the reception room. There were three men already enjoying the warmth.

The setting sun turned the limestone columns of the ancient Palmyra ruins a glowing red.

One was in charge of the ruins, another the teacher in the local school, and the third was manager of the hotel. He went off and ordered dinner for us from the cook.

Early the next morning, we walked around the extensive site. We saw the main temples, and then went with a guide to the tombs. Inside the tombs were hundreds of sculpted heads, each depicting the mummified body sealed within the cell.

Among the many rulers of Palmyra was the desert queen Zenobia, famous for fighting the Romans and setting up an extensive empire in 270. Camel troops from Palmyra had been fighting the Persians on behalf of the Romans for years.

Zenobia declared the city independent and led her warriors against Roman Emperor Aurelian. She claimed to be descended from Cleopatra. Like that queen, she was quick-witted, bold and spoke many languages. But Rome was much too strong for this desert kingdom to oppose, and Zenobia was defeated.

After a second rebellion a year later, the wealthy city was pillaged, burned and reduced to a minor outpost in the desert. Earthquakes through the centuries also leveled parts of the lavish structures.

When we were there, the Syrian government was excavating and rebuilding the site. This continued until the so-called Islamic State group took over the site in May 2015. Since then many people have been killed, and the monuments are being systematically destroyed.

The most prominent person murdered was Khalid al-Asaad, director of Palmyra antiquities from 1963 until his retirement in 2003, who was beheaded in the square in front of his museum on Aug. 11, 2015.

ISIS began by wrecking statues they deemed polytheistic. Among those was the Lion of Al-lat statue in front of one of the temples. They went on to demolish the main temple of Bel and the smaller temple of Bel-Shamin, and blow up seven of the ancient tower tombs. The Arch of Triumph, too, has fallen to their frenzy.

At some point, memories may be all that are left.

Kate Carr and her FSO husband David were posted for 18 years in the Middle East. During those many years, they explored the countries that are presently in the news. David Carr retired from the Foreign Service in 1993, and the couple lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.