Middle East | Syria | Palmyra (Tadmor) – First light and empty cities
It was 4.45 when I banged on PJs door. He was already up. Hed been up most of the night, trying to ignore the overpowering smell of drains that came into his room. Id been up most of the night, terrified by bad dreams, and pissed off with the sounds of gurgling plumbing. We were out of the hotel five minutes later, and charging across to the ruins in the colourless light before the sunrise.
One day, someone will make a grand Hollywood movie, and set it in Palmyra. And, when they get here, they will realise they could have left the trunks of expensive filters at home. Apart from the middle of the day, when the sun is so high that the shadows are short enough to flatten everything, Palmyra looks unearthly, unreal, and ripe with ghosts and beauty. Sadly, the movie will almost certainly feature galloping sheiks, crunchy-faced bandits, and beautiful princesses in distress. It will be called Bride of the Desert and star Nicole Kidman. Eric Sykes will have a small role as a comedy servant, with disturbing comedy boils on his chin, and a comedy donkey that only goes backwards.
In the moments before the sun came over the horizon, as I was apologising for my lack of speed for the fourth or fifth time, PJ was obviously itching to go bounding ahead.
Go on then, go! I waved.
He sprinted off towards the hill where three funerary towers look down across the ruins, light footed and sure of his step on the uneven ground.
I ambled along, turning around constantly, wanting to see in every direction at once, wanting to see the shifting patterns and developing light. I scrambled up onto some rocks, and sat cross-legged, waiting for the sun. It emerged, and I instantly regretted crossing to the west side of the city.
I was on the shadow side, not able to see the precise point where the ruins were being painted with morning light. But, behind me, the necropolis was starting to warm up, and glow. I could see PJ in the distance, halfway up the hill, his arms raised in the air, and I had a sneaking suspicion that he was indulging in some dippy hippy personal ritual. You never can tell, with Americans.
But sitting on a broken slab of stone carved with acanthus leaves, my feet in dust and dry-stemmed wildflowers, facing the rising sun, I realised quite how absurd I was to be quibbling about the spot Id chosen. This city is amazing. And empty. I might not have been talking to the sun, but I was grinning like a loon. I probably looked like an idiot, but there was no one there to see, and it stopped me getting all weepy and romantic, as I remembered visiting Petra with snarl. Id set my clock wrong that third morning of our stay, putting it forward an extra hour, so when we got out of bed, even the first light of the false dawn was over an hour away, and the gatekeeper was astonished to see us. Even the muezzin was still tucked up in bed.
We had stumbled down to the Siq, unable to see our feet. There was no moon, and the Milky Way was a bright smear above us. It was cold, and we were jumpy with imagination walking past the solid bulk of the djinn blocks. Always magical, in the dark, the Siq is overwhelming. The walls of rock are hundreds of feet high, and you cant help but seeing shapes, faces, in the patterns and ridges in the eroded stone. The darkness started to drain away, so that we had a pale grey ribbon of sky above our heads as we walked down, down, down through the chasm. The only sounds were our feet, and snarls occasional whistles to test for echoes.
We reached the treasury just as the day began, and the air shimmered from dark to light. It was cold, and clear, and entirely silent. We were the only people awake in the whole of Petra.
A bird flew up from the ground to the top of the cliff, and the beating of its wings echoed around the rocks, making our hearts jump and rattle inside our ribs. I remembered lacing my fingers through snarls, and squeezing, squeezing as we waited. Im not sure what we were waiting for, but it felt like Christmas Eve.
A dozen birds took off from the shadows under the doorway, as the first rays of the morning sun fell onto the stone. They circled around, every wing beat a distinct sound, and flocked towards the warmth of the light.
The birds began to sing, their voices falling in layers from the top of the canyon.
We had sat there, until the magic seemed normal.
And so I sat in Palmyra, on a rock, missing snarl frantically, wishing he was back here with me.
Five dogs trooped off down the dried out bed of a stream. A donkey was demanding breakfast, or announcing its existential angst, in the distance. Sparrows were awake, and making their presence known with high volume chattering. PJ came striding back, and sat down on the stones next to me.
Energetic, I said, for five in the morning.
The biggest, most important Roman ruins in the whole of the middle east, in the world, in this light, and we have it entirely to ourselves? Of course Im hyped.
He had a point. Theres something magical, and deliciously selfish about claiming a whole city for yourself.
I spent so much time on my own, wandering through ruins and museums, I began to think that I was in a parallel Syria from the rest of the world. I was the only person exploring Mari. I was the only person at Resafeh, except for the Librarian-driver who took me there. The only one at Dura Europos I caught a glimpse of two people standing on the walls of the citadel, but, they vanished so fast I convinced myself that I imagined them. When I did see other people, they evaporated after the first sighting. Even the archaeologists took off for lunch, leaving me to wander around Ugarit on my own.
At first, the emptiness is annoying. Here are some of the wonders of the world, and no one is bothering to visit them. And then the solitude becomes a delight. Theres no one in your way, no one making small talk, no one blocking the perfect view that you want to photograph. And then it becomes slightly unnerving. Everyone has vanished. At that point, its almost a relief when someone pops up and tries to sell you faded postcards.
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PJ and I spent the next few hours wandering up and down through Palmyra, each in our own direction, then catching up to point things out to each other. Seeing things with a stranger can be a treat there are unpredictable moments, where you are nudged into a way of seeing that hadnt occurred to you. Also, he charmed our way into one of the swanky hotels to indulge in a blow out breakfast at a special price.
So we gorged on croissant-shaped pancakes, omelettes, fruit, and thick coffee, with a glorious view over the morning city, talking about books, travel, why I hate Disney movies, why he loves them, teaching, studying, and the usual compare and contrast of people who bump into each other along the way and find they have more to discuss than the price of beer, and the number of roaches in the worst hotel they ever slept in.
Wed met at dinner, when Id crashed his table out of the sheer monotony of talking to myself. It turned out that he was one of the very few traveller-tourists I was to meet along the way. Syria is quiet, I was told, again and again. No tourists. And this was the high season for foreign visitors. Too much trouble, too much fear, too much football thats keeping people at home in front of their televisions. And too few people know about the country.
The first time snarl and I headed to Syria, the standard questions were Are you sure its safe? and Why would you go there?
It is safe. Its one of the safest places Ive ever been. No one is likely to point a gun at you, wave a knife in your face, or beat you up and steal your belongings. Perhaps its the results of years of an oppressive government, and a sneaking suspicion that you are always being watched by secret policemen who probably arent there, or perhaps its a politeness that runs deep, but Ive sat in bus stations in the middle of the night, without a twitch of nerves. Ive walked, alone, through cities, my camera swinging from my hand, and never felt anyone give it a second glance. Sure, I get looked at. See the crazy european woman in ugly brown boots, all on her own, marching around peering at completely strange old things. And I got a few offers I could have done without. But there was never that radar shiver of warning, the get out of here, now, the make sure your hands are wrapped around the straps of everything you own or, if I have to, where can I run? Maybe its complacency on my part, but Syria is an easy place to travel. People told me that I was brave, travelling on my own. But all I was doing was taking buses, and ending up at places to see. Id probably get more grief doing this at home, in England.
And why? No one seems to know about Syria, apart from the people whove been there. Its a carefully cherished knowledge, though, once youve got it. Too much T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and Agatha Christie at an impressionable age? Possibly. I can probably lay the blame at the feet of William Dalrymple and the British Museum. From the Holy Mountain is one of the few travel related books Ive ever read that made me want to go there, and see this, soon, right now. It started in the British Museum, seeing lions covered in cuneiform script.
Syria holds layer upon layer of history. With no natural borders, people have swept through, and taken control again and again. Civilisations have risen, and fallen. And each one has left its mark cities, and sculptures, and alphabets, and graves. The Euphrates is lined with the distinctive shapes of tells artificial mounds which hide the detritus and buildings of abandoned habitations. There are hints and clues to how we got to where we are how we learned to make art, grow crops, build cities, worship gods, tell stories. Perhaps theres nothing as obviously awe-inspiring as the monuments of Egypt, or the rock-carved tombs of Petra. But its the sweep through time you see in Syria a flavour of different periods through thousands of years of humans growing up and that alone makes it worth the air fare.
Plus, the food is good.