Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bride Of The Desert

In the middle of the Syrian desert is a large oasis, and although tarmac roads and the motor car put paid to the camel train in this part of the world some time ago, 2000 years ago this oasis and its city of Palmyra were strategically important on trade routes between the Parthian and the Greek and Roman empires. Although initially a simple, Roman vassal outpost Palmyra quickly grew in wealth and independence and eventually, in the late 3rd century under queen Zenobia, not only revolted against Roman rule, but also tried to rival it. They didn't do too badly, managing to conquer Egypt and getting as far as Antioch before the Romans pushed them back and taught them a lesson by sacking the city. And although Palmyra limped on as a town after that it never got close to regaining its former greatness. Luckily for us the dry, desert conditions preserved much of the site so that it is not hard for one to imagine what once was as you stroll down the main thoroughfare, still lined with 15m columns, for 1km; or as you stand in the shadow of the temple of Ba'al, dwarfed by the huge stone blocks that make up its immense walls; or even as you pass through the 5m high door of the agora. There is grandeur here on a colossal scale. Yet despite that it was something altogether more life-sized, and life-like, that marked me the most.

Outside the city walls extends another city, a city for the dead. And in this necropolis people were not buried individually, as is the general custom today, but instead families would build towers for the dead. These towers would be arranged somewhat like beehives, with niches, called loculi, in which to place the dead bodies much like the cells in which bees store their honey. And when a cell is full of honey it is sealed up with wax, and so too with the Palmyrenes, except they did not use wax but instead used a stele with the carved bust of the deceased. So now it is possible to walk through the Palmyra museum (for the stela no longer grace the tombs as they would be prime targets for grave-robbers) you see row upon row of faces: old and young, men and women, each unique, individual, staring back at you through the millennia. Such intimate contact with people long departed makes you wonder about the lives they led, the troubles they had, the joys they experienced. It is very haunting to realise that, in a strange way, they have achieved a sort of immortality.

1 comment:

Liam and Eila said...

Hi Erik,

Just had to come through your blog to see the picture, and realised that we have never left a message through your blog before. We both sgrolled through some of your previous blogs and came upon the meeting in Delhi with us, and it made us think of how greatfull we were of the amount of information we got from you during that time.It deffinatly gave us a head start on our trip. We just wanted to say thankyou!