Visiting the Roman Oasis Palm City
Part IV - Palmyra (Tadmor)
Palmyra is probably the most advertised sight in Syria besides Damascus itself. Though seemingly remote, the city stands on the site of a large oasis which promoted the Romans to name it the city of palms. As of today, the palms are still plentiful, though only around the oasis itself, and the ruins are more or less midst naught but the desert landscape which embraces it on all sides. The ruins of the Roman city once ruled by one of history's strongest women (Zenobia) are the main attraction, where the ancient tombs of Palmyrenes and the Islamic fortress above offer plenty variation. Though I refer to Palmyra as a Roman city, it brags its own pantheon of Gods and cultural practices quite distinct from the more well-known Roman ones, and often had special status within the imperial umbrella. As there is no main entrance to the premises, you must pay entrance fees at each of the individual sights (such as the Temple of Baal and the Amphitheatre).
The ruins are vast and not entered at any specific location. There is, however, a specific route with the more intact and restored remains following the main colonnaded boulevard of the ancient city. At one end is the Temple of Baal, an immense ruin with a still-standing central holy of holies. This temple was considered the most important religious building of the 1st Century AD Middle East. Although not too much is known of the Palmyrene pantheon, Baal was their most powerful God and a particularly malevolent one (often described as bathing in the blood of his human sacrifices). Inside the holy of holies is a circular roofed alter which still shows the 12 signs of the Zodiac. The temple is best viewed from the far side of the holy of holies (pictured below).
Exiting out of the temple, all of Palmyra stretches out before you. Closest and most obvious is the Decumanus (colonnaded street) entered through its monumental gate. Cutting the decumanus with a central square stands the restored tetrapylon. Furthermore, be careful not to miss the small but very well intact amphitheatre on the left side of the decumanus as you walk down (before the tetrapylon).
Perched atop a hill and visible absolutely everywhere from miles around is a 16th Century Islamic citadel. Though worth a short exploration, the main draw of this castle is the view it offers of the ruins and oasis below.
The Palmyrenes also built a huge funerary complex including hundreds of vast tombs built for everything from individuals to entire families. To visit these you must buy entrance tickets from (I think?) the museum in the main city, which give you entrance at a specific time. Though this might be somewhat of a bother, it is very worth it. I visited two tombs, one which is layered in four or five stories and houses a family of several hundred over many generations. I also visited the Hypogeum of the Three Brothers, which with its tunnel-entrance and wall frescoes reminded me much of its more magnificent twins in the Valley of Kings (Luxor, Egypt), and featuring nothing less than frescoes of Achilles wearing a pink dress!
Links to other entries
If you are interested in knowing more about other places to visit in Syria, I have several other blog entries covering other regions.
All of Syria: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/
Part I - Damascus and Introduction to the Country: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/3/
Part II - The South (Bosra, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/4/
Part III - Damascus Countryside (Ma'aloula, Seydnayya, Deir Mar Musa, Bloudan, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/5/
Part IV - The Road to Palmyra (Tadmor): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/6/
Part V - Central Syria (Crac des Chevaliers, Homs, Hama, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/7/
Part VI - Aleppo Governorate (Syria's Second Capital): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/8/
Part VII - Euphrates Pt. 1 (Deir Ez-Zor Governorate): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/9/
Part VIII - Meditarranean Coast (Latakia, Tartous,...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/10/