The sprawling ancient ruins of Palmyra date back to the 2nd century AD and are perhaps Syria’s biggest draw for tourists. Vita Sackville-West famously said of the ancient ruined city, ‘Palmyra is a Bedouin girl laughing because she is dressed up as a Roman lady’ which playfully sums up this beautiful piece of antiquity. The site consists of sun-baked grand colonnades and abandoned temples, placed within the backdrop of brilliant blue skies.
I was staying at the Ishtar Hotel, a brilliant place where the beers are cold and the welcome is warm. The guys at the hotel set me up with a driver for the first day to take me to see the funerary towers and up to Qala’At Ibn Maan, a perfect little sand castle perched high on top of a hill above Palmyra. The driver was named Zachariah and was short and squat in appearance with a big toothy smile. He bombed around Palmyra in a little white van not dissimilar to a Bedford Rascal and in some ways Zachariah resembled his van in the way that couples in long-term relationships begin to look alike. He was great company and always had a story to tell or joke to crack.
The castle was intriguing to wander around and the views of the ancient city below were stunning. A very stern looking security guard accosted me and demanded to have my camera. Nooo! All of my holiday pictures taken so far would be gone forever, or so I thought. He pointed me over to a scenic spot and then proceeded to take several photos of me before handing the camera back with a big smile. It was that famous Syrian hospitality taking me by surprise again. In my absence, Zachariah had filled the back of the van with Berber chaps who wanted a lift to the main road. I climbed into the front passenger seat and endured being papped by no less than five camera phones. “They don’t see much woman in desert”, Zachariah said reassuringly. We reached the highway and Zachariah told them to get out. They insisted that I join them to eat ‘a whole sheep’ back at their Bedouin camp but I politely declined. There’s only so much hospitality one girl can take in an afternoon.
The next day, the ruins took on a special quality at 5:15 in the morning as the sun began to slowly rise, bathing the city in a dusky pink glow. It was worth the effort of getting up early and not just for the mystic beauty unfolding, but for having the whole place to myself. That was pretty special…
… until Ali and his camel named Casanova came along. They pursued me through the honeycomb of columns for what seemed as long as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, relentless in their quest to give me the camel ride of my life. In reality it took about half an hour of gentle persuasion before I was in the saddle and needless to say, not entirely happy about the situation. Things with Casanova started off reasonably well with a bit of gentle trotting amongst the ruins. I thought that we were getting on nicely. Then a patch of dry grass caught his eye and he leaned over to take a bite. Ali took umbrage at this and gave Casanova a short, sharp slap to the behind to put him back on course but his mood had darkened. Ali momentarily let go of the reigns to take a photo of me and Casanova saw his chance. He bolted, with me still up there, grasping on to the flimsy saddle and screaming my head off. After being thrown against several pillars, that had by now lost their dreamy quality, Ali managed to regain control of the unruly beast. I stumbled back to the Ishtar, dazed and quite battered but more than ready for my breakfast and a soothing cup of cardamom coffee. It had been an eventful morning!