Woke at 7 shivering even though I’d slept fully clothed (the radiator in the room was simply used for decorative purposes)and showered – hot water, surprisingly. Had breakfast of bread, butter, jam, olives, eggs and a pot of tea and at 8am set off in my hired taxi to the ancient capital of Palmyra. My driver was a jolly, overweight character who liked to talk and was a mine of information throughout the trip. As it was Friday, the road was deserted pretty much all the way there and we passed through miles and miles of the endless expanse of desert bearing not a teasing glimpse of life, until we finally reached the marvelous ruins of the old Roman stronghold, seemingly a mirage springing from where nowhere had been, the end of a trip which had taken a total of two and a half hours.
My driver left me to my own devices for two and a half hours around the magnificent ruins, which I appreciated. A Bedouin family saw me milling around and invited me into their tiny concrete box home. It was a strange scene, like something from ‘League of Gentlemen’. The portly father was having a shave, the kids were looking after a baby girl, grandmother was sat, shawl covering her head in the corner, and the mother, with a tattooed hand and chin and forehead (bearing her status as married and also the sign of which bedouin tribe, and therefore which country, she comes from). It was quite a collection of people. I expected Papa Lazaru to walk in at any minute.I was offered tea, and conversation was polite, unobtrusive, and good-natured. And then the camelbone necklaces came out.
The bedouin are the nomads of the desert, the Masaai of the Middle East, the gypsies of the scorched plains. They travel from place to place following seasons, searching for greener pastures for their sheep, from which they make most of their money. Indeed, if a city man wants to marry a Bedouin woman, it will cost him 50 sheep (or maybe less, depending on his social standing). Bedouin women are expensive and they tend to struggle in the cities, preferring the open land and the freedom their lifestyle gives them. There’s a movie in there somewhere waiting to be made.
I bought a necklace for 500 SRP, took some photos of the family for my memories, and left the Bedouin house to wander the temple remains, colonnades and funerary towers of Palmyra in solitude. I was taken aback by the expanse (all 50 hectares) and grandeur of this place, and can only imagine how important it must have been back in the second century AD. I wandered slowly down the Great Colonnade, the only tourist in the whole place. The blue sky had been intriguingly streaked with wispy white clouds, as though they had been casually brushed onto canvas, and the resulting scene above the sand-coloured ruins made for some spectacular photos. There is a Roman Theatre here too, well-preserved, so I didn’t care too much about not visiting Bosra. Again, I was completely alone as I walked all around the theatre, trying to keep in the shade now for the day was beginning the heat up like an iron. I paid a visit to the very impressive Temple of Bel, the most complete and best-preserved structure of Palmyra. It was something else wandering these ruins. I was thoroughly impressed.
After my walk, I went for a kebab, but my driver didn’t eat. No drivers eat when working, he told me. It makes them sleepy. I wondered why I nearly drop off everytime I teach in the afternoon after lunch. Now I’ll just have to starve myself I suppose. He drove me up to the Arab castle, Qala’at ibn Maan at the top of the hill, which offers commanding views of the entire site. It was absolutely amazing, looking out onto the ancient structures, thinking what it must have been like. The castle was pretty big, and well-worth wondering around. From here, we headed back to Hama. I showered, changed, then strolled to Les Jardins restaurant, mercifully heated, and ordered hummas and chicken cordon bleu (at least tonight I’d made an attempt at local cuisine, if only a half-hearted one), followed by 2 Lebanese beers, an apple arguila, and some tea. It was a lively enough place, full of locals chugging their arguilas and engaged in animated conversation, none of whom looked like they needed a curious foreigner at their table asking questions, so I enjoyed myself alone, contemplating the next day, thinking back to what I’d seen. I’d had quite a day. A Crusader Castle and Lebanon were waiting to be discovered the next day, so I went back in the freezing night to get a good sleep in for that.