It’s been a while since I’ve posted a postcard. Life in the present has taken over. But I’m settled back at home now, and ready to reminisce again. I’ve outlined the background to my backpacking trip through Syria and Jordan in 2000-2001 here.
31 December, 2001
Despite logistical qualms, the journey from Damascus to Palmyra is easy. When I look uncertain at the bus station, a crowd swells around me and I’m ushered to the ticket office. The bus outside says “Palmira” in English, not the elegant and mysterious snuggles of Arabic that I am expecting. I choose a seat, on the wrong side for views as it happens. The combination of sun, dust and breath-steam makes the view pretty well invisible, although I do see one village with two camels, and a blue-green mosque. Ezekiel gives me a lift to my accommodation, the Al Afqa, in an incredibly decrepit bright red mini bus.
I eat a late breakfast of olives, boiled egg, and apricot conserve full of whole apricots, accompanied by English pop music, chirruping caged birds, sunshine, and fellow travellers who make comments about my age. I am enticed by a ruined castle on a hill, which proves to be a sultan’s fortress, Qala-at ibn Maan. I arrive at the entrance, and hesitate. If I want to go in I’ve got to walk over a drawbridge, high above the moat, and I don’t like heights. Mahomet, no older than 10, bails me up to sell me postcards. He says “How come I’m young and I can speak English, and you’re old and you can’t speak Arabic?” Not the first, or last, time I’m shamed by only having one language. I brave the drawbridge and I’m waylaid again, this time by the guard who sits me down to a small glass of very sweet tea.
Eventually I’m free to roam around the ruins, hugging the wall to climb as high as I can. I sit amongst turrets with views out to the ineffable barrenness of the hills and down over villages. I’m enjoying the ease of solitude after the tenseness of being with people whose language I don’t speak. Then I’m interrupted by Gehad and his mates, who take my photo and write what I assume to be an address in my notebook. A man with a broom comes to sweep cigarette butts into the moat, and tells me “Kasheesh” with mime and laughter. I think he’s saying “broom” and later realise he’s probably asking for a tip. The next day I see him in the museum and he greets me like an old friend.
I sit quietly and contemplatively, moving with the sun, until the sunset crowds begin to arrive. On Mahomet’s advice I don’t return the way I came but down a narrow track he swears is “flat”. I find it quite steep, and scree as well. However I make it down, slowly and on my backside, feeling proud when I reach the bitumen – until suddenly I trip and I’m flat on my face. Is this what he meant by flat?
Back at the hotel, there’s an almighty hammering: it sounds as if 2001 will be ushered in anything but quietly.
That was then. This is now, an update thanks to Wikipedia. I hesitate to be the tourist in the middle of current devastation in Syria.
“The historic site in 2013 was placed on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The castle was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant during the Palmyra offensive in May 2015. It was recaptured by Syrian government forces in another offensive in March 2016. Retreating ISIS fighters blew up parts of the castle, including the stairway leading to the entrance, causing extensive damage. The basic structure is still intact, and Syrian director of antiquities Maamoun Abdelkarim stated that the damage is reparable and the castle is to be restored. The castle was captured by ISIL once again in December 2016.” In March 2017 it was in the hands of the Russians.