1/2 January, 2001
I’m awake before daybreak for a walk through the ruins of this ancient city. The mist is dense and I huddle into my cumbersome coat. Columns loom and the cold moisture seeps into me. I’m heading for the Valley of the Tombs and its funerary towers, dim shapes emerging from the mist. I go by torchlight into one of the towers and pass its beam over niches with shelves for the dead. Dogs begin to bark and I think of rabies and retreat.
I stumble across the Roman theatre and the agora and walk through reclining pillars and fallen capitals, trying desperately to remember something about the functioning of the Roman senate. Now there are a few shadowy figures around, and I’m chilled to the bone. I have no idea how to make my way back to the hotel. It takes me, that lostness, along a walled track into the oasis and then back to circumambulate a huge tilting perimeter – walls propped up and walls sliding down. I’ve reached the Temple of Bel, one of my goals for later in the day. Doubtful about whether I’ll find it again, I pay my £300 (Syrian) and walk through the warmth of the ticket booth into the next vastness. I sit and absorb, until the cold moves me on. I walk around, looking at misty ruins through vast window spaces. By now there are more tourists, so I decide to leave. Near the ticket office I say “I’m cold” and I’m ushered to a kerosene fire and given a glass of hot sweet tea as I talk to the four men crowded round it. One of them works with archaeologists in Northern Syria.
An old man is waiting for me on the entrance steps. He’s smoking very potent tobacco and sells me a keffaiyeh, arranging it on my head and putting the iqal in place. It is wonderfully cosy inside, my face warmed with the warmth of my breath.
After a well-earned breakfast I amble across to the museum and spend a pleasant hour looking at glass, cloth, mosaics made from small curved tiles, mummified shoes, a statue of Athena, restored with strange stretches of concrete, and carved tomb portraits, one of a round-faced woman with many rings and bangles, staring pupils, and an unusual individuality. A model of the Temple of Bel gives me some idea of its unruined glory.
A couple of Australians ask if I want to share their taxi to the tombs. The same brightly decorated tumbledown bus I encountered on my arrival picks us up, belching black smoke. The door is definitely not built for large women, and the seats angle backwards, stuffing missing, the ceiling blue, painted with once-splendid golden whirls.
The first stop is one of the funerary towers I visited in the morning mist, looking very different in bright afternoon sunlight. Hopeful vendors have spread their wares in the doorway but we ignore them and gallop up a hundred dark stairs, me lagging, for a brief view over the valley before we gallop back down again, seeing nothing that I haven’t already seen. I leave the gallop-tour at the Temple of Bel and walk back to get a new film. I’m waylaid by conversation, and the light fades as I wait for the hotel steps to be sloshed.
It’s been a long day, including a couple of money deals, one pretty certainly on the black market. I fall asleep without dinner and wake with the 4.45 am call to prayer. I share the dawn ramble in the ruins with a few more people today, but they don’t bother me. I sit near Zenobia’s baths, I sit near the theatre, I sit in the forum, I look up at the arches and I photograph the fallen stone flowers, and (endlessly) the fort.
Before I catch the bus to Homs, and then Hama, I visit a dateseller’s stall. I huddle around the heater with two French men, sipping hot sweet tea and wondering what to do with the olive pips. When they leave, I begin clumsy negotiations to buy dates. We discuss the usual questions: Where is your husband? How many children do you have? How many grandchildren? He too is a father and a grandfather. The price of the dates slides from 50 Syrian pounds to 500. I move – or am I manoeuvred? – to the back of the tent to look at boxes of fat, juicy, orange dates, and suddenly I’m on the receiving end of a bristly kiss. “Get out of it!” is completely and immediately effective, but I still find myself buying a kilo of overpriced dates, which I carry around for a week and finally leave in my room at the British Institute in Amman, being unwilling to trust them to my dodgy stomach.
For an update to March 2017, read this and have a look at drone footage here.