17 - 23 October 2002
Issue No. 608
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The realm of Zenobia

A trip to Syria with a youth group gave Mahmoud Bakr a chance to visit the legendary Tadmor, seat of an insurrection against the Romans

Mahmoud Bakr It was the trip of their lives for the 50 Egyptian private university students who were leaving home -- many for the first time -- to attend the 11th Environmental Arab Youth Camp in Syria. This annual camp is organised by the Arab Union for Youth and Environment in collaboration with the Arab Union for Youth Authorities. This year the camp was at Homs instead of its usual venue, Damascus.

Getting the students organised was hectic and the road long -- it took us two days to get there. Along the way we had time to enjoy some beautiful natural landscapes. We travelled through Sinai with its tall, craggy red mountains to Nuweiba, where we took the ferry to Aqaba in Jordan. There we met up with some friends and together spent eight hours at the Al-Hussein Camp for Youth. After this came a four- and-a-half-hour journey across the desert to the Syrian border. All the way the mountains loomed over the valleys, and the scenery was breathtaking.

The geographical location of Homs is very important. It lies in the centre of Syria, encircled by a number of governorates and by the borders of Lebanon and Iraq. The area is vast -- 42,226 sq kms. It is the biggest governorate in Syria, and encompasses 22 per cent of its surface area. One million people live in Homs, of which 60 per cent are in rural areas.

Homs also contains a number of monuments and archaeological sites dating back to the middle of the third millennium BC. The old name for Homs was Emissa, and the town was founded about 2,400 BC. The earliest human remains found there date from the Stone Age. Stone domestic tools of this period have been found on the banks of the Al-Assi River.

Homs has been conquered many times. It was the main seat of the Canaanites and a stronghold of Alexander the Great and the Romans. When Khaled Ibn Al-Walid conquered Syria in 633 AD Homs was renamed the City of Ibn Walid. After his death, Walid was buried in Homs and a large mosque built over his mausoleum. In 636 AD Homs became part of the Islamic Empire. Later it was an important town for the Ottomans.

Sobhi Hammeida, the Governor of Homs, told us the city had a wonderfully healthy climate. It was different from other parts of the country, changing from mountainous to desert to valley. The climate was undoubtedly one of its best attractions, he said.

Click to view caption
Clockwise from above: the Street of Pillars in Tadmor; members of the youth group; the triumphal arch; gate to the Street of Pillars; the Temple of Baal; the Temple of Baalshemin
Thousands of tourists visit Homs every year, many of them coming to attend summer festivals and carnivals. There are several important archaeological and tourist sites, one of which is the church of the Mother of Al-Zenar, built in 59 AD and one of the oldest churches in the world. Another famous landmark is the great Al- Nouri Mosque, built in the reign of the family of Shams Gharam, which ruled Homs at the end of the Seljuk era. The mosque of Khaled Ibn Al-Walid was built in the reign of Al-Zahir Beybars and renovated in the early 20th century, towards the end of the Ottoman era.

The Ibn Al-Walid Mosque was built according to a mixture of Byzantine and Ottoman artistic styles overlaid with Arabian. It contains the mausoleum of Khaled Ibn Al- Walid.

The Al-Hessn Al- Akrad Citadel stands on a 750-metre-high volcanic hill 60 kilometres southwest of the old city of Homs. The hill is surrounded by natural hiding places, and it is the oldest residential place in Homs, dating from the city's foundation in 2,400 BC. No one knows exactly who built it.

The Fakhreddin Al-Mughani Citadel is another of Homs's beautiful sites. It dates from the 16th century, and is built on the top of a mountain west of Tadmor surrounded by deep, hidden valleys which served to foil invasions.

The highlight of our stay in Homs was being taken on a tour of the site of Tadmor, where many international and Arab missions have taken part in excavations and revealed an incredible archaeological wealth. Tadmor, which tops the list of the archaeological and tourist sites of Homs, is known as "the bride of the desert".

Tadmor lies 160 kilometres east of Homs and 235 kilometres east of Damascus, and its distinguished geographical location made it a main trading post between the cities of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. Studies of the site prove the area was inhabited from the Old Stone Age. In the first century AD it fell under Roman rule, but in 633 AD it was conquered by the Arabs. Among the significant sites of Tadmor are the Temples of Babel, Baalshemin, and Nebo, as well as the Street of Pillars, the theatre, the square, the necropolis, the Fakhreddin Al- Mughani Citadel and the mineral spring.

Tadmor is still "the bride of the desert". Its archaeological sites are among the most outstanding in the world. In the reign of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who declared independence from Rome in 267, Tadmor was already an important post on the main trade route between east and west. It was one of the favourite cities of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who gave it limited independence and called it Hadriana. But under the Severan Dynasty, which ruled Rome from 192-235 AD, Tadmor was called "the Place of the Terrorists".

During the New Stone Age, Tadmor was merely a number of houses constructed around the spring where the Canaanite and Aramiya tribes lived. The Canaanites built a temple dedicated to their god, Baal -- meaning "the master" -- while it was the Arabs who called it Tadmorto, which means "the wonder". The Greeks and the Romans called it Palmyra on account of the palms growing in its oases.

In the second and third centuries, when it was the meeting point joining east and west, Tadmor enjoyed a high economic standard. But it lost its wealth as it drew deeper into its struggle against the Roman Empire. It finally succumbed again to Roman Rule in 273 AD.

The huge Temple of Baal is one of Tadmor's greatest monuments. It was constructed in the first century AD, and measures 205 metres long and 210 metres wide. In the centre is an altar which can be reached up a wide staircase with an open courtyard decorated with eight columns. On each side of the courtyard is a large tower.

Visitors enter the temple through three enormous gates inlaid with gold and copper. Inside, the temple is surrounded by four more courtyards. The western one has 390 long columns, of which only seven still exist. Under them is a sacrificial area for offerings. The three other internal courts are decorated with statues of the most famous people of the times. There is also a large basin where the priests purified themselves before the sacraments. Inside the temple is an apse where statues of the Tadmor gods stand within a scene featuring seven stars.

The ruins of Tadmor are high on any sightseeing agenda for the wealth of well- preserved remains on offer. They include a theatre and public baths, but the most beautiful monument is the Arch of Victory with its three entrances and 150 columns, each 17 metres high.

The Baalshemin Temple, built in 130 BC, was dedicated to Baalshemin, the god of prosperity, while the Nebo Temple was dedicated to the worship of the Babylonian god Nebo Ben Mardoukh, scribe of the gods and holder of their secrets.

The theatre is one of the most magnificent monuments of Tadmor. The semi-circular auditorium with 13 stepped rows of seats was discovered in 1952. Its stage was unearthed later.

There is a museum at Tadmor. The first floor displays artefacts from Tadmor, while the second shows the great collection of Islamic objects unearthed from the site of Al-Heir Palace, 120 kilometres from Tadmor. This site contains two palaces known as the East Palace and the West Palace.

We may not know much about Tadmor in the way of historical fact, but a visit will more than compensate for any gaps in information. The mix of art styles of East and West is enough to make one glad of even the shortest visit.

Practical information

It is very easy to reach Tadmor by car or air- conditioned public bus, a two-and-a-half- hour journey from either Homs or Damascus. The city has many hotels and restaurants. We stayed at the Tadmor Al-Sham Hotel. The historical sites of Tadmor are open 24 hours except for the museum, the temple and the necropolis.

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