Located just over 100 miles east of the now tragic city of Homs, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra is one of my favorite archaeological parks ever. The reason has less to do with the 1 km long colonnade and an impressive Temple of Baal, than the setting and the conditions of visiting it. Palmyra is mentioned in the Bible as the city of Tadmur, a city on the trade route by an oasis far out into the desert of Syria. It dates back to the second millennium BCE. I arrived with two friends by minivan from Homs and we were invited at midnight to the house of a guy returning home to visit his family. Tea was served until we nearly burst. (Never finish a glass or it invites a refill by custom.)
The ruins at that time (1998!) weren’t guarded at all, no fences to climb, no admission being charged (except for the enclosed Temple of Baal) and they were expansive. A 16th-century Arab castle, Qala’at ibn Maan, overlooks it all. We spent a couple days there exploring, climbing up to the castle directly, rather than by road. And at night, there was no one to say We’re closed! So we set off in the dark and found places to just lay back on the stones and watch the stars and listen to dogs bark in the distance and wind sweep among the columns.
In my book The Yogurt Man Cometh, much of my Syrian trip is missing (except for the story of getting violently ill, crashing in a convent for a couple days, and hitchhiking alone to Homs and on to Turkey). Palmyra was the stop before Damascus when the trip turned ugly. (I am in the slow process of editing my Egypt and Syria travels into its own e-book.)
On my recent trip to Jordan, I met a man who had escaped from the recent violence in Homs and whose family is now homeless. He used to work as a guide and we chatted a bit about the tragedy but also lighter things, such as the attractions in his home country. His stories were difficult to hear; his love of his own country was quite clear. Travel makes those unheard of places rise to the top of the headlines, and that personal connection makes the news of the world ever more troubling.