Palmyra to Aleppo as we saw it
In the second part of this nostalgic throwback to the better days of Syria, I’ll talk about the experiences we had in the central and eastern part of the country back in 2002. We spent a few days in Palmyra and then an afternoon in Deir ez-Zor. Finally we took a train to Aleppo, although we almost ended up somewhere near the Iraqi border…
The ancient city of the Palmyrenes was already prospering 2 millennia ago and became an important regional centre under Roman rule. It is regularly mentioned among the wonders of the world due to the extensive ruins, including the well-preserved colonnades and the burial towers.
We arrived in Tadmur, the modern town, by bus from Damascus. It was late afternoon but the heat of the desert drove us into our hotel. We only ventured out for the sunset and we were swallowed by the beauty of the place.
The next morning we hired a taxi and saw one of the burial towers of Palmyra. The guardian had unbelievably big keys and the headless statues inside somehow indicated the fate of the ruins. When it got hot again, we had a dip in a pool in the oasis. As we walked back to the hotel, a greengrocer invited us for a tea. When he heard Anita was pregnant, he proudly introduced his ten children to us.
In the afternoon another taxi, a 1949 Chevrolet, took us up the hill to the Citadel. He was also very enthusiastic when we told him we were going to have a baby. We had great views of the ruins of Palmyra as the sun set.
Update: During 2015 ISIS destroyed several historical artifacts and buildings of Palmyra, including the famous lion statue, the Tetrapylon and the Temple of Bel. Restoration has since started and the Lion of Al-lat is now exhibited in Damascus.
Probably because of our History studies, the very name of the River Euphrates had a very romantic feel to it. When I found out that we were just a bus ride away, I immediately decided to take a detour before going to Aleppo. This is how ended up in the provincial city of Deir ez-Zor by the famous river.
The truth is that we weren’t exactly amazed by the place. Our hotel room was very basic and run down. The streets were dirty and we had the feeling it wasn’t quite safe. But we loved the Euphrates and spent an hour walking across the pedestrian bridge, watching people and the sunset.
Update: There were numerous clashes between the Syrian Army and different opposition organisations (including ISIS) but it remained in the government’s hands. It was under siege by ISIS for more than two years but never taken by the Islamic State.
We only spent one day in Deir ez-Zor and then took a train to Aleppo. In fact, we almost ended up near the Iraqi border because we first got on the wrong train…
Apart from the nicely preserved Castle, my most vivid memory of Aleppo is the narrow streets of the souq. We watched old merchants selling their goods and artisans preparing various products in their tiny shops.
Anita felt sick while we were in Aleppo and we were worried she might have contracted malaria by the Euphrates so we looked for a doctor. A taxi driver took us to the university hospital and even helped us get a number to a specialist. Just as the doctor was asking her questions, Anita suddenly felt worse and in the end she vomited on the floor… But the doctor remained very helpful and he reassured us that it was just an upset stomach.
Update: Aleppo was exposed to some of the Syrian war’s most devastating bombings. Some 15,000 people were killed as the Syrian Army slowly recaptured the city from the opposition. The World Heritage site old town with its famous Great Mosque was destroyed. The factories were plundered and the machinery was taken to Turkey with the knowledge of the Turkish government.
Syrian government forces finally took control of Aleppo in December 2015. Since then hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned to the city. Many factories are operative again and some of the historical buildings are under reconstruction.
Church of Saint Simeon Stylites
We took a little excursion one day from Aleppo to visit the ruined church of Saint Simeon Stylites. It was built around what is thought to be the remains of Saint Simeon’s pillar. The hermit spent 37 years on top of the pillar when it was considerably higher than today.
This is one of the oldest complex church ruin in the world, built in the 6th century AD. They say the pillar was much higher even a century ago. It was not the elements that dwarfed it to its present size but the pilgrims, who wanted to take a small piece home.
Update: Islamic extremist groups took control of the church during the Syrian war but they did little damage to the ruins, surprisingly. Then after it was recaptured by Kurdish forces it was heavily damaged in an air strike.