Darkness Descends on Palmyra

“All the sacred Mysteries of Asia, with their strident music, served now to add to this voluptuous unrest . . . I felt only disgust and abhorrence for all such subterranean and sinister cults.”

—Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian, on the emperor’s stay in Palmyra, Syria, 129 CE

It saddens me to think that my son Charles (then 14) and I could be among the last Americans to walk among the Roman ruins at Palmyra, the classical oasis in the Syrian desert that the Islamic State (sometimes called ISIS or ISIL) recently captured from a coalition army that included soldiers still loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

An outpost of the Roman Empire that remains vibrantly intact, Palmyra is about a three-hour drive (134 miles on dodgy roads) east into the Syrian desert from either Homs or Damascus. Carry on another nine or ten hours, and you will end up in Baghdad. In this case, it is the wars of Iraq that have come west to Palmyra.

As a terrorist organization that is dedicated to creating an Islamic state in western Iraq and eastern Syria (it once tore down a border fence between the two countries while denouncing Sykes and Picot, the World War I diplomats that carved Syria and Iraq from the Ottoman succession), ISIS brutalizes the population in its conquered areas, and has destroyed numerous artifacts from earlier civilizations.

Although it has yet to take down the ruins at Palmyra, it has committed shocking atrocities in Iraq against such UNESCO sites such as Nimrud, Hatra, and Nineveh—beheading statues much as it has the local opposition to its extreme Sunni rule.

Propaganda is a large reason for the ISIS attacks against archaeological sites. The British newspaper the Guardian reported: “Taking bulldozers and sledgehammers to irreplaceable Assyrian antiquities is just another way for ISIS to attract attention or a PR novelty after its beheading and immolation videos.”

Bringing down Palmyra—an oasis city of splendor that reached its glories during the Roman Empire—would be a declaration of war (as if another was needed) against the Western civilization that drew inspiration from these early Greek and Roman cities, now scattered around the Middle East, often in fragile countries like Libya, Lebanon, and Syria.


The Roman city of Palmyra, recently occupied by ISIS.

The Roman emperor Hadrian visited Palmyra in 129 CE and laid out the plans for it to thrive as a “free city” of Hellenistic designs and disposition. Too bad he didn’t leave some legionnaires behind to protect it.


*   *   *

In 2010, not long before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in Deraa (until then famous only as the place where, in the film Lawrence of Arabia, a Turkish bey has his way with the blue-eyed British guerrilla soldier), my son and I decided to spend his Easter break from junior high school riding the so-called Baghdad Railway toward Damascus. (The real one was never finished.)

Hard as it is now to believe, in 2010 Syria aspired to the status of a tourist “destination”. At a travel convention in Berlin, I even met a man who had proudly just obtained the Europcar franchise for the country.

When the manager heard about the train trip to Damascus I was planning with my son, he beamed with enthusiasm and offered us a special rate if we would use one of his Europcars to drive from Aleppo to Damascus. This way, he implored, on the drive to the capital we would be able to detour to Palmyra (sometimes called Tadmor but off the rail network) and its matchless Roman ruins.

Although I thought nothing of taking my teenage son a flight to Istanbul or on the night train to the Turkish border city of Adana, I did have some misgivings about driving in a rental car across Syria.

My new Europcar friend kept saying it would be “no problem,” but I had my doubts about whether my son could figure out the road maps (GPS was not a rental option) and whether I had the driving skills to steer us 400 miles across the Crusader spine and deserts of Syria. (Most of the country lives on a north-south axis from Aleppo to Damascus.)

*   *   *

We didn’t make up our mind on taking the rental car until we crossed the Turkish-Syrian border near the frontier town of Reyhanli.

The night before, our Turkish train had left us in Adana, which, seen from the park in front of the station, we liked. There we hired a taxi driver to take us forty kilometers down the coast to Iskenderum (once known as Alexandretta, and a city that Winston Churchill hoped the Allies would seize in 1917, after the earlier failures at Gallipoli in 1915).

One of the highlights of the trip to Palmyra came on the waterfront of Iskenderum, where after midnight in a seafront café, what felt like the half the city’s population of older men crowded around our table and coached both my son and me in what turned out to be an epic game of backgammon. To the delight of our new Turkish friends, my son won the game.

The next day we took a public bus to Hatay (the modern name for the Biblical city of Antioch) and in a market square parking lot entered a scrum to secure passage in a shared taxi across the Syrian border.

Clearly every driver in the parking lot wanted us as his fares to Aleppo. At one point a shoving match broke out among the drivers, many of whom seemed to be grabbing at our passports.

We retreated to the backseat of one taxi, chosen for the meek appearance of the driver we later nicknamed “Mr. Inshallah.” (Many of the other drivers looked like gunrunners.)

Mr. Inshallah cleared our passports with the dispatcher’s office, and off we headed toward the Syrian border, my son squeezed in the backseat between me and a leather-jacketed passenger, while the front seat of the taxi was equally crowded.

The music on the ride could have been an Adagio for a Dying Chicken, that Arabic taxi melody that can sound like a remix of a pulsing hip-hop concert with the sounds of the bazaar or calls to prayers.

At least we could have the windows open, and the countryside outside Hatay—near the caves of Antioch that were host to St. Paul and the fractious early days of Christianity—glittered in the early spring sunshine.


The author and his son Charles, then age 14, on the road to Palmyra.

*   *   *

The border crossing in Syria was a two-hour affair that began in a duty-free shop with Mr. Inshallah asking my son and me to put about seven cartons of Winston cigarettes into our luggage. (I had watched him buy them from the shop and later checked the cellophane wrappings.)

He didn’t ask that we pay for them—simply that we pack them away until we got across the border. I made jokes with my son from the movie Airplane! (“Well, we picked the wrong week to give up smoking”), and then had a more serious conversation with him about the predicament. St. Paul had his own “incident” at Antioch (about circumcision and Judaic dietary laws). Ours was less dramatic.

If we said no to Mr. Inshallah—and maybe others in the car were part of his Cross-Border Taxi Cigarette Cartel and Friendship Society—we would be marking ourselves as priggish Americans and quickly run out of friends on the Turkish-Syrian border, which in the duty-free no-man’s land was a long line of parked trucks, clearly on the line, say, from Iran to Germany. Besides, who knew what the rules were for duty-free goods on the Syrian border. At least we took comfort that everyone we saw seemed to be smoking.

In the end we accepted the duty-free Winstons and buried them in our backpacks and my briefcase as Mr. Inshallah parked the taxi in front of Syrian customs.

To cross into Syria, everyone in the car got out with their luggage, which was arrayed on a low cement bench.

Eventually a border guard came to our car and luggage. When he saw my son and me, he waved his hand dismissively at our passports and luggage, which in an instant Mr. Inshallah returned to the taxi.

For the rest of the passengers, the customs officer went through each of their bags as if looking for heroin, although mostly what he found were baby clothes, polyester men’s shirts, and cassette tape players, all of which were taxed at the prevailing rate on the border. (I wondered if maybe the currency was Winstons.)

Back behind the wheel, Mr. Inshallah drove about a kilometer past the Syrian frontier, where he stopped and collected all the cartons of cigarettes that were scattered about the car. (Other passengers, too, had picked the wrong week to give up smoking.)


A happy “Mr. Inshallah” after crossing the Turkish-Syrian border.

An hour later, when we got out of the taxi in Aleppo, we were still finding cartons in my briefcase and in Charles’s backpack. But we had formed a bond with Mr. Inshallah and his son, and through our stay he would call us on the telephone, to see how we were doing. Today I wonder if they have survived the fighting.

*   *   *

We got out of the taxi on a street corner in Aleppo, where we took a roundabout route (meaning, we got lost) to the famous Baron Hotel, where T.E. Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Charles Lindbergh, David Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, Yuri Gagarin and Kemal Ataturk all stayed.

Lawrence’s hotel bill from 1911 was in a dusty lobby cabinet (he was probably there to spy on the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway), and we were assigned Dame Agatha’s favorite room, number 203, even though it lacked sufficient hot water for two quick showers. No wonder she conceived her murder on the Orient Express in the room.


The Baron Hotel, Aleppo, Syria. Lawrence of Arabia stayed here.

The Baron had the feel of a rundown Crusader palace, but we ate our best meal of the trip in its dining room. During odds hours in Aleppo, we read books on the terrace and drank tea in the shade of palm trees.

We also made friends at the Baron with Lucine Sanjioghlu Soghikian, known as Lucy, when she kindly went through the archives of the hotel and found some old envelopes that I later passed on to my 90-year-old father for his collection of hotel stationery.

Lucy talked to us about the Armenian genocide, during which her grandfather, about age ten, walked from near Lake Van, Turkey, to Aleppo. He was one of the few survivors from a caravan of thousands. Telling his story, she wept.

* * *

I am sure mortgage closings have taken less time than it took to rent our car from Europcar. The manager, dressed in a business suit, welcomed us to his office, went through all the points in the contract, and escorted us to the garage, where each aspect of the car (“so here is the hand brake”) was explained.

We left early the next morning, on a roundabout route to Palmyra. We decided to drive south to Krak des Chevaliers (the Crusader castle) and then east to Palmyra.

First we had to escape the clutches of the local Aleppo police, who stopped us just outside the city—although only for reasons of incentive compensation. At the time I was driving carefully and slowly. I wasn’t in the mood to pay up, and the cop wasn’t in the mood to book us, so the roadside encounter ended with a friendly wave—the kind of tolerance that has long vanished from Syria.

Away from the police, Charles had an easier time navigating our route, as spread on his lap were maps in English, French, and Arabic—although none of the details on one map matched those on the others.

We headed first for the Dead Cities, relics of Byzantine rule, that lie between Aleppo and Homs. There we climbed among the ruins (oddly-angled fragments that were toppled in an earthquake) and imagined long vanished cultures about which little is known. Think of the Dead Sea in broken marble.

We would have found the Greek ruins of Apamea sooner than we did, had we figured out that Afamia, listed on many directional signs, meant the same place. Still, we arrived just after lunch at the colonnaded Greek ruins, which we had virtually to ourselves, save for some local touts who stalked our progress, trying to sell us fragments of Roman pottery.


Apamea: Greco-Roman ruins in Syria.

After Palmyra, Apamea is the oldest classical site in Syria, and I have no doubt that the relics they were selling were authentic. But we wanted no part of their business.

*   *   *

We didn’t drive straight from Apamea to Palmyra, but detoured across the valley of the Orontes River, a wide reach of cultivated and irrigated farms in an otherwise dry country.

There we were retracing the steps of T.E. Lawrence, who while a student at Oxford, tramped to many of the Crusader fortresses that are scattered across Syria (an Ottoman province in 1909).

Well into the twilight, we drove to several such fortresses, including al-Marqab, which we reached after long conferences in Syrian convenience stores, pouring over the contrarian road maps with cheerful villagers.

We spent that night at Krak des Chevaliers, which felt as though the Crusaders had left in 1959, not in the twelfth century. The Syrians had made some effort to block off dungeon wells, and a B movie about Queen Cleopatra was improbably being filmed in one of the inner halls, made to look like a Pharaoh’s boudoir.

For the rest, Krak des Chevalier was as Lawrence would have found it, one of the finest castles in the world, much like the looming presence over Edinburgh or many castles across France.

We met friends that night in the hotel, who wanted to come along the next day on the ride to Palmyra. My hope was that they might spell Charles from his map reading (no easy feat in Arabic), but in the end he kept his job as navigator, by then having figured out that directions, at least in Syria, meant a series of educated guesses.

I remained behind the wheel for the three-hour tack into the desert. Before getting past the city of Homs (a city at the heart of the Civil War) we drove right through the market square, which since has been destroyed.

A long road through the desert connects Homs to Palmyra. Only some gas stations interrupted the bleakness of the rocks, dirt, and sand. We did stop for water at something called the Baghdad Café, owned by Iraqi refugees, who whispered that the situation in their home country was “very bad”—an early indicator that the rosy Iraqi assurances of President Barack Obama and General David Petraeus on peace in our time might be optimistic.


Palmyra: in the heart of the old city.

We arrived in Palmyra just before sunset. To visit the colonnaded main street, we parked randomly and began strolling under the marble. If we bought tickets, I don’t remember now. Somehow I think it was just open to the public, like New York’s Central Park. (Both are about the same size.)

It probably took more than an hour to get from one end to the other. Few ruins evoke the reach and might of Roman greatness as does Palmyra, which is more intact than the Roman Forum and more expansive than Olympia. By comparison, Carthage looks like a paved city park.

*   *   *

When and where did I first get the idea to visit Palmyra? It might have been in Lebanon, when I hired a taxi in Beirut and drove out (through numerous checkpoints) to Baalbek, the incomparable Roman ruins in the Bekaa Valley. That gave me the taste for Roman ruins in the Middle East.

It could also have been from my high school Latin teacher, and now lifelong friend, Peggy Brucia, that I first heard about Palmyra.

Although I took only two years of Latin with her in high school, since then I have tried to make up for my sophomoric attitude toward Ovid by spending countless hours tracking down Roman and Greek ruins in places like Carthage, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Pergamon, Troy, and Ephesus—and always with Peggy in mind.

Among her favorite Roman emperors was Hadrian, in part for his ability to express himself so eloquently in stone. One of Hadrian’s biographers, Elizabeth Speller, writes: “He used art to bind his empire with his own past and an unknown future.”

*   *   *

In classical places like Palmyra, the back story that always interests me is that of their modern “rediscovery.” In the case of the classical city, after the Roman empire fell (around 454 CE) and after the Muslim invasions of Arabia in the seventh century, Palmyra was forgotten and eventually buried under blowing sands.

Not until 1678 was the old city of Palmyra rediscovered. Two Englishmen, then living in Aleppo, trekked across the desert to make notes about the rumors of a lost city. In 1753, Robert Woods’ Ruins of Palmyra was published in London, putting it on the maps of Middle Eastern explorers.

The serious excavations (German and French) did not begin until early in the 20th century. For this reason relics from Palmyra can be found across Europe, although what makes the city spectacular is its triumphant line of columns in the sand, not the busts in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

One of the first Americans to see Palmyra was the popular historian and Cincinnati professor, Philip Van Ness Myers, who wrote of his visit in the 1870s: “As it was raining, and our soldiers were unprovided with tents, we remounted, and rode all night through a severe storm, which at times swept the desert with snow and hail. In the gray light of morning we discovered the tower-tombs of Palmyra, standing like specters in the pass.”

Charles and I spent parts of two days climbing among the ruins at Palmyra. Mostly—at the sunset and sunrise—we walked up and down the colonnaded avenues, stopping here and there to peak into temples or climb the steps of a theater.

I am sure now that we were among the last Americans to see it before the Syrian civil unrest began in January 2011.

*   *   *


Palmyra: under a death sentence from ISIS.

Although mostly built at the base of a sweeping valley, the Palmyra views through the columns of distant arches and temples remain as dramatic as those from the Parthenon hill in Athens or those that can be seen along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.

How fragile are the Roman ruins at Palmyra? Very, I would say, as a company of soldiers with explosives and some excavators could pull down, with the force of a local earthquake, the remaining Roman columns. To be sure, at their base, the columns are the size of Sequoia tree trunks, but what holds them in place is as much a faith in the past as Roman engineering.

Will ISIS attack ancient Palmyra as it has other classical sites? My guess is that it will, for all the reasons that they have beheaded prisoners of war and attacked such antiquities as at Nineveh or Hatra.

When it has bulldozed other sites into the ground, ISIS has spoken of “year zero” in rejecting any links to past civilizations, at least those that are non-Muslim. As the Guardian reported: “Strikingly, the ISIS department responsible for destroying antiquities is called the committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice – the same name as the official Saudi body charged with enforcing morality.” Why should Palmyra be spared from its death sentence?

ISIS can knock down the last of the Roman columns and lay waste to the remaining buildings. But it will have to leave the stones in place where they fall, as many columns, even now, are as tall as five-story buildings.

Maybe after destroying the ancient city, ISIS will move on from Palmyra, as the city, otherwise, holds little commercial or strategic interest. It took shape on the caravan routes to Constantinople and the Mediterranean, but absent those trade flows (the caravans shifted to the north), it exists only as an oasis of the mind. As the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of other classical ruins:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away

*   *   *

Wondering what Hadrian might think of Palmyra’s fall, I wrote to Peggy, my Latin teacher of the 1970s, and asked her if she could find a passage in his works that could express his possible thinking on this modern problem.

A few days later she wrote back, saying:

“I pulled my revered copy of Memoirs of Hadrian [a 1954 novel by the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar] from the Roman Emperors section of my bookshelf.

“The inscription, in blue fountain pen ink and signed in several hands on the acid-speckled title page, reads: ‘Christmas, 1977: To Peggy, Through the Iron Gates and on to Dacia! Matt Connie Nick Shirley Nanette Julie.’” (In order, those signing the Christmas gift were my then girlfriend now wife, my parents, and my sisters.)

She continues: “Thinking about Palmyra, Hadrian, Syria, the world, the fragility of architecture, and your article about ISIS, I send you this quotation from Yourcenar’s Hadrian, Rome’s greatest architect-emperor. He said:

Our life is brief: we are always referring to centuries which precede or follow our own as if they were totally alien to us, but I have come close to them in my play with stone. These walls which I reinforce are still warm from contact with vanished bodies; hands yet unborn will caress the shafts of these columns. The more I have meditated upon my death, … the more I have tried to add to our lives these virtually indestructible extensions.

*   *   *

As much as I hate the idea of imagining Palmyra ground into marble dust, I do take comfort in Hadrian’s words (that we have from Yourcenar).

Although he wanted his Greek and Roman stones to speak to future generations, he was also enough of a realist to know that the ideas of man outlive the buildings where they were conceived. He would have mourned the wanton destruction of irreplaceable art, but as a Roman emperor he equally would have known the consequences of tolerating lawlessness on the frontiers.

In writing about the end of the Roman Empire, the classicist Edith Hamilton whose books The Greek Way and The Roman Way I often carry when I travel toward antiquity, writes:

It is worth our while to perceive that the final reason for Rome’s defeat was the failure of mind and spirit to rise to a new and great opportunity, to meet the challenge of new and great events. Material development outstripped human development; the Dark Ages took possession of Europe, and classical antiquity ended.

Certainly to lose Palmyra as we know it would be a triumph of darkness, but even as a pile of fragmented marble, Hadrian’s city will speak more about his reverence for the past, and will endure longer, than will the nihilism of ISIS and its rage against the future.

All photographs by Matthew Stevenson.

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited  Whistle-Stopping America

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.