By Eric Mackenzie-Lamb
Open almost any newspaper these days, or turn on the TV, and there you see it-images of endless lines of desperate refugees whose sole worldly possessions are those carried on their backs. Dazed, hollow-eyed children, many still too young to fully comprehend the horrors of Syria’s civil war and its collateral human cost. Behind them, where there was once a home, a life, and a future, there are now only collapsed buildings pockmarked by shells and bullet holes, decomposing bodies in the streets, and, in many besieged areas, an almost total lack of vital medicines, food, water, electricity, or basic sanitary facilities. But the most saddening aspect is that, despite efforts by so many, including the United Nations, human rights monitors, and multiple relief organizations, there seems to be no end in sight to this human tragedy.
But the Syria which I knew back in 2009, when I first explored the country by motorcycle, was very different. And, as paradoxical as it may seem, it was still one of the Middle East’s safest countries for any visitor, whether Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Alawite, Shiite or Sunni. Crime was almost non-existent, largely due to the inordinately harsh and often arbitrary punishments meted out by the Assad regime, including long terms of imprisonment, even death, sometimes for even the pettiest of crimes. Simply put, Big Brother was always watching you. But for most foreign visitors, these stark realities remained conveniently hidden from view. For the handful of tourists who did come, mostly to learn first hand about some of the world’s most ancient and fascinating cultural sites, the Syrian Arab Republic, as it was then formally known, was a truly unique and off the beaten track destination.
To get here, I had traversed the alps from Switzerland to Italy, crossed the Ionian Sea by ferry to Greece, and continued eastward into Turkey. The trip, even at a fast pace, had taken just under a week.
My first crossing into Syria was from near the southern Turkish city of Antakya, then across a long stretch of no man’s land, before finally arriving at the first Syrian border post. (On the way, it was impossible not to notice those gigantic roadside posters of President Bashar al-Assad and his late father and predecessor, Hafez.) I was definitely in Syria.
As things turned out, though, I almost didn’t make it further. My first experience in Syria may seem amusing now, but it definitely wasn’t so at the time. In fact, it was even somewhat scary. There are certain risks, I often remind myself, of going to a country-any country-with an authoritarian regime. Above all, you must follow a golden rule: stay out of trouble, and watch what you say. And to whom you say it.
When I handed my St Kitts Nevis passport to the immigration officer, he looked at it with a puzzled expression, thumbed through its pages, even turned it upside down. Then, after what seemed an eternity, he asked me in his fragmented English: “Mister, excuse me. But what country you are from?”
“St Christopher and Nevis”, I replied, taking care to pronounce the words slowly and carefully.
He looked at me with an even more mystified expression. “Where is that?”
“The Caribbean, sir. It’s a rather small country”, I added, lamely.
“No, sir. Nowhere near Cuba”
But before I had a chance to answer, another officer signaled me to step out of the line. I was holding everyone else up, he explained politely in his broken English. Come back later, he said, when the rush hour was over. Despondent, not knowing what to do next, I started walking back, still carrying my helmet and passport, to the beginning of the queue.
Just then, I felt someone tug at my sleeve. “Can I help you with anything?”
The gentleman who was so kindly offering me assistance turned out to be a Syrian diplomat stationed in Ankara who was returning home for a family wedding. Not only that, his English was almost immaculate. “What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
“Well, I’m not quite sure. For some reason, the immigration officials can’t find my country”. I handed him my passport.
He examined the document for a brief moment, and then smiled. “St Kitts and Nevis! My my , you’re certainly a long way from home. And on a motorcycle, no less. Lovely place, St Kitts.”
“Do you know it?” I asked, astonished.
“My wife and I visited it by cruise ship a few years ago. Never got to Nevis, though. Pity.”
He pulled out a small notebook from his pocket, scribbled something on a slip of paper, and then told me to follow him back to the head of the line. “Just wait behind me and let me do the talking”.
And that’s how it happened. The diplomat, who was obviously known by the border authorities, handed the same officer my passport again and showed him the slip of paper. Almost immediately, the immigration officer nodded in understanding, punched some figures into his computer keyboard, and then, In just under two minutes, my passport had been stamped and returned to me.
“Welcome to Syria!”
I thanked the diplomat profusely and asked him what the problem had been. He laughed.
“I’m sorry to say, our country isn’t quite up to speed when it comes to certain technologies” he explained as he got into his car. “At this border crossing, the computer database is outdated, still only in Arabic script. From my own observations, most of the officers here have only a marginal understanding of the Latin alphabet. Sure, they can recognize the cover design of passports from the United States, Canada, Britain, Japan, and most other major countries. But you can be sure that none of them had ever seen a passport from St Kitts and Nevis before. So, not being certain which country it was issued by, the officer didn’t know what to enter in the database. But once he saw its name, which I’d written in Arabic, he found it almost immediately.”
We shook hands. “I wish you a wonderful time in Syria.” he said. And then he was gone. Only at that point did I realize how incredibly fortunate I’d been.
Eventually, and over the next five weeks, my two-wheeled exploration of Syria took me to Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Deir ez Zour, and Raqqua, among others. Unlike the diplomat and his comfortable air conditioned Audi, I was constantly exposed to the elements, especially when the wind picked up and the desert sand started streaking across the road. But then, that’s what motorcycle riding is all about. And the BMW Cruiser, in the four years I’d owned it, had never once let me down. It even had a name. A sheep herder, whom I’d met a couple of years earlier during a trip to Morocco, had pointed to the machine, laughed, and said “al Hajar”. Later, I learned that Hajar was Arabic for nomad, or gypsy. I eventually had the words painted, in Arabic script, on one side of the Cruiser’s fuel tank. I soon learned that a simple gesture like this served to “break the ice” and consequently brought me much goodwill, even from total strangers.
In fact, everywhere I went in Syria-whether in major cities or in rural areas-the people I met invariably turned out to be friendly and always willing to help. In Damascus, for example, I had stopped to ask a local taxi driver direction to a certain hotel. Without a moment’s hesitation, he instructed me to follow him and then proceeded to guide me along winding streets and through narrow, twisting alleys, until we finally arrived at my destination. To my astonishment, when I offered to pay him, he refused to accept any money. “You are a visitor to our country”, he explained. “And you have come all that way on only a motorcycle! It is our duty to help. In sha’ Allah”. I will never forget that.
Then there was the occasion, about a week later, when I was abruptly pulled over at a police checkpoint on the road between Damascus and Deir ez Zour, on my way to the eastern desert. Needless to say, I was immediately worried. Was this a routine stop, or had I unknowingly broken some law? Or were they simply looking for bribes? I would soon find out.
As it turned out, none of the above. One of the police officers had spotted the boat horn mounted on the motorcycle’s front fender (which I’d installed as a precaution against camels and other animals I might encounter, especially at night) and just wanted to hear it in action; I obliged them with a few shrill blasts. The half dozen or so paramilitary police officers each armed to the teeth and cradling a fearsome-looking Kalashnikov, laughed, giggled, and clapped their hands like a bunch of delighted school children. Then they gave me a thumbs-up signal and waved me on my way. Whew!
But the absolute highlight of my trip to Syria turned out to be the ancient city of Palmyra. And by arriving just before sunset, I realized, I couldn’t have hoped for a more dramatic first introduction.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, Palmyra is located halfway between Damascus and the Euphrates River. It was once a major transit point on the ancient Silk Road. It’s also a palm fringed oasis in the middle of the desert -you’d expect to see it as s backdrop to a film like Lawrence of Arabia-with an amazing history going back to more than two thousand years before Christ.
Palmyra-then known as Tadmur-was originally founded by a former general of Alexander the Great and became known as the Seleucid kingdom. It fell to the Romans during the First and Second centuries AD, who renamed it the City of Palms. In AD 129, Hadrian became the first Roman emperor to visit Palmyra. It so impressed him that he declared it a free city.
Then, in AD 212, the emperor Caracalla (whose own mother was Syrian) declared Palmyra an official colony of Rome. This meant that its inhabitants would no longer have to pay imperial taxes, and had the same rights as Roman citizens. Thus began the city’s golden era, primarily as a major trading route between China, India, and Europe. Many of Its inhabitants became wealthy beyond their dreams, and, in an effort to curry even more favors from Rome, they spent lavishly on building ornate temples, colonnades, statues, roads, and anything else which they thought would embellish what was then the easternmost outpost of the Roman empire.
Little did they know-or did Rome, for that matter- how much was about to change.
Enter Queen Zenobia.
Even for the most imaginative Hollywood screenwriter, it would be difficult to portray the character of one of history’s most amazing women. Zenobia was the second wife of Odainat, who had been appointed by the emperor Valerian as supreme governor of Palmyra and its surrounding territories. Not long after, however, Odainat died under mysterious circumstances, and Zenobia, without first consulting Rome, promptly appointed herself in his place. This infuriated the powers in Rome, who strongly suspected that Zenobia had been involved in plotting her own husband’s death. They flatly refused to recognize her self-declared status.
As it turned out, this was a serious underestimation on their part. Rather than bow to the powers of Rome, Zenobia promptly declared Palmyra’s independence and its immediate secession from the empire. And when Rome sent out its armies to forcefully remove her, Zenobia’s forces inflicted an unthinkable and humiliating defeat upon them. Not content with preserving the status quo, she then went on to invade Egypt. (Interestingly, Zenobia claimed to be a descendant of Cleopatra).
It wasn’t until AD 271 that Emperor Aurelian’s forces managed to besiege Palmyra and finally crush its rebellious defenders. True to form, and unyielding to the end, Zenobia disguised herself as a man and managed to escape through the surrounding Roman lines riding a galloping camel. She was eventually captured while attempting to cross the Euphrates River in a small straw boat.
But Zenobia’s amazing story doesn’t end here. Once again, Hollywood would be hard pressed to come up with a matching finale.
Emperor Aurelian ordered Zenobia to be brought to Rome as a living trophy of war. A woman of formidable beauty and intellect, as well as a brilliant military strategist equal to any of the Emperor’s own male generals, she was paraded through the streets-but, perhaps in grudging recognition of her former stature -in gold chains. Later freed, she married a Roman senator and spent the remainder of her life in the comfort of his home in Tivoli, an aristocratic suburb of Rome.
Zenobia’s capture marked the beginning of the end for Palmyra’s golden era. An attempted rebellion by her loyalists about a year later resulted in a brutal defeat for them, and a torching of Palmyra by the Roman forces. In the Sixth century, its ruins where later fortified to become a military post. But, as it turned out, to no avail.
In 634 AD, Palmyra fell to Muslim forces, who then proceeded to reinforce the temple of Bel and to build a hilltop castle. Despite their efforts, earthquakes and violent sandstorms eventually forced its abandonment. Amazingly, Palmyra remained uninhabited, virtually forgotten by the outside world, for the next thousand years-until, in 1678, two adventurous English merchants from Aleppo stumbled upon the site and reported their find.
The first excavations of Palmyra’s hidden treasures were undertaken in 1751, followed soon after by painstakingly detailed drawings which, when they were published, caused a sensation throughout the world’s archaeological community. From the late 18th century on, and right through the 19th, Palmyra enjoyed a modest renaissance and a steady stream of adventurous visitors. Small merchants and traders could once again be found in the ancient city, this time selling not camels, goats, Kashmiri carpets, or Chinese silk, but souvenirs and kebabs to tourists.
But the first serious scientific studies of Palmyra didn’t begin until the early 1920’s, predominantly by German archaeologists. By 1929, France had also become involved. Although interrupted by World War II, research was soon resumed and continued without interruption until a tragic event which, not only for its inhabitants but the world itself, would change Palmyra forever.
In early 2015, the Islamic State, or ISIL, overran Palmyra in yet another victory for its extremist forces. This would now provide them a strategic foothold only 130 miles from Damascus, and which they hold to this day. Instantly, an average influx of a hundred and fifty thousand tourists a year became zero. Khaled-el-Asaad, 82 years old, a gentle and learned local resident who had bravely chosen to remain in Palmyra to try to protect its priceless antiquities-and whom I remember once meeting-was beheaded by ISIS in the public square and his decapitated body hung from a lamp pole. Other residents accused of apostasy, or of simply being nonbelievers, were tied to ancient columns, explosives placed at their feet, and then blown up along with those same columns. Other stories are simply too horrible to recount here. As for Palmyra’s priceless heritage, satellite imagery has confirmed that large areas of the main archaeological sites have now been reduced to rubble. And the destruction continues.
As for myself, I can only be eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to see what future generations never will. And to al Hajar for getting me safely back home. Timing, as they say, is everything.
For me, that has a very special meaning.