The effervescent ride came to a halt near a picturesque oasis. I had read about oases in books but I never saw one up close.
My jaw dropped and I breathed in a crispy cool gust of wind. The sun was warm, the wind was chilly but the nicest feeling was the neutrality of the air as opposed to the suffocating moisture that fills the air of Beirut. I stood there amidst an open space, in golden sands, staring at the biggest pile of ruins my humble eyes ever laid on.
Even then it was hard to believe that this chunk of history lay just a few hours away, in a city called Palmyra.
Northeast of Damascus, stands the most important religious building of the first century AD in the Middle East, according Naguib Mahmoud, our Syrian tour guide, as he points at the huge temple of Ba’al Hammon.
Some say that this is the same Ba’al that the temple of Bachus belonged to in Baalback, Lebanon. The stench of camel excretion filled the air but after a few moments, the excitement of staring at an unexpectedly tall camel overwhelmed the slight disturbance in my nostrils.
At first glance it seemed like similar looking old stones all over, but once Mahmoud told us the story of each unique stone, it became a wonder world filled with memories of the Romans, Arabs and the Gods. It sounds like a scene out of the “Arabian Nights”: Queen Zanobia traveled across the lands and violently seized Egypt and Anatolia and proclaimed herself Queen.
Signs of Palmyra’s culture were everywhere in the carvings of pomegranates, pine cones, apples and grapes, that are playfully draped around little cupid like angels.
A common symbol was that of a triad that Ba’al formed with the lesser sun god and moon god.
What added to the authenticity of it all were the Bedouins standing at the entrance to each landmark.
They were all wearing “Kaffiyeh’s”, a scarf traditionally worn by Arab men.
They also draped some less traditional colorful Kaffiyeh’s on their arms. The older Bedouins stood behind laid out jewelry and stacks of cloth and carpet.
Some of them were a little more creative and were holding beautiful long scarves that they let flow with the air making it look like a magic carpet flying through the gates.
It is also not uncommon to see little children running around sliding a small wooden stick along the bumpy back of a wooden frog, making a very real croaking noise.
It is especially fun to watch them apply their well thought out tactics on every customer they get. All tourists are warned ahead of time to be prepared to haggle. I managed to buy a traditional Syrian make up box, eyeliner, and camel bone necklace, for about $20.
Before heading back to Lebanon, Palmyra was sure to provide us with enough fuel for the trip in the form of a traditional Bedouin dinner. At the entrance to the tent, the revitalizing smell of freshly baked flat bread seeps in as a precursor to the colorful smell of spices that follow.
Trays with overflowing “Mansaf”, a traditional dish comprised of moist chicken, fluffy rice, and smoky freekeh corn, were served along side a long table of mouth watering appetizers, also known as “Mezze.”
While we ate we were entertained by a row of about 6 Bedouins chanting, dancing, and playing their traditional ‘guitar-like’ “buzuq.” The catchy beats of the accompanying “Dirbake” made it impossible to keep one leg still.
We shared zingy orange slices and took turns trying to imitate their “dabke” dance.
I didn’t think that I could experience such a different world right next door but throughout the whole trip I was constantly at the edge of my seat waiting, expecting, but mostly hoping, to see Aladdin zoom past on a magic carpet. I went back to Beirut refreshed, with a smile and a tan on my face. Palmyra is no Ibiza or Paris, but it has definitely got some characteristics worth visiting.