Syria, the Land of Lebanon/Chapter 10

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Syria, the Land of Lebanon by Lewis Gaston Leary
Chapter X

CHAPTER X


THE DESERT CAPITAL


JUST half-way along the ancient caravan route which runs northeast from Damascus to the Euphrates River are the ruins of one of the most remarkable cities of history; for here, in the midst of the desert, Palmyra attained a wonderful degree of wealth and culture, and a military power which for a time rivaled that of Rome itself.

The road thither is nearly always in the desert. This is not, however, a level waste of sand; on the contrary, it is often quite a hilly country, where for hours at a time the traveler passes along narrow valleys between steep, rugged heights. The trail has been beaten so hard by the tread of innumerable caravans that one could ride all the way to Palmyra on a bicycle. In fact, tourist agents used sometimes to take parties there by automobile. But this practice was soon abandoned, because break-downs were frequent, and there were no garages where repairs might be made. Our own party traveled on horseback, with the heavy luggage carried by several donkeys and one very lively pack-camel who took advantage of every possible opportunity to run away across the desert.

However you may go to Palmyra, it is not an easy journey. In summer the sun is fearfully hot, and in winter the wilderness wind is piercingly cold; the water along the route, while perhaps not actually unhealthful, is warm and evil-tasting and full of animal life; unless you carry your own tent you must sleep in hovels which are filthy and insect-ridden, and marauding bands of Bedouins hover about, watching for a chance to rob the luckless traveler.

Two days' journey from Damascus, near the ancient and now very squalid village of Karyatein, are a number of ruins which date from Græco-Roman times. One of these, an extensive sanitarium, is known as the "Bath of Balkis"—the traditional name of the Queen of Sheba. Within the enclosure is a vaulted room with a paved floor, in the middle of which an opening some ten inches in diameter sends forth a current of moist, hot, sulphurous air. The heat of this room was so suffocating that we could endure it only for a moment; but the air is believed to be beneficial for certain diseases, and in Roman days the place was very popular as a health resort.

From Karyatein the trail strikes across a broad plain between two mountain ranges. This plain is about fifty miles, or eighteen camel-hours, long, and its springs are very few and very poor. The Syrian Desert shows no vegetation in summer except a low salsolaceous thorn-bush, which the Arabs burn for its soda ash. This plant is called al-kali, whence comes our word "alkali." It was formerly extensively used in the manufacture of soap; but on account of the importation of cheaper materials it no longer has any commercial value.

In the middle of the day the heat was intense. Our heads were protected from the direct rays of the sun by thick pith helmets, but the reflection of the cloudless sky upon the whitish marl of the plain scorched our faces and the flies were a torment to all except the camel, whose thick hide seemed proof against their attacks.

We had planned to replenish our canteens at Ain el-Wu'ul; but the wells there proved to be choked with locusts, and at Ain el-Beida, which we reached after fourteen hours in the saddle, we found the water so strongly impregnated with sulphur that it tasted like a dose of warm medicine. This was the last spring in the district, however, so we had no choice but to drink the nauseating stuffs.

A small garrison of Turkish soldiers was stationed in this out-of-the-way place to protect caravans against the Bedouins, who roam the desert in the hope of plundering unwary travelers. These robber tribes view their nefarious occupation as a legitimate business, a feature of desert life which has become, so to speak, legalized by immemorial custom. They regard the traveler exactly as the hunter does his prey—a bounty sent by Providence, which it would be ungrateful for them not to accept. They will strip their victim to the skin, but are careful not to take his life unless resistance is offered. They leave him naked in the wilderness under the protection of Allah, who must take the responsibility, should the poor fellow perish from hunger and thirst and exposure.

Early the next morning we saw a band of such Arab raiders passing across the plain a few miles west of us, and all day we proceeded with the greatest caution, for fear they might swoop down upon us. We afterwards learned that their last foray had been unsuccessful, and consequently they were returning to their encampment in an unamiable frame of mind which would have boded ill to us if we had happened to cross their path.

Midway between Ain el-Beida and Palmyra, we made a détour to visit some mountains a little distance to the left of the trail. We found here two altars about six feet high, bearing bi-lingual inscriptions in Greek and Palmyrene, which related that they had been erected on March 21 of the year of Palmyra 425 (114 A. D.), and were dedicated to the "Most High God." Near by could be seen the broken base of a third monument, but there were no other indications of human handiwork. We concluded that these altars must mark the course of the ancient highway, which the city was under obligation to maintain and protect.

The hills on either side of the plain now drew very much nearer to us and, as we approached the narrow pass which leads to the desert city, we saw beside the road several strange mortuary towers. These are as characteristic a feature of the environs of Palmyra as are the tombs on the Appian Way of the approach to Rome. Several of the structures are in a fair state of preservation and show clearly the original form and use. They were each of three or four stories, the upper floors being reached by inside stairways. Each story consisted of one square room surrounded by loculi for the reception of the dead, and before these, or standing within the room, were statues of the persons entombed in the niches. The statues either have been badly mutilated by the Arabs, who have a religious aversion to all such "idolatrous" representations, or have been destroyed by the vandalism of ignorant dealers in antiquities who, when they found it inconvenient to carry off whole figures, would break them and smuggle away the fragments. Many such heads, arms and feet have found their way to the coast cities of Syria, and some few have been sold to European palaces and museums.

Our long journey down the pass ended at a low saddle between the hills, and we at last looked down upon Palmyra itself. Just below us stretched a vast, confused mass of broken, reddish stones, from which rose here and there a group of graceful columns or the massive wall of a ruined temple. Back of the city were the desert hills; before it lay the desert plain. Built by a spring at the crossroads of the wilderness—surely no other of the world's great capitals had so strange a site as this one!

The thrilling story of Palmyra's rise and fall has been enshrined in poetry and romance and has inspired the painter's genius. The city lay, as has been said, midway between Damascus and the Euphrates, on the most fertile oasis along the ancient caravan route. It thus early became the center of the trade between the Mediterranean countries and the heart of western Asia. If, as is probable, the Tadmor or Tamar (Palm City) of the Bible[1] is the same as Palmyra, then it was built (or, more probably, rebuilt) by Solomon; but it does not again emerge into historical notice until about the beginning of the Christian era, when Mark Antony led an unsuccessful expedition against it. Still later, the Roman emperors recognized Palmyra as an important ally and buffer-state against the inroads of the Parthians. In the third century the Empire was thrown into a state of anarchy by continual contests between rival claimants for the throne; so, though in theory distant Palmyra was only a " colony," it was in fact given, or better, allowed to assume, a practical independence. Its ruler Odenathus II. bore the title of Augustus, which was inferior only to that of Emperor. After his death he was known as the "King of kings." In reality, he was the absolute ruler of a sovereign state.

When Valerian had been put to rout by Sapor of Persia, it was Odenathus who decisively defeated the invaders, saved the Roman Empire from what seemed certain overthrow, and incidentally added Mesopotamia to his own royal domains. This king of Palmyra would doubtless have proved a formidable rival of the emperor, had not his life been cut short by assassination in the year 266.

Odenathus was succeeded by his son Vahballathus; but the real ruler was his widow Bath Zebina, better known to the Western world by the Greek form of her name, Zenobia. If we consider her intellectual power, administrative ability and personal character, Zenobia ranks as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all queens. She was as gifted in military affairs as Semiramis, as strong a ruler as Elizabeth, as beautiful as her ancestor Cleopatra, more learned than Catherine, and her private life was never touched by the breath of calumny.

She is described as of surpassing loveliness, according to the Oriental type of beauty, with sparkling black eyes, pearly teeth and a commanding presence. She spoke Greek and Coptic fluently and knew
A few of the ruins which crowd the site of ancient Palmyra

A few of the ruins which crowd the site of ancient Palmyra

The Triple Gate and the Temple of the Sun

The Triple Gate and the Temple of the Sun

some Latin, in addition, of course, to her native Aramean. She drew up for her own use an epitome of history, delighted in reading Homer and Plato, and beguiled her leisure by discussing philosophy with the famous scholar Longinus, whom she persuaded to take up a permanent residence at her court.

Her physical endurance was remarkable. While her husband was living, she was accustomed to accompany him on his hunting expeditions. After the death of Odenathus, she habitually rode at the head of her armies on a fiery stallion, from which, however, she would often dismount, so that she might share the fatigue of the march with the common soldiers. It is no wonder that such a leader—beautiful, pure, brave, queenly yet friendly—inspired in her armies an intense personal loyalty and an unquestioning assent to her most daring plans. Without a murmur they followed their beloved queen into the fearful struggle with the world-empire.

At the very beginning of her reign, she threw down the gauntlet to Rome. The sway of Palmyra already extended over Armenia and Mesopotamia. An army of 70,000 men now defeated the Roman legions by the Nile and annexed Egypt. Zenobia next pushed her victorious banners northward to the very shores of the Bosphorus. When the newly elected emperor Aurelian insisted that she should formally acknowledge his sovereignty, her answer was a bold defiance and a proclamation of herself and her son as supreme rulers of the whole East.

Aurelian, however, was of different stuff from his weakling predecessors. In the year 272 he brought an immense army to Syria, defeated the forces of Zenobia at Antioch and then, following quickly after the retreating Palmyrenes, routed them again near the city of Emesa (modern Homs) and demanded of Zenobia that she surrender. The haughty answer was that her enemy had not yet even begun to test the valor and resources of Palmyra.

So the great army of Rome laid siege to the desert stronghold. The winter and spring wore on, and Zenobia was still unconquered. Whenever Aurelian summoned her to capitulate, she responded with another bold defiance. But at last it became clear that her capital was doomed; so the queen, escaping the vigilance of the Roman sentries, slipped away from the city and fled across the desert toward the Euphrates. Just as she reached the bank of the river, however, she was overtaken and brought back captive. Yet her proud spirit remained unbroken. When Aurelian reproached her for her obstinate and useless rebellion, she answered with calm dignity that the course of events had indeed proved his supremacy, but that the previous emperors had not shown themselves to be superior to her, and she had therefore been justified in opposing their authority.

In spite of the stubborn resistance of the city, Aurelian did not now destroy Palmyra or treat its inhabitants cruelly. But when he reached the Bosphorus on his way back to Rome, word came that the Palmyrenes had already revolted and had slain the Roman garrison left by the conqueror. Thereupon he quickly retraced his march and recaptured the city without difficulty. This time the enraged emperor ordered the beautiful capital to be razed and allowed his soldiers to engage in an awful massacre. Neither women nor children were spared, and when the avenging army finally left the unhappy city, its splendid buildings were but heaps of dusty rubbish, among which hid a miserable remnant of its heartbroken inhabitants. Thus departed forever the glory of Palmyra.

The heart of the world has been touched by the pathetic spectacle of proud, beautiful Zenobia led captive through the streets of Rome to grace Aurelian's triumphal procession. Yet the emperor seems to have treated his captive with unusual consideration and respect, and he generously bestowed upon her a large estate near Tivoli. There, in the company of her two sons, she passed the rest of her days quietly, though we dare not hope happily.

Palmyra was afterwards partially rebuilt by Diocletian and was fortified by Justinian, who made it a garrison town; but it never regained its former prosperity. The city was overrun by the desert Arabs, and suffered severely during the conflicts among the rival Moslem conquerors of Syria. In the year 745 it was again destroyed; in the eleventh and twelfth centuries it suffered from severe earthquakes; in 1401 it was plundered by the Tartar Tamerlane; in the sixteenth century it was taken by the Druses, and in the seventeenth it was razed by the Turks. For many generations the ancient city on the oasis was completely unknown to the Western world, though the wandering Bedouins delighted to talk of the marvelous ruins in the midst of the great desert.

Modern Tadmor—for it has taken again its old Semitic name—is but a wretched Arab hamlet of perhaps three hundred inhabitants, whose mud-plastered hovels lie in the midst of imposing ruins. Fully a square mile of the plain is strewn with the débris of temples, palaces and majestic colonnades. Many columns are still standing, after having braved the wars and earthquakes of sixteen centuries; but by far the greater number of them lie prone on the ground, half buried by the drifting dust.

The most prominent object that meets the eye is the Great Temple of Baal, the sun-god, which stands on a high platform overlooking the plain. Although Aurelian himself had this edifice restored after the final subjugation of Palmyra, it has since been badly damaged by earthquakes and defaced by the fanaticism of Moslem iconoclasts. Yet eight of its tall fluted columns and practically all of one side-wall enable us to guess what must have been the beauty of this structure when it was the chief sanctuary of Zenobia's capital.

Other ruins rise above the intricate mass of fallen columns which cover the area occupied by the ancient city. This huge pile of carved stones surmounted by a broken portico was once the royal palace. Yonder curving colonnade includes the fragments of the theater. Smaller temples are recognized here and there, and on the hillside at the edge of the oasis can be seen a number of the tall, square towers which were built as burial-places for the wealthier families.

But the chief architectural glory of ancient Palmyra was its far-famed Street of Columns. This imposing avenue stretched from the western edge of the oasis to the Temple of the Sun, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. On each side of it was a continuous, elaborately carved entablature, supported by nearly four hundred columns of reddish-brown limestone. About two-thirds of the way up these columns were corbels which, as the inscriptions still show, bore statues of prominent citizens. At every important crossing, whence other colonnaded avenues stretched to the right and left, four massive granite pillars supported a vaulted tetrapylon or quadruple gate.

Over a hundred of the columns of this beautiful avenue are still standing in their places, and large portions of the entablature remain unbroken. One can easily follow the course of the colonnade and understand its relation to adjoining structures; and the traveler must be sadly lacking in imagination who cannot sometimes, as the light of the twentieth century day grows dimmer, see a dream city of wondrous, unbroken beauty stand proud again beneath the calm, still gleaming of the desert stars. Not shattered stones but well-built homes and busy bazaars spread far outward from the foot of the mountain; a multitude of graceful pillars stand upright around the palaces and temples of a mighty capital, and between the long lines of statues on the reddish shafts of the great colonnade a splendid vista reaches to the triumphal arch and then, through its triple portals, to where the Temple of the Sun keeps silent watch over a city of imperial grandeur and a queen who sees visions of world-wide dominion.

The few hundred residents of Tadmor are of Arab blood, but the Bedouins of the surrounding desert consider them a poor, degenerate race, as doubtless they are. Shortly before we visited the village, its sheikh had made a wonderful trip to Paris as guest of a French lady who had previously traveled through the desert under his guidance. It seemed very strange, in this lonely little hamlet among the ruins of a vanished people, to hear an Arab sheikh tell stories—and he loved to tell them—about his adventures in the most modern of twentieth century capitals.

We were so fortunate as to be invited to a great feast which the sheikh gave the entire village in honor of his birthday. Feeding the poor in this wholesale way is regarded by the Arabs as a deed of great merit. A slaughtered camel provided the pièce de résistance of the banquet. In the center of the room was placed an enormous tray piled with a mountain of burghul, or boiled wheat, into which had been inserted huge pieces of camel's meat. A large funnel-shaped depression had been scooped out in the top of the pile and filled with melted butter. This percolated through the mass and added the final touch of flavor to what was—if you liked it—a most rich and delicious repast. The anxious villagers were then admitted in groups of eight or ten. They immediately squatted around the tray, thrust their hands into the mass, grasped as much as they could, plunged it into their mouths and, in order not to lose any time, swallowed it with as little mastication as possible. One greedy fellow got an unusually large chunk of camel's meat into his throat and, as a consequence, nearly choked to death before his comrades relieved him by strenuous blows upon his back.

In order to visit Hama, we returned from Palmyra by another route; and, as a large part of this journey was to be across a trackless, waterless and absolutely uninhabited desert, we engaged a Bedouin to act as our guide.

Not long after setting out, we passed through a gap in the hills a quarter of a mile wide, whose sides were almost as perpendicular as if they had been walls shaped by the hand of man. The locality is called Marbat Antar, that is, "Antar's Hitching-place." Antar is the hero of many a fabulous exploit among the Arabs, much as was Hercules among the Greeks; and the prodigies of valor which he performed in defense of his tribe are celebrated in song and story. Among other wonderful feats, he is said to have leaped his horse across this deep ravine from cliff to cliff.

The first day's journey homeward brought us to el-Wesen, a well where we had expected to lay in a supply of water for the long ride across the arid wilderness; but, to our intense disappointment, we found the water foul with dead locusts. Our Arabs, however, swallowed the nauseating fluid with great gusto, apparently rejoicing that they could obtain both food and drink in the same mouthful; and, as it was a case of necessity, we managed to cook some food with the water, and even drank a little of it in the form of very strong tea which disguised somewhat the insect flavor.

The next morning we were ready for the start at four o'clock and traveled all day through a rolling, treeless country, which in summer is absolutely bare of vegetation. At sunset we halted for two hours in order to rest and feed the animals. Then we mounted again for an all-night ride; for we did not dare sleep until we had come to water. There was no trail visible to us, but our guide held steadily on through the darkness. During the long night we could see ahead of us his white camel, keeping straight on the course with no apparent aid save the twinkling stars above. There was such danger of falling in with one of the robber tribes which infest this district that we were warned not to speak above a whisper. The poor donkeys also received a hint not to bray. Each of them had a halter looped tightly around his neck. As soon as an animal was seen to raise his nose in preparation for an ecstatic song, some one would quickly tighten the noose and, to our amusement and the donkey's very evident disgust, the only sound to issue from his throat would be a thin gurgling whine.

As the night drew on we became so sleepy that we could hardly sit in the saddles, and before morning dawned we were burning with thirst. Our guide led us to another spring. Not only was it full of long-dead locusts, but a wild pig was wallowing in the filthy water! Even the Arabs refused to drink from the pool that had been defiled by the unclean beast. There was nothing to do but to push on again. We had been twenty-six hours in the saddle, with nothing to drink save "locust-tea," when at last we came to a little village by a running stream of clear, limpid water—and our desert journey was safely over.

  1. I Kings 9:18.