the Foreign Service journal
Into the Desert
By Kate Carr
Kate Carr and her FSO hus-
band David were posted for
18 years in the Middle East.
During those many years,
they explored the countries
that are presently in the news. David Carr
retired from the Foreign Service in 1993, and
the couple lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
n December 1960, right before Christ-
mas, my husband Dave and I launched
our little Volkswagen into the Syrian
Desert. We did this without a road.
According to our guide book, there was an
unpaved trail passable by all vehicles.
We were following the tracks of small
trucks that used this shortcut between
Damascus and the ancient city of Pal-
myra, but the markings were not distinct.
When we couldn’t see any tracks in the
black rocks of the stony desert, we steered
between two distant mountain ranges.
This route was more than 60miles
shorter than the normal way: namely,
going north to Homs and taking the paved
road. It took us seven hours to cover the 130
miles, but it was definitely an adventure.
Alone in a wide, dry landscape, we saw
mirages ahead that looked like pools of
water. As we reached each one, the water
disappeared and the ducks on the surface
turned into desert plants. The camels we
met in a caravan, however, were real.
Mile after mile, we worked our way
toward an oasis on the southern edge of
the sandy desert. There, in the last fold of
the Anti-LebanonMountains, a perennial
spring gave rise to a civilization dating
back to the 19th century B.C.
Always a way station for desert cross-
ers, the city of Tadmor (city of dates) was
The setting sun turned the limestone
columns of the ancient Palmyra ruins a
originally founded by Arab tribes. It was
renamed Palmyra (city of palms) during
Roman times, with Roman architecture
superimposed during the 1st and 2nd
A fewmiles fromPalmyra, we con-
nected with the macadam road from
Homs and drove on into the ancient city,
one of Syria’s archaeological treasures. The
setting sun turned the limestone columns
of the ruins a glowing red. We rounded
the temple of Bel-Shamin and arrived at
the one-story Hotel Zenobia hidden in its
It was a cold winter evening. We were
welcomed and invited to take a place near
the pot-bellied stove that sat in the middle
of the reception room. There were three
men already enjoying the warmth.
One was in charge of the ruins, another
the teacher in the local school, and the
third was manager of the hotel. He went off
and ordered dinner for us from the cook.
Early the next morning, we walked
around the extensive site. We saw the main
temples, and then went with a guide to the
tombs. Inside the tombs were hundreds of
sculpted heads, each depicting the mum-
mified body sealed within the cell.
Among the many rulers of Palmyra
was the desert queen Zenobia, famous
for fighting the Romans and setting up
an extensive empire in 270. Camel troops
fromPalmyra had been fighting the Per-
sians on behalf of the Romans for years.
Zenobia declared the city indepen-
dent and led her warriors against Roman
Emperor Aurelian. She claimed to be
descended fromCleopatra. Like that
queen, she was quick-witted, bold and
spoke many languages. But Rome was
much too strong for this desert kingdom to
oppose, and Zenobia was defeated.
After a second rebellion a year later,
the wealthy city was pillaged, burned and
reduced to a minor outpost in the desert.
Earthquakes through the centuries also
leveled parts of the lavish structures.
When we were there, the Syrian govern-
ment was excavating and rebuilding the
site. This continued until the so-called
Islamic State group took over the site in
May 2015. Since thenmany people have
been killed, and the monuments are being
The most prominent personmurdered
was Khalid al-Asaad, director of Palmyra
antiquities from 1963 until his retirement
in 2003, who was beheaded in the square
in front of his museumon Aug. 11, 2015.
ISIS began by wrecking statues they
deemed polytheistic. Among those was
the Lion of Al-lat statue in front of one of
the temples. They went on to demolish the
main temple of Bel and the smaller temple
of Bel-Shamin, and blow up seven of the
ancient tower tombs. The Arch of Triumph,
too, has fallen to their frenzy.
At some point, memories may be all
that are left.