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the Foreign Service journal


april 2016


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

glowing red.

originally founded by Arab tribes. It was

renamed Palmyra (city of palms) during

Roman times, with Roman architecture

superimposed during the 1st and 2nd

centuries A.D.

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

systematically destroyed.

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.