folder Filed in Stories, Syria
No camels to visit desert home of Warrior Queen
So we trek 240 km by Yak
AS Media access_time 17 min read

I was sitting in the waiting area outside the office of Minister Ahmed Iskander Ahmed, in the grim black and cream Ministry of Information building in central Damascus, Syria. Alongside me were a dozen other supplicants wanting favours that most likely would not mirror the one I was to here to pursue.

This was the only place in Syria where I could obtain an authorisation for the camel train I wanted to trek the barren desert to Palmyra, an important hub town on the ancient Silk Road. It had been the home base of the renowned Warrior Queen Zenobia, whose armies captured Egypt from Cleopatra 3,000 years earlier.

It was my second successive day perched on the dusty leather chair, from which I rose as the trying-to-be-helpful ministerial assistant slipped from the inner office. He headed towards me with a grin that suggested we might have a deal and I might have a strong ancestral story to tell.

“There is good news, Mr. Terry. You can take your journalists to the town of Palmyra, but it would be much too tiring to travel by camel. We will make more suitable arrangements and please all be ready at 9am in two days,” said the assistant.

With no camels on offer, I assumed we would be using the three chauffeured Government Mercedes limos to transport our group across the desert – a less adventurous substitute for my suggested ships of the desert trek.

1,000 miles of Biblical history

Since arriving from London our group had the use of the Mercs, replete with damask curtains for passenger privacy. Traffic in downtown Damascus pulled over and stopped to make way for us as we zig-zagged to inspect the touristic delights of the oldest city in the world.

We had even taken the cars right into the bustling Al-Hamidiyah Souk and parked in The Street Called Straight, visited by St Paul, but which now has mosques, churches and synagogues along the way. There were fine oriental rugs, silk, copperware and spices on offer everywhere.

The marketing theme being promoted by our media visit, “1,000 miles of Biblical History” included Jordan, much of the Holy Land, and, emulating St Paul, finishing up in Damascus. The Kingdom of Jordan was picking up half of the consultancy fees with Syria providing the balance and the hospitality costs.

We were aiming for positive coverage in carefully selected UK national and regional newspapers and travel magazines.  Their journalists had accepted my invitation to look at Syria’s tourism potential as guests of the Al-Assad ruling regime. It was the first press trip of its kind, so I was determined it would be a success.

We had negotiated a PR and marketing contract in London to assist the Syrians in beefing up their tourism market. Getting a solid media appraisal was an important first step. There had been rumours in London about 10,000 citizens of Hama, near Syria’s northern border with Turkey, being massacred and of tribal dissent around the country. But the Syrian Government officials attending our meetings in London suggested that things were much better now and the country was safe for tourists.

Long range jumbo jets

Our trip came at a pivotal time for Syria and the Middle East. In earlier troubled years the Western press had problems getting into Syria because of regular regional unrest, including the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But by now the Syrians had built Damascus International Airport and updated the SyrianAir operations to pitch for an improved media image and dollar-earning tourism…

I explained all of this to media contacts and managed to put together a press party of national, regional, and travel trade journalists and tour operators to see for themselves what Syria had to offer to international tourists…

So now we were on our way and I was on the flight deck at Heathrow Airport when the pilot programmed the 747’s onboard navigation computer to Damascus. We trundled past a disgorging Concorde on the way to our take-off position and then soared skywards and headed east to Arabia.

I had heard that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had paid for the brand-new long-range Boeing 747SP that transported us from London. It was the first of two, due to be operated jointly by Syrian Arab Airlines and Alia Royal Jordanian Airline, to boost long-haul business for both countries. The 747SPs could fly direct to New York from either Amman or Damascus, and that would be the first transatlantic route to be operated by an Arab airline. But as is so often the case in Arabia, the two sides fell out and never actually operated their joint flight agreement.

Renowned film critic in our party

We landed in Damascus to a barrage of local media interest. I told Syrian State TV in an interview how much we were looking forward to seeing the many touristic and cultural delights and informing the British people about what was on offer in this glorious country.

A fairly bland statement that reflected unvoiced uncertainties on the political front about President Hafez al-Assad and his Baathist regime. That this was my first visit kept the word count down.

The senior and most important journalist in our party was Dilys Powell, the renowned film critic of the Sunday Times, whose editorial policy seemed to be to share out the travel “freebies” among the editorial staff.

Dilys might have lobbied the travel editor for the chance of getting to Syria because she had later insisted I try to include a visit to Palmyra, whose incredible history she had heard about from her first husband, Humfrey Payne. He was a leading archaeologist, and Dilys had spent many years with him in Greece when he was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens.

Following my pressure at the Ministry of Information, she was very pleased when I told her and the rest of the party we were heading for Palmyra, the hometown of the legendary Queen Zenobia, whose army defeated the Roman legions – and she even ruled Egypt for a spell.

For the evening before our departure to Palmyra, our party was invited to a formal banquet at a ritzy casino in Damascus to meet Government ministers and Syrian tourism chiefs. Many of the locals came in army uniforms, mainly those of generals and divers higher ranks with wives in stuffy, Fifties-style dresses and much gold jewellery.

Our printed menus promised the main course of spit-roasted lamb. It arrived virtually in lamb-sized pieces on huge silver salvers, which chefs plonked down on the very long refectory table. The carcass of each lamb had been placed, pyre-like, on a deep bed of fluffy rice…

The chefs withdrew and the waiters placed a warmed dinner plate in front of each guest but made no effort to serve anyone.

What’s happening, what is the protocol here? A general indicated I should help myself from the huge pile of food in front of me. Not ladies first then, not ministers or generals in order of seniority. Was I some kind of guest of honour because of my TV news coverage when we had arrived at Damascus Airport?

No serving spoons were within grasp, but a Syrian guest sitting next to me mimed how I should use my right hand to grab rice and meat and return portions to my plate. I was up and running, quickly followed by a flurry of self-serving hands around the table as the party got stuck into the spit-roasted lambs.

Camo-painted Russian-built Yak

However, I was to be up and running for months after this generous serving of botulism… The symptoms of Damascus Dash (DD) – a local variant of Montezuma’s Revenge or Delhi Belly – were a constant traveling companion for the remainder of that trip and for the rest of the year…

Breakfast the next day was a missed event for me, and a couple of the journalists, but we managed to be at the front door of Le Méridien Hotel (now Dedeman Hotel) as the Mercs rolled up to take us to…The airport.

We were whisked through to the tarmac via the VIP route. Dilys Powell, dressed for the desert and looking like a leading lady from an Indiana Jones movie, was alongside me as we were led to our transport. I spotted our plane – “Oh my God.” But Dilys didn’t bat an eyelid at the sight of a camo-painted Russian-built Yak, an military aircraft normally used to carry troops into war zones…

Would we be sitting on the floor with our backs to a webbed fuselage as depicted in WW2 newsreels…with a parachute pack on our laps or would we need to be strapped to the webbing to stop us bouncing around as we came into land on a dusty desert landing strip?

We mounted the short boarding steps, to be greeted by the head stewardess of the Boeing 747SP that had carried us from London. A couple of her uniformed team held trays of refreshments and welcomed us aboard with knowing smiles.

Desert trail with real-life camels

None of that “squaddie squatting” was necessary, because the seats had been removed from the Boeing 747SP and fitted in the Yak for our 243 km journey across the desert. And, hopefully, safe return to Damascus – Russian-made planes had a nasty habit of coming down unexpectedly in all the wrong places.

The twin-prop Yak lumbered down the runway and rose slowly to about 6,000 feet on a north-easterly heading, following a clearly defined camel trail across the desert that was regularly punctuated by real-life camel trains as had been the case for 3,000 years. That is difficult to get into your head in an age of intercontinental travel and scientists working in the international space station circling the globe.

Our old Yak got us to Palmyra just ahead of the nearest line of camels and we came in low (very low) over acres of Grecian and Roman pillars and temple ruins and then the town of small, flat-roofed houses. We were so low, I wondered if we were putting down in the main street. Our landing gear just about cleared the last house in town and the infamous Tadmor Prison located on the left-hand side of the plane before we flopped onto a runway just a few metres further on.

There was no terminal building to speak of, so our party just walked off the sun-baked runway back into the town, where we were led into a small museum crammed with quite amazing artifacts. Luckily, there was a sort of public loo, because by now I was feeling the full ill effects of the Damascus Dash resulting from the finger buffet lamb of the previous evening!

Buried under shifting sand for 1,000 years

We were shown quite amazing artifacts in the museum. Then a guided tour of temples and monuments among the acres of ruins of the ancient kingdom of Palmyra, described in the Bible as being founded by King Solomon. The main Roman street and its colonnades were one mile long. The searing sun was beating down on our party as we moved along it, simply gasping at the sheer scale of the place. Some members of our party suggested Palmyra’s antiquities rivaled those of Athens and Rome.

Everything was well preserved by the desert air, but many of the ancient buildings lay on the ground where they had collapsed under regular sieges and the effects of an earthquake that resulted in the town being buried under the desert sands for 1,000 years.

Nearby, there were tombs in the sky – tall towers built to show off the wealth and power of local dynasties, with niches for the dead on all four sides – and a fabulous Arabian Nights hilltop castle, Qula’at ibn Maan that overlooks the town.

But we were the only tourists in Palmyra that day, even as we wandered into the shade of a large oasis where a French engineer was busy tapping an underground aquifer to fill the swimming pool of a Méridien Hotel under construction.  If they ever arrived at this stunning place, future visitors would appreciate a cool dip. Today’s desert heat was unbearable for many in our party – with the notable exception of Dilys Powell, well acclimatised to these temperatures from her years in Greece.

One local joke we picked up in the souk revolved around a conversation between two tour guides:
Guide one: “I’ve got a tour group coming in today.
Guide two: “That’s good news. What sort of group is it?
Guide one: “A one-person group.”

Palmyra had been a forgotten place, buried under desert sands, until 50 years earlier when it was rediscovered by foreign archaeologists. Because of the constant upheavals in the region, there had been few tourists since, at this or the other 20 or so outstanding archaeological sites in Syria including Damascus and Aleppo, cities continuously inhabited for 5,000 years.

Crossroads town of the Silk Road

One previous tourist arrival in Syria was that of Mark Twain. In his 1869 book, Innocents Abroad, he wrote: “Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus.” She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and you will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”

Even earlier visitors to Palmyra included Mark Antony and Hadrian (of Wall fame), who was so impressed he gave tax concessions, very useful for a town at the crossroads of the Silk Road. In 255, Septimus Odaenathus was appointed governor of Syria Phoenicia, based in Palmyra. Five years later, he was made Governor of the entire East. In 266 Odaenathus and his eldest son were assassinated and his wife, Zenobia, became the effective ruler. Some believe the Palmyra warrior queen hired the assassin.

Zenobia captured and taken to Rome

The ambitious and attractive Zenobia was half-Greek and half-Arab, or possibly half-Jewish. She claimed to be descended from Cleopatra and was exceptionally intelligent and an eloquent speaker of Palmyrian, Greek, and Egyptian. In her court were scholars, theologians and philosophers. She dressed as an emperor, not an empress, and claimed she could outdrink any man (and win at arm wrestling?).

Queen Zenobia was a successful ruler and, by 270 AD, her armies had conquered most of Anatolia (Asia Minor) earning her the title of The Warrior Queen. The city of Palmyra declared its independence from Rome but fell into decline after Zenobia was captured three years later and taken to Rome in gold chains.

Our party was captivated by this amazing pink and ochre palm-fringed place in the middle of the desert. Dilys Powell was reluctant to get back on the Yak for the return journey to Damascus. She’d had a field day to remember in Palmyra while I’d split my time between ancient artifacts and ancient plumbing in the museum – as my DD was still causing chaos…

That evening we visited the impressive Damascus Museum with its recent extension to house even more of the seemingly unlimited artifacts of Syria, including the most important of all, the world’s first alphabet. All our party was jaw-dropped by the breadth and quality of the collection, especially Dilys Powell who displayed a deep knowledge of displayed Grecian and Roman jewelry.

More on Warrior Queen Zenobia

Our cover image is taken from a painting of the Palmyra Warrior Queen, whose ancestry is unclear. She may have been raised as the daughter of her brother who had married the widow of her father who was the brother of them both. There may be a refugee in Sheffield included in her ancestral tree. Main image: Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (aka Herbert Carmichael) in 1888. She was taken in chains from Palmyra to Rome

Syria’s Boeing 747-SP was never flown to New York, but the second 747-SP delivered to Alia in 1977 was used on the Amman-New York route, the first transatlantic route operated by an Arab airline.

Four years after our visit UNESCO made Palmyra a World Heritage site and described it well: “The art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, marries Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.”

Tourism grew steadily, centred on Damascus, beach resorts and Palmyra, but didn’t reach its full potential. It peaked in 1981 before declining again and from 2010 virtually ceased with the outbreak of civil war.

Subsequent trade embargos against the Al-Hassad regime meant no Coca Cola was officially available in Syria and no other products of American companies – including passenger jets.

On 23 July 2012, as the rebellion against President Bashar Al-Assad continued, the EU imposed a new wave of sanctions on Syria, which included SyrianAir. The sanctions meant that the airline could not make flights to the EU, or buy any new aircraft, which has parts made in the EU, or aircraft made in the EU. As a result, SyrianAir was forced to suspend all its operations to the EU.

In the Civil War of 2010-2020, Government troops occupied the ancient remains of Palmyra and took potshots at any locals who moved. Some of its finest artifacts were later destroyed by ISIS rebels and the desert town was added to a list of endangered world heritage sites.

Dilys Powell, film critic and latter-day desert warrior, died in St Charles Hospital, London on 03 June 1995, aged 93.

“For decades, the mere mention of Tadmor Prison was enough to send chills down a Syrian’s spine. The notorious facility in the desert of central Syria was where thousands of dissidents were reported to have been beaten, humiliated and systematically tortured for opposing the Assad family’s rule. It was demolished by the Islamic State group, which took over the site near the ancient town of Palmyra bringing mixed emotions from many Syrians who wanted it to remain standing so future generations would know its horrors.” – News report from Associated Press.


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