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On the road to Palmyra: travels through 1920s Syria

James McManus’s journey across 1920s Syria had been gathering dust for nearly a century – until a lockdown tidy-up uncovered them. His daughter in law shares James’s thoughts as he crossed the desert...

Postcard from the past: And so begins James McManus’s 100-year-old account of his journey to Palmyra, discovered during lockdown



In the depths of lockdown, when we could only dream of travel, the chance-find by my mother-in-law of a bundle of papers wrapped around a handful of black-and-white photos opened a door to a whole new world. The yellowing typewritten pages captured the recollections of her father-in-law, James McManus’s, 17-hour trip across the Syrian desert, from Baghdad to Palmyra.

What made it truly fascinating was the fact this journey was taken in the 1920s. A civil engineer, James travelled from his home in Paisley, Scotland, to live in Iraq; reading his words and seeing his photographs felt like stepping into a time machine. Family treasures uncovered during lockdown don’t come much better than this. James wrote in the present tense and captured the sights and voices of the desert road trip. We’re right there, standing beside him as he points out tombs, colonnades of stone columns and considers their history.

Palmyra was devastated when ISIL took control of the area, their attempts to destroy the site described by the UN as a war crime. Now the Syrian government is restoring the UNESCO-listed site. I’d like to think James would have approved.

Here are his memories …

“Halte, stop. Nouvelle Palmyre.” To the weary and dust-stained traveller approaching Palmyra from the desert, these signs are welcome. Palmyra at last.

Only 17 hours before, the lights of Baghdad, 725km away across the Syrian desert, winked farewell. Powerful touring cars with running boards laden with baggage almost to the height of the hood, travelling all through the night and a great part of the next day, had spanned the barren expanse of desert.

An uneventful journey, it is only when watches indicate that Palmyra should be on the horizon there is any interest. Every distant mound is the subject of speculation until, at last, the sun on its western course throws into relief a dark, irregular shape, which very slowly resolves into patches of light, shade and straight lines recognisable as buildings.

“Palmyra,” says the Syrian driver, “half-hour.”

Turns and twists through the narrow streets of New Palmyra, a French-Arab town, allow occasional glimpses of the ancient city beyond. 

A sharp turn to the right past a police post and there it lies – Queen Zenobia’s famous city, lonely yet magnificent even in the chaos of its ruins.

The Palmyra of old may have been named the City of Palms but there are few palm trees nowadays. One sees it as a veritable city of columns. They cover the area in reckless confusion. Some rear proud heads 12 or 15 metres in the air, as erect as the day they were set up 17 centuries ago. Those upstanding bear marvellously, but precariously, enormous stone blocks, which span from column to column.

Hundreds, alas, lie prone, the weathered yellow stone giving some semblance to huge cornstalks as if a giant reaper had been at work. In this barren desert, there is no lichen, moss or clinging ivy to cloak the nakedness of the ruins and time has dealt out

uneven treatment. The yellow stones are pitted and scarred by the violent blasts of prevailing sandstorms. In many places, the delicate carvings are as sharp as the day they were cut, while in others they are completely eroded.

Built into each column is a bracket that originally carried a statue. These were erected to honour those who, braving the perils of the desert, led the wealth-laden caravans safely from India and Persia. Every such successful venture brought wealth and renown to Palmyra and its commemoration in stone also, materially, helped to build the city.

The number of columns has never been computed, but some indication of Palmyra’s success in trading may be gained from the statement of a French surveyor working on the site that there were 1,500 columns in the kilometre-long Grand Colonnade alone. Out of all the chaos, the Grand Colonnade still stands. 

Viewed from the Arc de Triomphe, the eye travels from column to column - now upright, now fallen – with the gaps scarcely noticeable from this viewpoint to where, over a kilometre away, a French military post crowns the highest of the range of hills under the shelter of which Palmyra nestles snugly.

The eye travels back to where, at the foot of the hills and extending into a valley to the left, stand the square-built tomb towers, each of which must have been six or seven storeys high, where the dead of Palmyra were buried. Most tombs have collapsed, but above the shroud of mist rising from the sulphurous springs in the valley, some stand out – dead reminders of Palmyra’s living greatness.

Behind and to the left are the ruins of public buildings, including the marketplace and the great temple to worship the Sun God. The same sun that has witnessed all the splendours of the ancient city but now lights only an abandoned stage.

To the thoughtful traveller, the journey of 17 hours across the desert from Baghdad to Palmyra conjures up visions of the old caravan route and brings realisation of the reasons for Palmyra’s existence.

The caravans counted the rising and setting of the sun 21 times before nearing Palmyra. One can visualise them plodding on, and ever on, to the west; the slow, deliberately stepping camels and the jerky, in mockery of the ruins trotting mules laden with bales of valuable merchandise, gold and precious stones. The great silence of the desert broken only by the soft pad, pad of the hoofs and the tinkle of the bells round the animals’ necks.

Day after day, jogging along in the great heat of the desert. Night after night, huddled around the campfire in the shelter of piled-up bales of goods, for the desert nights can be bitterly cold. Day and night, the never-ceasing vigilance to guard against not only the natural dangers of the desert but the possibility of attack by marauding tribes.

One can imagine with what joy the first sight of the Palmyra hills would be welcomed. The anxieties and sleepless watchfulness would soon be over. The dawn of another day would see them safe in the desert city. Then the triumphant procession of the caravan down the long colonnade to the acclamation of the citizens, past the statues in honour of those who had previously accomplished a similar task or perhaps died in the attempt.

These were the men who built the splendour of Palmyra and brought untold wealth to Queen Zenobia. Her city became the trading centre of the East; her people the recognised carriers of merchandise between India or Persia and the Mediterranean.

Zenobia’s lust for power was insatiable and she sought to throw off the shackles of dependency on Rome and found an empire of her own. For a time she reigned as Queen of the East but the might of the Roman Emperor, Aurelian, shattered her dreams.

So long as Palmyra was in the throes of war, trade caravans avoided it and established safer routes. This led to the city’s decay and now it stands a lonely, pitiful ruin.

The strong light of the sun on the yellow columns turns the scene to gold, as if in mockery of the ruins, as the car proceeds towards the gap in the hills which leads to Damascus. Then on through the valley where the silent tomb towers, like ghostly sentinels, watch the traveller depart this city of the dead, while overhead the same sun they worshipped vaunts its eternal existence, emphasising the futility of man and the mercilessness of time.  

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