legio ii building stone

Mike Bishop

You know my method. It is founded upon the observance of trifles



A Quick Tour of Syria

 [The main drag, Palmyra]

'None of the country through which I went is ground virgin to the traveller, though parts of it have been visited but seldom, and described only in works that are costly and often difficult to obtain. Of such places I have given a brief account, and as many photographs as seemed to be of value.' Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown


 [The Street called Straight] Okay, here we go: a quick clockwise trip round Syria! Let's start with the 'Street Called Straight' in Damascus, the shafts of light coming from the holes in the corrugated iron roof made by rifle bullets (an unfortunate result of the locals' former fondness for celebrating by shooting in the air). On the line of the original Roman street (and retaining two slight deviations from a truly straight line), Mark Twain said of it

'St Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is a street which is straight, but the "street which is called Straight". It is a fine piece of irony; it is the only facetious remark in the Bible, I believe'.

This quote, and much more about Damascus (and Syria in general) can be found in Ross Burns' excellent book, Monuments of Syria.


 [Krak des Chevalliers] Now to Krak des Chevalliers or Qalaat al-Husn, the 12th-century crusader fortress overlooking the Homs Gap. Held by the Knights Hospitaller until taken (by deception, supposedly) by the Mameluke Sultan Baibars. The Mamelukes enhanced the crusader fortifications, but left the original Frankish masonry intact beneath their modifications.

'It is one of the most perfect of the many fortresses which bear witness to the strange jumble of noble ardour, fanaticism, ambition and crime that combined to make the history of the Crusades - a page whereon the Christian nations cannot look without a blush nor read without the unwilling pity exacted by vain courage.' Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown


 [Anchor from Ugarit] Ugarit is a Bronze Age, stone-built city near Latakia, which had an important role as a port, which is why this stone anchor (the tines were of wood and fitted through the holes on the broad side; the cable was fastened through the single hole at the narrow end), originally just lying on the surface (but now removed by the excavators), is such an interesting object (the site is now some way inland). One of the earliest alphabets was used at Ugarit.

Qalaat Semaan

 [Simeon Stylites' column base] In the northern limestone region, the complex at Qalaat Semaan grew up in the 5th and 6th centuries AD around the column upon which Simeon Stylites squatted for several years. He attracted a number of followers, wannabee Simeons, who likewise squatted on lesser columns (Simeon enlarged his several times - genuine upward mobility). He did everything up on top of his column... absolutely everything.

'The court had been set round with a matchless colonnade, of which many of the arches are still standing, and in the centre rose in former days the column whereon St. Simeon lived and died. I scrambled over the heaps of ruin till I came to the rock-hewn base of that very column, a broad block of splintered stone with a depression in the middle, like a little bowl, filled with clear rain water in which I washed my hands and face.' Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown


[The city of Zenobia]The rebel 3rd-century AD queen of the same name, who led a breakaway empire rivalling the troubled Roman one, supposedly founded this site, which is mainly Byzantine in the surviving structures. The River Euphrates passes beneath the eastern defences of the city. A good place to visit at sundown (which is when the tours usually take you there).


[Mud brick wall at Dura-Europos]Well, others may like Palmyra better, but this city captured by the Romans from the Parthians in the 2nd century AD, taken by the Sassanid Persians from the Romans in the middle of the 3rd century, is my favourite. When the Romans took it, they punched a hole through the gypsum walls and later repaired it with mud brick (and this is what you can see in the graphic: note how the mud brick is weathering). The Persian siege ramp survives, and in the 1930s excavators found the remains of a battle underground between Roman defenders and Persian attackers, fought out in a cramped mine. One of the few Roman cities where you can walk along part of the original rampart-walk. Renowned for many things, not least its fabulous painted synagogue (now in Damascus Museum), where biblical events are depicted in contemporary costume; the papyrus records of the Roman unit based there; and some spectacular finds of pieces of Roman military equipment, including horse armour. By the 4th century AD, it was deserted when the Emperor Julian passed by with his army, home only to heards of deer (the Romans shot some, and knocked others down with oars; not surprisingly, the deer ran away!).


[View of Palmyra from 'Saladin's Castle']An oasis with a lot of date palms. Quite a few ruins, too, of this Parthian cum Roman caravan city, exploiting the importance of its location to the trade routes of the east. It became rich and powerful (Zenobia came from here - her name is on one of the columns) and many of the tombs of the wealthy contain silk garments (silk, of course, had to be imported from China).

Palmyra may be a cliché, but it is one well worth visiting.


 [The dam at Harbaqa] This Roman period dam at Harbaqa (probably built by the Palmyrenes) still stands 20m high and 345m long, although it has long ago silted right up to its rim. Not many visitors get to see this monument. It continued in use into the Byzantine and Umayyad times, supplying the gardens of the desert fort of Qasr al-Heir al-Gharbi.


There have allegedly been visitors here... feel that desert sun on your head...
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This page was almost updated on July 16th 2009