Palmyra – were you there?

It’s 08.30 and the day is warming up. A few young boys in blue overalls collect the bits of paper and soft-drink cans that litter the side of the road. Their hearts aren’t in it but they carry on, bending, picking up, bending again. This is the road to the other part of Tadmor – Roman Palmyra – and the authorities want it to look good, to show that they care about what is undoubtedly the greatest first century place of worship in the Middle East.

The Temple of Bel is an electrifying 200 metre square rectangle of towering pillars, altars – and divine mystery. At its centre is the sublime Propylaea, the huge vestibule fronting the inner sanctum with a majestic stairway, 35 metres wide, leading up to its eight-pillared entrance. To the left of the Propylaea is the altar on which the animals were slaughtered and to the right the pool where the priests washed the blood from their hands and from cleansed their death-dealing axes.

Though much of the Temple is in ruins – it is, after all, over two thousand years old – it is still possible to sense the noise and feel the thronging presence of the huge crowd of people gathered to enjoy the spectacle of the sacrifice and of the priests in their ceremonial robes and head coverings going about their sacred tasks. With blood regarded as the essence of life, the practice of sacrificing animals, camels, bulls and rams – though rarely pigs – was an important activity since, during the ritual, the priests spilled the animals’ blood on the altar thereby returning it to the gods to whom all life belonged.

Naturally, brought up in a religious culture which daily re-enacts the death, 2000 years ago, of a political activist in Roman Jerusalem whose followers believe they are drinking the blood and eating the flesh of the sacrificed man, I was intrigued to see what the people in this Roman outpost got up to at the same time.

As I make my way to the Temple entrance I notice, in the main outer wall, just by the little wooden ticket hut, a tunnel which disappears under the wall and reappears on the inside. Through this tunnel were driven the sacrificial animals already washed and decked out in coloured ribbons in preparation for the killing ceremony. If the animal to be sacrificed was a bull, his horns were painted gold. Once through the tunnel, he was then were driven up a ramp to the waiting priests.

But for the ceremony to be performed in an official manner, more was required than ribbons and gilded horns. Care had to be taken that the animal displayed no fear as it was led to the slaughter. If it did, then the sacrifice was considered to be polluted and had to be repeated with a different animal. To avoid this, someone had the job of bending the beast’s head downwards in a visible display of humble acceptance of its fate. If this proved to be a problem, the beasts were first stunned with a blow from a heavy stick.

Once the animals were killed, they were cut open and their entrails examined. If no abnormalities were found, the sacrifice was deemed to have been accepted by the gods. Occasionally, the priests were given the liver of the animal to “read” for portents of good or evil. At that point, the carcass was cut up and the heart and lungs set aside as offerings to the gods while the rest was given to the people to be consumed later at a festival banquet. The heart and lungs were then carried up the wide steps to the Propylaea and into the inner sanctum where, to the right there is still a stairs leading to the roof where the actual offering to Bel was made.

I sit on a warm stone to gather my thoughts and make a few notes and within minutes, one of the ticket men approaches to stand watching me as I write. His artless curiosity is at first disconcerting and then annoying.

“ I can’t write while you stand there, ” I whinge.

“ I’m sorry,” he says immediately and moves away leaving me to feel, as always, regretful for my surly attitude.

I return to my notes and, book in hand, mount the steps that lead into the inner sanctum where, in recognition of the fact that Palmyra was both a major trading city and a powerful military outpost of the Roman Empire, its walls – those that are still standing – reach 18 metres high. ( The average height of room in a house these days is about 2.5 metres.)
The inner sanctum is a wide hall with what looks like a large ingle nook fireplace at each end but which turn out to be altars to other, lesser deities. Though Bel was the leader of the pack, the Palmyrenes had a few local ones as well: Yarhibol, god of the sun and Aglibol, god of the moon. There were caravan deities too: Samas was one, his symbol a camel.
Going up to the south altar is a set of shallow steps which lead to a niche where a small statue of Bel was usually displayed. During ritual processions, it was taken from here and paraded round the Temple.

The ceiling of this altar alcove puzzles me. The guide book speaks of a burst of acanthus and lotus leaves, of a zodiac circle with Jupiter/ Bel in the guise of an eagle in a starlit sky presiding over the celestial movement of the planets and thus regulating the destiny of humans. But the ceiling is black with age and smoke for, as often happened in Syria, local people moved into these sacred places and made them their own. In his book “Palmyra”, Iain Browning has an aerial photo of the Temple showing it crammed with flat-roofed, mud-brick houses packed tight as commuters on a Tokyo train and crowding right up against the inner sanctum. This was because people intermittently made their homes here until, in 1929, the French occupying powers developed the neglected town of Tadmor half a mile away so that the Temple area coucld be cleared of the raggel taggle bunch of local Arabs.

As the Roman Empire declined, so too did Palmyra’s importance until, in 634 CE, it was taken by the Muslim army whose leaders overlaid a mosque upon the existing stones, steps and pillars. Allah is said to be the god of all gods but the attempt to superimpose one religious building on another was in vain for Islam was dwarfed by the Temple of Bel who still reigns supreme in his awesome building while all that remains of Islam is a mihrab and a Sufic inscription dating back to 728 CE.

I rest for a while on a fluted fragment of a fallen pillar, ornate with carved grapes and twisting vine, and shield my eyes which are blinded not only by the brightness of the mid-winter sun but also by the grandeur of the Temple. The silence, thick as heat, is broken by a sudden flap of pigeons’ wings and a small, white feather drifts down onto my notebook. By my foot is a rusty soft drink can and beside it a piece of wire snaking upwards from the sand. I follow the wire with my eyes but it ends a few feet away with no apparent reason for its existence.

The driving heat of the sun nails the day to the buff-coloured earth and the encroaching desert smothers the ghosts of the people who once came here to worship their gods. Solitude lies like a shroud across the sand.

A flock of pigeons wheels across the sky before settling on top of the temple wall. Halfway up the wall, a homely tuft of grass grows out of a niche. Higher up, much higher up, a series of large romanesque windows, empty and blind, frame a neat section of blue sky across which, Chirico-like, a puff of white cloud floats.

Much of the temple is built of huge squares of granite brought from Egypt though the pillars that loom over me are made of local grey sandstone. I get a sudden flash of a Holywood film I once saw in which the blind Samson – played by Victor Mature – pushing against the huge pillars of the Temple, brings it crashing around him. The Palmyran pillars, as enduring as as the Great Wall of China, have stood here for two thousand years but what if they suddenly toppled down upon me? This could be the year they fall, disturbed by a distant earthquake, a shifting of the sands. By a movement of the gods. Nervously, I stand up. After all, who could have foreseen the toppling of the Berlin Wall?

From my book My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria.

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