“ISIL blows up a major Palmyra temple.” “Syria’s Palmyra Temple of Bel ‘severely damaged’ by ISIL,” screamed the headlines. Oh, no! Not my “toom bel of Bel”.

Like a time machine, the fading photographs in my album took me back to November 1991, where a much younger and reckless me decided to go to Syria. I was on my own as none of my friends were willing to take the risk of travelling to the Middle East, and definitely not just a few months after the end of the Gulf War.

Then, I knew almost nothing about that country except that its embassy was willing to give me a tourist visa, Damascus is its capital and baby Moses was placed in a basket, hidden among the bulrushes, on the Euphrates River that flows through Syria! Even the latter was a mistaken assumption as it was the River Nile in Egypt.

So, armed with some US dollars and traveller’s cheques and a “You only live once” mindset, I set off on a journey where pages in history as far back as Biblical times opened and came alive in all its wonder – from Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city, to the formidable citadel in Aleppo, the giant Norias or waterwheels in Hama, and the impenetrable crusader castle (Crac Des Chevaliers) in Homs. The stories behind them fuelled my hunger to know more about the ancient world.

The mountain village of Malula, where people still speak Aramaic (the language of Jesus Christ), and breaking bread with the nomadic Bedouins in their primitive dwellings in Deir ez-Zor, were a humbling and once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

The entrance ticket to the Temple of Bel.

The entrance ticket to the Temple of Bel.

But it was the desolate ancient oasis and a trading centre in the desert that captured my heart. Vaguely, I remember spending the night in a run-down hotel situated within the confine of the ruins. I was the only guest!

A quick “top and tail” wash with icy water trickling from a tap in a quaint copper clawed bathtub before struggling to eat a breakfast consisting of weak coffee and homemade apricot jam on rock-hard cold bread, I was ready for another walk into the past.

The morning sun was climbing when my guide walked me out into Palmyra, dubbed “the bride of the desert” and “Venice of the Sands”.

Palmyra is its Greek name, a translation of its original Ara-maic name, Tadmor, which means “palm tree”.

It was a vital stop for caravans crossing the Syrian desert, a cultural marvel that had stood since the second millennium.

In front of me was a vast field of sentinel-like stone Corinthian colonnades, imposing arches and impressive temples, while in the distance, tall tombs dotted the barren landscape and underground graves were hidden in the stark hillsides.

Another perspective of the Temple of Bel in this faded 1991 picture.

Another perspective of the Temple of Bel in this faded 1991 picture.

I stood gaping at the standing remains of a mighty city, once home to the Arameans, the Babylonians, the Mesopotamians and then the Romans and the Arabs, as the ghostly stillness and whispering wind seemed to softly cry a song of tiredness, loss and loneliness.

“A famous Greco-Roman ruins,” said the local guide. “Was destroyed by an earthquake in 1085, rediscovered in 1678 and excavated in 1924. It was briefly ruled by Queen Zenobia in the third century who claimed to be descended from Cleopatra.”

The guide was reciting in heavily accented English as we carefully picked our way around the bits and pieces of fallen remnants that littered the ground.

“Arch of Truimph, Agora, Theatre,” he went on and on till we arrived at a massive structure. “Toom bel of Bel,” he said, as he proudly patted the pock-marked wall.

The Corinthian columns of the Temple of Bel in 1991.

The Corinthian columns of the Temple of Bel in 1991.

I gazed at it and asked, “Er, what’s the name?”

“Toom bel of Bel,” he enunciated slowly and emphatically. “One of the best preserved buildings in Palmyra. Dedicated to the Ara-means’ God, Bel.”

“OK,” I nodded, not wanting to show my ignorance though I was scratching my head, trying hard to decipher this strangely musical name.

Luckily, the name of this 2,000-year-old temple was printed on the entrance ticket.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.


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