A 1920s desert jour­ney

The Herald - The Herald Magazine - - Contents - ANGELA MC­MANUS

A17-HOUR road trip from Bagh­dad to Palmyra across the Syr­ian desert sounds like quite an ad­ven­ture for any trav­eller. In­cred­i­bly, this jour­ney was taken by my hus­band’s grand­fa­ther, James Mc­Manus, in the 1920s when he lived in Iraq with his wife Kath­leen and worked as a civil engi­neer.

When my mother-in-law Mar­garet Mc­Manus was clear­ing out a cup­board at home, she found seven pages of yel­low­ing type­writ­ten quarto-sized pa­per cap­tur­ing James’s rec­ol­lec­tions of that trip.

He was a keen am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher and tucked in­side the pages were six of his pho­to­graphs of Palmyra, all care­fully cap­tioned on the back.

Fam­ily trea­sures un­cov­ered dur­ing lock­down don’t come much bet­ter than this. James’s words, writ­ten in the present tense, are mar­vel­lously evoca­tive, cap­tur­ing the ex­cite­ment of the jour­ney’s end and the jaw-drop­ping sight of the ru­ins dat­ing back to the 1st and 2nd cen­turies.

Read­ing it now, we feel we’re right there, stand­ing be­side him. Palmyra was dev­as­tated in 2015 and 2017 when Isis took con­trol of the area, their sys­tem­atic at­tempt to de­stroy the an­cient site was de­scribed by the UN as a war crime. Now the Syr­ian govern­ment is work­ing to re­store the Unesco World Her­itage Site.

These are James’s re­flec­tions on the city when he vis­ited nearly 100 years ago.

“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, 450 miles away across the Syr­ian desert, had 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 some­where 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.”

Then on through New Palmyra, a FrenchArab town. Turns and twists through the nar­row side streets al­low oc­ca­sional glimpses of the an­cient city be­yond and pre­pare for what is to come. 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 to be seen nowa­days. One sees it only as a ver­i­ta­ble city of col­umns. They cover the area in reck­less con­fu­sion. Some rear proud heads 40 or 50 feet 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. Short col­umns, long col­umns, col­umns in their sev­eral parts are strewn over the area in rank profusion.

In this bar­ren desert there is no lichen, moss or cling­ing ivy to cloak or pro­tect the naked­ness of the ru­ins and time has dealt out very un­even treatment. Gen­er­ally the yel­low stones are pit­ted and scarred by the vi­o­lent blasts of pre­vail­ing sand­storms. In many places, the del­i­cate carv­ings on the col­umns are al­most as sharp and clear as the day they were cut. While in oth­ers, the carv­ings are com­pletely eroded.

Built into each col­umn is a bracket which 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 to­tal 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 1500 col­umns in the mile-long Great Colon­nade alone. All over the area stand out iso­lated groups which pos­si­bly, orig­i­nally, were at­tached to some pub­lic build­ing or per­haps lined some of the mi­nor streets.

Out of all the chaos, stands one or­derly ar­ray – the Grand Colon­nade. Viewed from the Arc de Tri­om­phe, the dan­ger­ous state of which is now be­ing reme­died by the French au­thor­i­ties, the eye trav­els from col­umn to

col­umn - now up­right, now fallen – with the gaps scarcely no­tice­able from this view­point to where, over a mile 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 of the tiered 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 the main pub­lic build­ings, in­clud­ing the mar­ket­place and the great tem­ple erected to the wor­ship of the Sun God. The same sun which 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 acute re­al­i­sa­tion of the rea­sons for Palmyra’s one-time ex­is­tence.

The old-time car­a­vans counted the ris­ing and the 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, 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 round 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 up the splen­dour of Palmyra and brought un­told wealth to Queen Zeno­bia. Her city be­came the trad­ing cen­tre of the East; her peo­ple were the recog­nised car­ri­ers of mer­chan­dise be­tween In­dia or Per­sia and the Mediter­ranean.

But Zeno­bia was not con­tent. Her lust for gold and power was in­sa­tiable. She sought to throw off the shack­les of de­pen­dency on Rome and found an em­pire of her own. For a time, in­deed, she did reign as undis­puted Queen of the East but the might of the Ro­man Em­peror, Aure­lian, ul­ti­mately shat­tered her dreams.

The desert queen was taken cap­tive to Rome where, decked out in won­der­ful jew­els and al­most faint­ing un­der the weight of the gold chains of cap­tiv­ity, she was led in pro­ces­sions through the streets. Her greed for gold led to her un­do­ing.

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

The strong light of the sun on the yel­low col­umns turns the whole 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.

Clock­wise from main: the an­cient city of Palmyra today: the type­writ­ten pa­pers, and pho­to­graphs, which cap­ture James Mc­Manus’ rec­ol­lec­tions of his trip in the 1920s. James Mc­Manus wear­ing tra­di­tional desert head gear

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