Aboard the "Ship of the Desert" in Palmyra

Sunday, June 26, 2005 | Palmyra, Syria (map)

Taking a test drive with a friend.
On Friday the University faculty organized a day trip for the students in my program to visit Palmyra, in the heart of Syria's barren eastern desert, halfway between Damascus and the Euphrates River.

Known locally as Tadmur (تدمر), the city is over 4,000 years old, and at one time served as the Roman empire's greatest eastern stronghold. In addition to acting as the first line of defense against Persia's armies, Palmyra flourished as a trading post, situated as it is on the intersection of several major caravan routes.

What remains of the once lavish city is still impressive. In all directions rise columns, temples, and other stone structures, while many more lay tumbled across the sun-baked earth. I bought a traditional red and white checkered kuffiyeh (كفيّة) to shield myself from the heat, but the sun still
beat down oppressively as we traipsed among the ruins.

* * *

Late in the afternoon, after visiting several Roman crypts in the nearby foothills, we arrived at the imposing columns of Palmyra's imperial colonnade, where for a dollar I got my first chance to ride a camel!

The beast crouched for us to mount, and I and a fellow student managed to arrange ourselves atop the carpeted box which crowned its hump.

Thanks to my coursework in Middle Eastern studies, I had encountered several of the many popular euphemisms for camels, and as I prepared for dromidary takeoff, by some romantic colonial fancy I imagined myself aboard "the ship of the desert."

What I found myself to be riding, however, when the handler whipped the foul beast's rump, was more along the lines of the "horse designed by committee." First the camel's gangly hind legs stretched to their full extent, independent of its front half. This move nearly succeeded in pitching us to the ground at its feet, as was the camel's clear intention. Then suddenly its many-jointed forelegs unfolded, completing the camel's lurching, mechanical rise by nearly rolling us backward off its rear.

Though the ache which later developed in my butt from the beast's ungainly gait has reaffirmed my new, less favorable understanding of camels, the subsequent two minutes of shuffling along the colonnade did seem dull in comparison to our exhilarating launch. I relished the moment when the camel finally halted and repeated its elaborately awkward ascent in perfect reverse.

* * *

That evening, we watched from the ramparts of Fakhr ad-Din castle (قلعة فخر الدين) on a hilltop beside Palmyra as the sunset tinted the ruins a deep peach color.

Our long bus ride home began soon after, and was occupied by numerous rounds of charades (apparently very well known in the Arab world as well) and name-that-song competitions between the American students and our Syrian teachers.

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