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December 9th, 2010 | Asia

Meeting Stefan and the Tombs of Palmyra…

The many plates that constitute a Syrian breakfast... The best item on the table can be found in the top left hand corner... A mug of Nescafe's finest...!!

One morning (I forget which one…!!) after returning from another walk through the ruins, I saw a windswept traveler sitting on the patio of my hotel, working his way through the many plates of a Syrian breakfast…

Carpets hang out to dry in the cold desert morning...

His hair stood up in every direction, looking as though he had been dragged backwards through a bush…!!

Standing next to him was a bicycle that had obviously done some mileage…

Stefan Schuster has pedaled his way from Munich, following the Danube River as far as he could, before turning south into Bulgaria and riding through Turkey and into Syria…

He spoke perfect English, and I later discovered that he  was a translator, and did freelance work back in his home city…

The heavily decorated bikes of Palmyra...

We had breakfast together, and then made plans to visit a few of the sites that neither of us had yet seen…

“Do you want to hop on the back of my bike so that we can ride together…?” I asked him…

“No thank you,” he replied, “I am planning to take my bike everywhere I go, and I want to do my trip in as eco-friendly a manner as possible, to minimize the carbon-footprint of my journey…!!”

“Ah… a regular rainbow warrior…!!” I joked…

From the look on his face, I knew that he was VERY serious about his quest…!!

At the museum where we bought our tickets to the tombs, this huge fresco takes pride of place on entry... It was found amongst the ruins and has been restored...

We sat chatting for hours, comparing notes on our experiences, and both agreed that traveling solo outweighed the negatives of being mostly alone, because both of us had experienced amazing kindness and hospitality along the way…

He told me that on many days, he had not spent a single cent, having been fed or invited into homes on a regular basis…

We bought our tickets to the entry of the Tombs, and I advised Stefan to get going while we waited for the “key man” to get his act together… There are four scheduled visits to the tombs each day, and although you can clamber about in many of the abandoned ones that are within easy walking distance of the edge of town, two of them are locked and this is where the “key-man” comes into play…

He hitched a lift with a group of Spanish tourists in their hired car, and we set out for the tombs, passing a furiously pedaling Stefan on the way…

Passing the Rainbow Warrior on the way to the tombs....

We arrived at the first tomb, The Tower of Elahbel, built in 103.A.D., and the largest example of its kind in Palmyra… We were a few minutes ahead of Stefan, and I waited for him while the Spaniards went in ahead of us…

The Tomb of Elhabel... The tallest Tower Tomb in Palmyra...

Stefan looks up at the tiers of shelves on which the dead were buried...

“I thought Germans were supposed to be punctual…!!” I said as he arrived, huffing and puffing, after his four kilometre ride…

“I would have been here sooner, but I was fighting through the fumes of a motorcycle…!!” he replied…

“A German with a sense of humour…!! Miracles never cease…!!”

The ancient cemeteries of Palmyra are a unique and very visible feature of Palmyra… They stand at the edge of town and beyond the main archaeological site, they stretch out into the desert for many miles…

There are both Tower Tombs, and those tunneled into solid rock and hidden underground… There are over 150 Tower Tombs in Palmyra…

Many of the tombs date back to the Greek and Roman times and their décor clearly represent a belief in life after death…

Tower tombs were the earliest type built, and whole families were interred within their walls…

Lining the inner walls, staircases wind up to the higher levels, where bodies were “stacked” one above the other, each on their own shelf…

The niche the body was laid in was then sealed with a stone plaque, bearing the deceased name…

"Yes, its high alright...!! The Big Fella looks tiny from up here...!!"

These huge keys are used to unlock the doors of the tombs...

The first Tower tomb we visited had three separate floors, and must have been used for a very old and large family, as it contained places for a few hundred people…

It was unique because it had also contained a number of stone sarcophagi, which are today exhibited in the National Museum in Damascus…

When we had completed our exploration of the Elahbel Tomb, our guide advised us in a loud voice, that we were now going to visit the “Tomb of ze Sree Bruzzers”…

How could I resist…??

“Ah, yes… The Sree Family… I have read all about zem…!! Good solid citizens, one and all…!!” I replied, much to the amusement of the Spanish group, who all understood and spoke English fluently…

Before our little tour ended, I managed to get our guide to repeat the phrase “Sree Bruzzers” at least a dozen times, which was mostly accompanied by an earnest look on my face and a collection of giggles from the Spaniards…

Our guide never seemed to realise that I was taking the piss, and continued to answer all my questions wiz passion…!! Er… That should read “with”…!! Sorry…!!

Hypogeum Tombs, are those that are buried beneath ground level, and the Tomb of the Three Brothers, Saadi, Male and Naamain was built between 160 A.D. and 190 A.D.

More than fifty hypogeum tombs have been unearthed so far in Palmyra, and the belief is that there are many more still waiting to be found…

Entry into the Tomb of the Sree Bruzzers, is down a long flight of stone stairs...

The brothers were entombed in Sarcophagi, clearly indicating that they were prominent members of the community, while the remainder of their families, were buried in the usual manner, on shelves extending up to the ceiling of the burial chamber…

The ceiling of this tomb was painted with frescoes of Achilles and Zeus… No photography of any kind is allowed in the tomb and our guide kept a very close eye on us while we were wandering around the chambers… But not close enough…!!

"Ze Bruzzers" were buried in these three sarcophagi...

The decorated ceiling of the tomb...

"Excuse me GB... Who gave permission for this thing to lean against me...??"

After the door had been bolted and locked with the huge set of keys the guide carried, and the Spaniards had left to take him back to Palmyra, about 6 kilometres away, Stefan and I stayed behind, watching as two little Bedouin girls came running up to us to say hello…

Little Fatima and her sister... The Bedouin girls who ran out to greet us...

Yeah, the deseert sun was making me look more like a local every day... The beard was assisting with that...!!

The younger one’s name was Fatima, and she seemed to take a liking to me, holding my hand while she jabbered away in Arabic…

We took a few photos of them standing by the bike, and as soon as we had finished, they held out their hands for payment…

Usually I refrain from paying people to photograph them, but the trusting and earnest look in Fatima’s eyes had melted my heart, and I dug out some coins to give to her…

She pushed them into her pocket, and then hugged me around my waist in thanks… I felt my throat close up, and looked over at Stefan…, saw the slow smile spreading across his face, read the compassion in his eyes…

My mind flew away to two other little girls I once knew, who had grown up in circumstances far different to the two Bedouin girls holding my hand… I pictured their hands in mind, felt my eyes begin to swim…

“It’s difficult to think how little these girls have to look forward to in life…” I eventually said, “ I wonder if they will ever see the inside of a classroom…?”

“Yeah…. They lead a hard life out here…” Stefan said, looking over their heads into the desert beyond…

The girls stood waving to as we rode back to the tar strip that would take us back to Palmyra…

The business end of the Big Fella, with the tombs in the background...

We looked up at the Citadel standing high above the town, and decided we would go up there and watch the sunset…

“I’m going back to the Tower Tombs to take some more photos…” I said to Stefan, “while you on the other hand, Mr. Eco-friendly, better get pedaling if you want to be up there by sunset…!”

"Hey....wait for me...!!" cried the cyclist... "Get yourself a real bike...!!" growled the Big Fella in response... Quite rude, I thought...!!

With a wave he set off in the direction of town while I rode back into the desert to stand alone among the tombs and watch the shadows creep over the hills and valleys in which the tombs were nestled…

Back at the tower tombs, alone with my thoughts, I watched the shadows lengthen...

Passing back through town, I marveled again how this entire site lays open to all...

With the sun going down, and Stefan hopefully far ahead of me, I rode out towards the Citadel...

©GBWT2010

3 comments to Meeting Stefan and the Tombs of Palmyra…

  • Am loving every bit of it but you must excuse me as i cannot resist my friend … i love you also using all those Greek words!
    Sarcophagi Sarca = Flesh Phage = eat
    Hypogeum hYpo=under Gi=ground
    amphitheatre amphi = semi theatre=theater
    and many more.
    Simply Excellent Posting!!!!

    PS: it has finally rained in Cyprus and it doesnt stop … we need all the rain we can get.

  • Mark Behr

    Great place – good friend in the German Stefan. Sounds like you are in the right place at the moment. Have fun !

  • Charmz

    Loved this posting. Wow what a magnificent place. I got a lump in my throat as I read about Fatima and her sister….for both their sakes and yours. Glad you met another friend in Stefan, enjoy.
    Love and miss you bruzzer!

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