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December 9th, 2010 | Asia

Sunset at the Citadel…

I rode through the streets of Palmyra expecting to come across Stefan at one point or another, but saw neither hide nor hair of him… I tore up the steep and winding road up to the Citadel, believing that he had actually beaten us up there, and on a bicycle to boot…!!

But apart from our Spanish friends from the tombs, there was nobody else up in the parking lot… I walked down the steep incline to the point where a drawbridge entering the castle runs off at right angles to the path and looked down into the valley of ruins below…

The ruins of Palmyra stand out starkly against the pale sand of the desert floor... The huge complex of the Temple of Ba'al is in the background of the photo...!! Eets beeg.... Very beeg...!!

The sun had bathed the oasis town of Palmyra with a soft clear light, and I felt my jaw go slack at the sight below me… The hundreds of remaining stone columns stood starkly against the light colours of the desert sands… I could plainly make out the streets of the ancient city now…, see where they led and how all the focal points of the ruins were connected…

Directly below, and to the left of the ruins was a horse racing track…!! The bright, blood red sand of the track itself, stood out like an oval wound on the desert floor…

The Palmyra Race Track...!! Who would have thought...!! A Ripley's "Believe it or not" moment for me...!!

I am not sure when last races were held here, but I did discover that there is also a camel racing track a few kilometres outside of town, and from the 15th of January through to the end of that month, a massive Camel Racing Festival is held, one of the highlights on the Palmyra Calendar… What a sight that must be…!!

Some of the Tower Tombs on the far side of the valley... The ghosts within might have been warming up for a night on the town for all we knew...!!

Just as I was beginning to wonder if he had changed his mind, Stefan came strolling up to the viewing platform…

“The ride up here must have felt like one of those mountain finishes on the Tour de France…!!” I laughed…

“Yeah man…it was tough…!!” he replied, and then “Wow…!! Look at this view…!! I think I am a few minutes too late to get some good photos…!!”

A busload of Spaniards arrived, which prompted Stefan to mumble something about “Conquistadores”…

The Spaniards arrive just as the sun lights up the outer wall of the moat for the last time today...

The intrepid Stefan Schuster and I wait for the sun to set over Palmyra...

We stood watching as the sun sank into a bank of low clouds on the western horizon…It seemed to be going down over water, but out there, we knew there was nothing but the dry desert sands…

The sun sinks into a bank of clouds as we stand staring out over the hills behind the Citadel...

It seemed to get dark and then light again when the sun had disappeared altogether… People around me were looking out to where the sun had been, where it was now dark, and then swiveling their heads in the opposite direction, where the ruins and tower tombs could still be seen, standing clearly against the backdrop of the desert below…

When I look back at the sequence of my photographs, I am as confused now as we all were then…!!

A hoot from the bus, which was parked around the corner and out of sight, sent the Spaniards scuttling back for their ride, leaving Stefan and I, and a few Bedouin trinket sellers alone at the entrance to the citadel…

We stood looking up at the huge structure, standing tall and proud in the dying light…

It was originally built between the 12th and 13th centuries, as a garrison to protect the caravan route that passed through the oasis, and then enlarged by Fakhir Ibn Maan, a Lebanese prince, in the 16th century…

It was surrounded by a deep moat, and access to the castle was over a wooden drawbridge…

It is one of the most frequently visited tourist attractions in Syria, and a daily bus service from Damascus arrives mid-morning each day, bringing people out to see this famous landmark…

The Bedouin had drifted away by now, as it was almost pitch dark up on the mountain… Stefan and I stood leaning against the walkway railing, chatting about our plans for the following week… Night closed in around us, and the far below, the street and household lights of Palmyra began blinking on one by one…

I still haven't worked out how the sky came out so blue despite the fact that the sun was long gone...!!

The Citadel, lit up against the blue sky...

We were just about to leave, when a bank of floodlights that illuminated the entire castle came on…!!

We stood there, mesmerized by the sight… One minute we could hardly see each other, and the next the area was bathed in bright light…

“Good thing we stayed up here, huh…!” Stefan said, “All those bloody tourists have missed the best of it all…!!”

I am not sure what that made us, as we were acting no differently to all the Japanese and Spanish groups we had encountered, but I immediately identified with his statement… I too, on many occasions have found myself muttering “bloody tourists”… I like Stefan, definitely do not feel like a tourist, although to the locals, I must certainly be acting like one…!!

Out came the cameras again, and for the next half hour, we took plenty of photos of the castle, lit up against the night sky, shooting from every angle we could think of…

A sickle moon rise up into the night sky...

The Big Fella was as impressed by the Citadel as we were...!!

“OK… Let’s get back to town, it’s getting bloody cold, and I am starving…!!” I said…

“Um… Would you mind riding down with me… I don’t have any lights on my bicycle, and I can’t see a thing on this road…!!” he replied…

As we left, I turned to take a last look at this magnificent fortress... It had been worth the long ride through the desert to see... This and the ruins below were all I had really set my sights on in Syria...

“What you mean you don’t have any lights on your bike…!!”

“Well, I didn’t want to bother with the extra weight…!!”

And that is how I came to be escorting a German cyclist through the desert of Syria, in pitch darkness…!!

A short distance down the steep mountain road, with its twists and curves, we stopped to chat to a Swiss couple who were camping on the side of the road… I had met them earlier and they had told me where they would be… I had mentioned where they were to Stefan, and he was keen to stop and chat, the little matter of there being absolutely no light to see them by, a minor hassle to his way of thinking…!!

Our Swiss friends had decided to camp near the roadside, but on the edge of a steep drop-off... I sincerely hoped that neither of them were susceptible to bouts of sleep-walking...!!

They were preparing to go to bed, having already eaten… A kettle was boiling on a tiny gas cylinder, but this was not for coffee, but to fill their hot water bottles…!! I wondered if they had seen how close they were to a steep drop-off, when they had pitched their tent… They told me that they were going to wait until it was fully dark before they settled down, so that they would not be bothered by the Bedouin…

While Stefan chatted away in German, I cast an eye over their campsite… It was all very neat and compact, but not a little red pocket knife in sight…!! Maybe they weren’t Swiss after all…!! Impostors…!!

Later, after saying our goodbyes, we continued down the hill, Stefan pedaling furiously out in front of me, while the Big Fella lit up the road ahead of him…

We took a short cut around the race course, in total darkness, not a street light or any other form of illumination available to us, apart from my headlights…

I pulled up next to him, and shouted across to him…

“I can’t believe we are doing this…!!”

“Expect the unexpected, my friend…!!” he shouted back… “That’s what travelers like us have to do…!!”

Escorting Stefan through the desert at night...!! It was one of those moments that had me grinning inside my helmet...!!

Well this certainly had fallen neatly into the “category of unexpected events” for me, that’s for sure…!!

Back in town we hooked up with two young German archeologists, Mathias and Gabriel, who were on a year-long working holiday of sorts, touring all the archeological sites around the Mediterranean…

They had spent a fascinating day, off the usual tourist route, scrambling around inside many of the crumbling tower tombs, and had even been chased away from one by an irate Bedouin, who took exception to them visiting the tombs of his ancestors…!!

We sat chewing away at our “Syrian Chicken Sandwiches”, drinking tea and swapping stories, until with a few well placed yawns, our newest German friends bid us goodnight and drove their Landrover away into the night, having taken my advice to go and camp near the Swiss couple up on the mountain below the Citadel…

We stopped alongside the race course and looked back up at the Citadel, where we had watched the sun go down, and the moon come up... A place where another bond was forged under a brilliant sky...!!

Stefan, who was a strict vegetarian, had only eaten a small portion of raw veggies that the café had to offer, and was still hungry… He decided to go off into the village and look for “more food”…

Before we parted ways, we shook hands and arranged to meet at my hotel for breakfast the following morning.

“If we had not met this morning, neither of us would have been up at the Citadel tonight…” I said, looking out over the desert and up to the structure that was brilliantly lit up against the inky black sky…

“Yes…strange how things work out…!!” he replied, walking away up the dimly lit street… “See you tomorrow at eight, my friend…!!”

Little did I know, as I stood watching him go, that the following day, after Stefan had left on his long pedal to Damascus, I would have another fortuitous meeting that would keep me in Palmyra for yet another full day…

But that’s another story altogether…!!

©GBWT 2010

3 comments to Sunset at the Citadel…

  • Tibor

    The latest development in the “Swiss army knife” industry is the so called “tent-a-knife” rig. The little red thing you were looking for is beneath the tent – works as the lower frame of it.

  • Charmz

    Your posts just keep getting better, we are so enjoying your photography, what a place is this Citadel!!

  • Mark Behr

    Great post. Your sky came out blue because it is the opposing colour to yellow – the dominant colour in your pic, so the dark will take on the blue colour. Artificial light enhances this colour phenomenon.

    Glad you had a good day.

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