Bad news travels fast and the criminal destruction of the Temple of Bel (or Baal) at Palmyra made headlines very quickly. I never wrote about my experience to this great archaeological site (2009) because there is no record of Alexander visiting the city while in Syria, but at this stage, I feel that the least I can do is honor and pay my respects to Palmyra and more specifically to this unique temple. More background information about the city and its rich history will be treated separately.
For most people, a temple is just a colonnaded building resting on the stepped crepidoma and in some cases there are also remains of the interior walls that belong to the naos where a statue of the pertaining god is on display. Yet finding a temple with its original enclosure is very rare. The most striking examples I encountered were at Jerash (Gerasa) in Jordan with the Temple of Artemis and here at Palmyra in Syria with the Temple of Bel.
This temple complex is located in the southeastern corner of this magnificent city at the end of the stately Decumanus. In spite of the very promising reduced model exhibited at the local museum, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Temple of Bel bounded by its high perimeter wall. For once the entire sacred precinct, the temenos, has been preserved with the open-air altars where the sacrifices were made and the dependence buildings used by the priests. Usually the site of a temple demands a lot of imagination but here at Palmyra, the entire temenos lies at my feet – a true gem.
The once imposing entrance gate through the outer wall is now rather common. All along the inside of this outer wall runs a Stoa of which a good number of slender Corinthian columns are still standing in spite of the fact that the Ottomans removed most of the bronze pegs that held the drums together. Bronze was an expensive commodity that was reused and melted for other purposes, general for war equipment.
Rather unique are the remains of the path used to lead the sacrificial animals through underground vaulted tunnels to the temple altars. Large square slabs that covered this passageway have fancy holes to allow light and air to circulate. This ingenious system dates from the first century AD. The blood of these sacrificial animals was collected and mingled with water to irrigate and fertilize the neighbouring fields. How ecological can one be? Even the meat was not wasted as it was cooked and eaten.
The Temple of Bel was built in the year 32 AD, but the surrounding portico with its 18-meters-high columns was added at a later date. Originally they were covered with gold and silver plates – hard to imagine today, more so since on the entrance side only stubs of columns remain. A better-preserved colonnade can, however, be seen in the back of the temple. An ascending paved ramp leads to the tall gatepost decorated with grapevine motives.
From there one accesses the most sacred part of the temple, the naos or adyton. Following Semitic traditions, there are two adytons, one on each side. Although the roof of the left wing is much blackened one still can see the seven gods and seven planets surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac. The niche was occupied by the statue of the main god. A smaller statue apparently stood in the opposite southern shrine and would be carried around during the processions on heydays. Amazingly, the ceiling here is cut from one single monolith stone. The attentive visitor will also recognize the faded colours of a fresco on the wall facing the entrance in between the two altars which was added later on by the Byzantines who converted this temple into a church. As far as we know, the building was still in use during the 12th century as a mosque.
I truly marvel at this Temple of Bel, so big, so well-preserved and so special with its two adytons as a proof how Roman and Semitic religions lived in harmony at a time when Palmyra became the Roman Province of Syria under Emperor Tiberius.
Back outside, I try to figure out the temple-like buildings of the temenos with their slender Ionic columns and half-columns, the loose remains of ornaments richly decorated with grapevine. Among the bigger blocks, I find a relief showing the holy procession to the temple, but also reliefs of camels, and Palmyran men in their typical pants as well as elegantly veiled women. In another relief, I recognize Roman soldiers, yet dressed with an eastern twist clearly a statement of their wealth.
The opulence that reigned in Palmyra in those days does not pass unnoticed. I further try to visualize the layout of the entire sanctuary but in spite of the many remains it seems to be an impossible task; the gold and silver lining of the columns alone is a feature that we cannot imagine.
And now, in 2015, all this has simply vanished as shown on the satellite images that travelled around the world. Acts of barbarism are known from antiquity but don’t fit in the “civilized” world of our 21st century. What pride can a human being find in destroying, ransacking and demolishing its own culture, I don’t understand. I feel terribly blessed that I have been able to see Palmyra and so many archaeological sites of Syria with my own eyes.