How Could An Ancient City Survive In The Desert?

The drive through the Syrian desert to the ancient city of Palmyra makes you wonder how anyone lived out here 2000 years ago. For hours you speed east from Damascus along a dusty desert road, the only sights being a few dull concrete buildings, Bedouin with their herds and a thick black telephone line snaking along the ground next to the highway.

Once you get to Palmyra, you find a lush little oasis with splendid ruins nearby. It was here that a thriving civilization acted as the center of trade from east to west. But how did this city, which some scholars estimate had a population of 100,000, support itself? The oasis is nowhere near big enough, and the rocky, barren desert doesn’t look capable of supporting more than a few skinny goats.

Now a team of Syrian and Norwegian archaeologists has found the answer. With a combination of satellite imagery and boots on the ground, they’ve explored the region around the ancient city and discovered several ancient villages to the north. Through the clever use of dams and cisterns, the villagers were able to collect the uncommon but not rare rainfall in the region and put it to best use.

Also, tough grass lies just below the surface, its web of roots ready to capture any rain and immediately burst forth with shoots. The Bedouin would graze their flocks there, fertilizing the fields and trading with the locals.

So through an understanding of nature, an efficient use of resources and cooperating with their neighbors, the Palmyrenes brought forth a thriving civilization in the middle of the desert.

Looks like we could learn something from them.

[Photo courtesy Arian Zwegers]

Ancient city of Palmyra under threat from Syrian army

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra may become the latest victim of the ongoing violence in Syria, according to a Global Heritage Fund report.

Palmyra, an ancient oasis city in the desert northeast of Damascus, remained untouched by the conflict until last month, when the Syrian army moved in. According to several reports by refugees since then, units from the army have taken up position at the medieval citadel overlooking ancient and modern Palmyra and have been shooting at anything that moves. Both machine guns and tanks are being used. One can imagine what a few tank shells can do to a 2000-year-old city.

Little is known about damage to this or other historic sites in Syria. Given the government’s eagerness to level modern cities such as Homs, it’s doubtful they’re showing any care for their national heritage. Sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have all suffered irreparable damage during recent conflicts.Palmyra is one of the most impressive of Syria’s archaeological treasures. I visited it back in 1994 and the memories of wandering the Roman streets and temples, the sandy outskirts with their distinctive pre-Roman tower-tombs, and climbing up to the Arab citadel remain vivid. I also remember a local hotel owner who sat with me watching Syrian music videos and discussing the relative, um, “merits” of the female singers. I also remember the cheesy hustler who tried to sell me a “real Roman coin” made out of aluminum. He had the good grace, when I laughed in his face, to laugh along with me.

Are those two guys still alive? Is the hotel still there? Is every single one of my memories of a month’s travel going to be blackened by an evil dictator while world leaders dither and make sympathetic noises?

Yeah, probably.

[Photo of citadel courtesy Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Photo of Roman ruins courtesy Franco Pecchio.]

Sinkhole travel: The Dead Sea isn’t the only place to see where the earth has caved in

The story about Eli Raz who fell into a sinkhole at the Dead Sea and wasn’t found for 14 hours–alive, thank goodness, about environmental changes and the traveler’s experience. In the case of Raz, the message is look, but be alert for heaven’s sake when out in the natural world.

The Dead Sea, at the lowest point on earth, has 3,000 sinkholes along the coast and more coming. Raz is on a mission to map out those in existence in an effort to warn others where not to tread. Obviously, 14 hours in a sinkhole had an impact.

Caused by the earth dissolving underground, and the surface eventually collapsing inward, sinkholes are landmarks that attract people for a variety of reasons.

In the United States, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania are the states where sinkholes are most prevalent. There are hiking trails that lead to some of them and others are in cave country. Sinkholes have also created a place to get a bite to eat and watch bats.

Florida has the most sinkholes of any state in the U.S. There are several state parks where they play an important part in the balance of the environment. One such place is Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park in Gainsville, Florida. The sinkhole where waterfalls create an environment of lush vegetation has been a geographical curiousity since the 1800s.

Camdenton, Missouri, Ha Ha Tonka State Park– Has numerous sinkholes, caves, natural bridges and soaring bridges.

Cave City, Kentucky, Onyx Cave and Outlaw Cave–Not far from Mammouth Cave, these two caves are located in a sinkhole plain. I’m sure if you ask the locals where to find sinkholes, they can tell you. According to the descriptions of the area, sinkholes abound.

Morristown, Tennessee, Sink Holes Trail in Panther Creek State Park, Morristown, Tennessee. The trail leads past seven limestone sinkholes.

Rockspring, Texas. Devil’s Sinkhole– The 360-foot deep sinkhole is Texas’s 3rd largest cave and summer home to a slew of bats. At dusk you can watch them come out in droves. Join a tour at the Rockspring Visitor’s Center.

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, 17 miles from Heber, Arizona. Sinkhole Trail-The trail leads to a sinkhole and then down into it where the landscape makes a dramatic change.

In Pennsylvania, where sinkholes create disturbances along roadways and construction sites, Palmyra has the Sinkhole Saloon. In January, a possible sinkhole in Palmyra caused a road closure pending investigation. It looked like the road was falling inward.