Welcome to the mysterious and intriguing world of visiting Palmyra, Syria. A place rich in history and culture, that was met with tragedy and destruction in the past few years. Characterized by its iconic ruins, Palmyra beams with stories of an ancient civilization waiting to be discovered.
In this updated travel guide for 2024, I’ll help you navigate the ins and outs of this remarkable destination, ensuring you get the absolute most out of your visit.
If you want more to be persuaded, you can read my guide with 25+ compelling reasons to Visit Syria in 2024.
What is the History Behind Palmyra?
An oasis in the Syrian desert, northeast of Damascus, Palmyra contains the remnants of a great city that used to serve as one of the most important cultural hubs of the ancient world. It stood right on the Silk Route, bringing different cultures together and facilitating trade.
The architectural beauty of the city is a blend of Graeco-Roman and Persian influences, speaking volumes about its cosmopolitan past. Palmyra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, and indeed, it’s a priceless testament of the architectural and cultural influences of one civilization blending into another.
The city, known also as ‘Venice of the Sands’, reached its zenith in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, growing wealthy from caravans that carried silk from China, spices from India, and other goods from the Eastern world to the Western world and vice versa. With time, the political dynamics of the region changed and Palmyra lost its glory.
When you explore the majestic ruins of Palmyra, you’ll likely come across the story of Queen Zenobia – a fierce leader who looms large in the city’s rich history. Zenobia was the queen regent of Palmyra, taking power in the year 267 AD after her husband’s assassination, and ruling until her ultimate capture by the Romans in 271 AD.
Often drawing comparisons to Cleopatra due to her intellect, political acumen, and assertion of independence, Zenobia is celebrated as one of the most powerful women in history. She led a significant military expansion during her reign, which at its peak, spread from modern-day Iraq to Egypt. A polyglot, patron of the arts, and a woman of exceptional beauty, Zenobia defied the gender norms of her time.
However, she met her downfall when her ambitions drove her to confront the Roman Empire, her former ally. After a series of battles and sieges, Zenobia was finally captured and taken to Rome as a prisoner. The exact details of her final years remain a mystery, but her legacy continues to exert a profound influence on the cultural imagination of Palmyra.
Through centuries, Palmyra was conquered, traded, abandoned, and rediscovered, leaving behind a mosaic of influences in the architecture that now stands partially in ruins.
Palmyra During the Syrian Crisis
The next part of the story is not a happy one. However, before visiting Palmyra, you just have to know what happened there in the past few years. It’s impossible to fully appreciate the essence of the place without acknowledging the scars left by the militant group, ISIS.
In 2015, Palmyra became a battleground, caught in the crossfire between the Syrian government and the ISIS forces. The ancient city, as a significant symbol of cultural heritage, didn’t escape the chaos unscathed. Regrettably, ISIS destroyed several centuries-old monuments, an intentional act of cultural extermination that sparked an international outcry.
Noteworthy victims of this destruction include the iconic Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumph, and the Temple of Baalshamin – remnants of Palmyra’s once thriving status as a key cultural and trading hub of the ancient world.
A few years later, the Syrian government recaptured Palmyra, and restoration efforts have been made to nurse the wounded heritage site back to health. However, the journey has been slow and painstaking. Regaining its former glory is a herculean task, considering the extent of the damage.
The Story of a Local: Living in ISIS-Captured Palmyra
I was speaking to a young local man, who described to me the horrors they faced during the reign of ISIS. He told me that nobody expected ISIS to be able to get control of the city and they were caught off-guard. Men were forced to shave their heads and women to cover everything but their eyes. They were forced to change the way they prayed and throw away everything they owned that had links to the West, even simple t-shirts. The disobedient were executed.
I could not help but stand speechless while this young man described to me what he’d been through. What intrigued me most, though, was the fact that he was saying those things with a smile on his face. It took me a lot of time to think about it. Maybe it was because someone was finally listening to his story? Maybe because it was all over and he was finally able to start his university studies in tourism management?
One thing is sure, a stranger my age approached me to help him improve his English and he reminded me of why I travel. To help people’s stories get heard. I made a friend that day.
Is it Safe to Travel to Palmyra, Syria in 2024?
It’s understandable that you might have concerns about safety when considering visiting Palmyra, or Syria in general. Safety is, after all, a major consideration for any travel adventure. To adequately address this question, I’ve pulled together reliable, up-to-date information regarding the safety situation in Syria in my guide on visiting the country.
In comparison to its tumultuous past, Syria, and Palmyra specifically, has seen significant improvements in its security situation over the last few years. Nonetheless, like any other travel destination, it’s crucial to stay informed about the latest safety updates.
One of the first things that has to come to your mind when planning a trip is insurance.
Safetywing’s Nomad Insurance is one of the best options available out there. With a maximum coverage of 365 days, they are a great option whether you are a Nomad or not! They offer very low rates, but excellent coverage and immediate support (in a few minutes!). The best part? Nomad Insurance can be purchased even if you have left your home country already.
Lastly, they also cover extreme sports, something that can come in very handy if you are an adventurous soul.
*please note that Nomad Insurance does not cover travel to Syria. However, they are an excellent option for the rest of your trips.
What is the Best Time of the Year to Visit Palmyra?
If we take a closer look at Palmyra’s weather, you’ll note distinct seasons that should guide your travel planning when visiting Palmyra. The desert climate of Palmyra offers warm temperatures throughout the year, interspersed with occasional rain and typically cooler winters.
But the headline here is, travel between March and May. These are the spring months that offer comfortable weather for exploring the majestic ruins and other tourist attractions during the daytime. The desert isn’t scorching during these months, and the skies are clear, offering spectacular views both day and night. Alternatively, consider visiting Palmyra between September and November for similar weather conditions.
However, If you decide visiting Palmyra in the Summer Months, you’ll be greeted with incredible heat and humidity. Most travel agencies will be ready for that and will schedule your trip during the early morning, to avoid getting a heat stroke (Thank you, Golden Team, for taking the best care of us).
How can I reach Palmyra, Syria in 2024?
Due to the country’s complexity, it’s required to organize your journey through a licensed travel agency. They are experienced in dealing with the logistics of the trip and can ensure you move through this stunning land safely and efficiently.
The best option for me is Golden Team Syria, a leading travel agency famous for its reliability and experience. They are best known for their thorough work in ensuring all travel details are just right. I cannot say enough good things about them. They had everything ready for us before even going there and they provided us with the best guide and driver.
It’s important to note that your communion to visiting Palmyra will be on the road. You will indeed experience the scenic desert landscapes Syria is famed for along your drive. But be prepared – the road will have multiple checkpoints.
This is a standard security measure to ensure local peace and safety for anyone visiting Palmyra, which although might seem intimidating at first, they are typically good-natured and routine. There will be more checkpoints that you might see in other places in the country, but you’ll get used to it.
And the bureaucracy? Don’t worry. Your chosen travel agency will arrange all the necessary permits for you. These permissions are crucial for a smooth passage through the numerous checkpoints. Remember, it’s part of the adventure to this historical and truly unique site.
Your expedition to Palmyra will be a worthwhile, enchanting, and educational experience, despite the distinctness of the travel process.
What Accommodation options are Available in Palmyra?
Given the current state of the city, it’s important for you to know that Palmyra does not offer feasible options for overnight accommodations. But fear not! This enchanting ancient city can still be experienced as a day trip.
Most agencies choose to base their tourists in Homs, a city rich with culture and history and just a couple of hours’ drive from Palmyra. From here, you will venture out on a day trip visiting Palmyra, before retreating back to the comfort and amenities that Homs has to offer.
This arrangement not only ensures your comfort and safety but also presents you with an opportunity to explore two remarkable Syrian cities within a single journey. So worry not, the precincts of Palmyra can still be tread and its stories heard, even if the sun sets elsewhere.
The Best Things to Do When Visiting Palmyra
Throughout your discovery trail when visiting Palmyra, you’ll find countless relics scattered across the city, each bearing a story waiting to be unraveled. Remember, the ruins are not just limestone and marble; they represent centuries of history and culture that seep through the very crevices of these stones.
The Palmyra Road Sign
You’ve probably seen a particular image plastered all over your Instagram feed from people visiting Palmyra; the famous road sign. This iconic symbol stands as an unofficial entry to the city
Yes, it’s a sight that’s become synonymous with this historic location and one that tourists and locals alike love to capture and share online. When you see this sign, don’t miss the opportunity to take your photo with it, it might just become the most-liked post on your Instagram feed!
The Museum of Palmyra
Your first stop of the tour will be the Palmyra Museum. It is surely not what you’d expect it to be. What used to be a big (and packed with tourists) building is now left in ruins. Once you enter, you’ll see torn-down walls and priceless ancient artifacts destroyed. What stands out, though, is a graffiti of the last manager of the museum. His story is really inspiring.
Let’s dive into the story of Khaled al-Asaad. Known as ‘Mr. Palmyra’, al-Asaad dedicated over five decades of his life to studying and preserving the antiquities of Palmyra. His passion was so deep that he lived on the historical site itself, introducing its beauty and significance to people from all around the world.
In 2015, following the invasion of ISIS, Khaled was captured and interrogated for information about hidden treasures and artifacts. ISIS believed that there were hidden treasures along the sight. That’s why you’ll see holes dug everywhere.
Despite the intense pressure, he remained resolute and refused to reveal any information, protecting the ancient relics until his last breath. This heroic act led to his tragic execution by ISIS, but his story lived on.
Today, at the Palmyra Museum, you’ll find a poignant graffiti tribute to Khaled – a testament to his dedication and the ultimate price he paid in the defense of cultural heritage. His tale is a stark reminder of the historical significance of Palmyra and the immense cost of its preservation.
So when you walk among these ancient ruins, remember: you’re treading on grounds fiercely defended throughout history, and Mr. Palmyra’s legacy lives on in every stone.
The museum exhibits mainly consist of statues. Most of them were beheaded by ISIS soldiers as they were considered to be Pagan. Many were removed from the walls and thrown on the museum’s floors. Just imagining that a wrong step could lead to the further destruction of thousands of years old artifact is bizarre.
Inside the museum, you’ll also find postcards and books sold, not in a gift shop, rather than on a table from the museum’s guard. Syria has been struck by a horrible inflation crisis, and tourism is one of the only ways that help locals make ends meet. So, please, buy a few things while you’re there.
Entering the Ancient City of Palmyra
After your visit to the museum, it is now time to get into the main sight. Below, you’ll find the most important monuments you need to see during your visit. To make it easier for you, I wrote them in the correct order from the entrance.
The Temple of Bel
Once you are inside, you will head to the Temple of Bel, a central attraction that was built around 32 AD. It carries the name of the Mesopotamian god Bel, who was one of the key deities in the Palmyrene pantheon. Our guide compared his importance to Zeus’.
The temple was impressively large and enclosed by a massive wall that fashioned the outer façade. In stark contrast to its former glory, the Temple of Bel was unfortunately targeted and destroyed by ISIS in 2015. This brutal act of destruction marked a grievous loss for the world’s cultural heritage. Satellite images released at that time showed the main building of the temple reduced to rubble, leaving historians and admirers worldwide in a state of profound shock and dismay.
However, amidst the grim news, a little bit of hope emerged for the Temple of Bel. After the ISIS forces were driven out of Palmyra, local residents and global organizations began the painstaking process of restoration. Utilizing 3D technology and old photographs, they aimed to reincarnate the fallen structure.
Today, as you walk on these sands and gaze upon the remnants of the Temple of Bel, remember that the ruins stand as a powerful reminder of Palmyra’s glorious past, and troubled present and hold a promise for a brighter, more peaceful future.
The Arch of Septimius Severus
When visiting Palmyra you cannot miss the Arch of Septimius Severus at the western end of the Colonnade. Constructed during the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus from 193 to 211 AD, the Monumental Arch strategically linked the Temple of Bel with the spectacular Colonnade.
Some historical records suggest that the erection of the Monumental Arch was to celebrate the Romans’ triumphant campaign over the Parthians. Interestingly, the arch has occasionally been mistaken as “Hadrian’s Arch,” although Emperor Hadrian had passed away over 50 years before the creation of this extraordinary structure.
From an architectural perspective, the Monumental Arch was truly a marvel given its unique double facade, which concealed a 30° bend between the eastern and central parts of the Great Colonnade. The design includes a large central gateway flanked by a relatively smaller entrance on each side.
The arch was decorated with intricate stone carvings, consisting of reliefs depicting flora motifs or geometric patterns, reminiscent of the style seen in other arches built across the Roman Empire. These reliefs, described by UNESCO as “an outstanding example of Palmyrene art,” effectively make this Monumental Arch one of the most luxuriously decorated structures in the entire city.
In May 2015, the horrific capture of Palmyra occurred. This was the result of the militant forces of the ISIS. These forces unfortunately decided to cover the Monumental Arch of Palmyra with explosives, leading to the majority of its destruction with dynamite.
Efforts to recreate the arch are ongoing. In fact, a replica of the central part of the Arch was constructed out of Egyptian Marble in England. This model was first erected on April 19, 2016, in Trafalgar Square, London. It was then scheduled to be sent to its rightful home, Syria. However, as of today, this move is still pending.
The Main Colonnade
When you walk through the ancient city of Palmyra, one spectacle you can’t miss is the majestic colonnade. Once the centre of the city’s vibrant social life, today it stands strong amidst the desert.
The Colonnade of Palmyra is one of the most iconic and well-preserved remnants of the ancient city. It is a grand, straight boulevard that stretches for more than a kilometer, lined on both sides by towering columns.
Interestingly, the layout of buildings along the colonnade depicts Palmyra’s blend of Greco-Roman and Persian influences. The designs carved into the columns and the archways add to its splendor, drawing you into its mystical allure.
It was actually the main thoroughfare of the city and was once bustling with activity. It served as a central hub for trade, commerce, and social interaction during the height of Palmyra’s prosperity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Each column stands at a height of about 9 meters and is made of solid limestone. The columns are adorned with intricate Corinthian capitals, adding to their beauty.
The Colonnade was not just a simple road, but a complex architectural construction. It was surrounded by a variety of buildings, including temples, shops, and residential houses, making it a vibrant and dynamic part of the city.
Despite the ravages of time and conflict, the Colonnade has managed to retain its presence. The feeling I got just by walking through it was just incredible.
The Roman Theatre
The Roman Theatre in Palmyra is one of the most significant historical landmarks in Syria. Constructed during the second century AD, it’s a testament to the architectural prowess of the Roman Empire and their influence in the region.
The theatre is located in the southwest part of the ancient city of Palmyra. It’s a semi-circular structure with a diameter of about 92 meters, and it could accommodate around 4,000 spectators. The theatre’s design was influenced by the Hellenistic period, with its three horizontal seating sections (the ima, media, and summa cavea) and a stage building (scaenae frons) adorned with intricate decorations.
However, its recent story is not a happy one. The amphitheater was used as an execution base for ISIS. You may have seen videos online of people put in lines before ISIS soldiers cut their throats or burn them alive.
I would say that the Roman theatre was the best preserved and most impressive building, but I could never forget what happened there. To even think about it was just horrifying.
The Hypogeum of Three Brothers
The Hypogeum of Three Brothers, also known as the Hypogeum of Yarhai, is an ancient burial chamber located on the other side of Palmyra. It was named after the three brothers who commissioned its construction, Atenatan, Yarhai, and Elahbel, prominent figures in Palmyra during the 2nd century AD.
The Hypogeum is an underground structure, carved directly into the bedrock. It’s an excellent example of Palmyran funerary architecture, featuring a central chamber with a series of loculi, or burial niches, arranged along the walls. These niches once held the sarcophagi of the deceased.
Upon entering the Hypogeum, visitors were greeted by a striking fresco that depicts a banquet scene. This fresco was one of the most well-preserved examples of Palmyran painting, offering a glimpse into the social customs and aesthetic preferences of the period. However, they were all painted over white by ISIS, who used the chambers to get cover from airplane attacks. In fact, the entrance is still covered by sacks that offered cover to the soldiers.
Another notable feature of the Hypogeum is its collection of funerary reliefs. These are stone carvings that depict the deceased, often accompanied by inscriptions in Palmyrene Aramaic. The reliefs provide valuable insights into the clothing, hairstyles, and jewelry of the time. Again, many of them were destroyed or stolen.
Stepping inside was like being in an active war zone. Watching the walls being covered in white was really painful. I still cannot express how I felt. I was horrified and not able to believe what I was seeing at the same time.
You can enter even deeper into the tombs, but our guide told us about white snakes with red eyes that she had seen there, so we were not brave enough to proceed.
The Eqfa Spring and Oasis
The Eqfa Spring and Oasis is another gem you should definitely see when visiting Palmyra. It’s an absolute feast for the eyes, a place of crystal-clear water in the middle of the desert. The palm trees around the landscape and the green surrounding this oasis provide a much-needed relief from the heat.
It’s the perfect spot for a refreshing break, a delightful picnic, or even a short hike, allowing you to reconnect with nature amidst your historical explorations. Many people also choose to dive in the spring, because it is believed to have healing purposes. However, we didn’t try to.
But this isn’t all about aesthetics and swimming; the spring has historical significance too. In the past, this oasis was the lifeblood that sustained the ancient city’s population and agriculture. In many ways, the existence and flourishing of Palmyra can be credited to this very spring.
The Palmyra Castle
Located on top of a hill overlooking the city, this castle provides stunning panoramic views of the entire ancient city and the surrounding desert. The Palmyra Castle, also known as Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle or Qala’at ibn Maan, is a historic fortification about 1.5 kilometers west of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria.
The castle dates back to the 13th century and is named after Fakhr-al-Din II, a Druze prince who expanded the fortress in the 17th century. However, some parts of the castle, such as the underground tunnels, are believed to be much older.
Before the war, people used to climb up to the castle and enjoy the sunset. During the Syrian Crisis, however, the castle was used as a military base. That is the reason why it is no longer possible to explore when visiting Palmyra.
Palmyra has, undoubtedly, a troubled history. However, I hope this guide encourages you to give it a try. It is a place steeped in history and unique beauty. The hospitality and kindness of the locals is beyond imagination. Make sure to plan visiting Palmyra well, and you will carry back unforgettable memories. Here’s to your incredible adventure!