The news that Isis is possibly about to over-run Palmyra in Syria hit me especially hard. It feels strange to be so affected by the plight of a ruined town so far away, especially when you equate it to the hundreds of thousands of human victims of this murderous conflict but as Stalin so sensitively put it- "one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." Palmyra, on the other hand is a symbol- a symbol of a tolerant, multi-cultural Syria.
Growing up in Beirut, we used to go on several expeditions a year into the Syrian desert. Our final destination was nearly always Palmyra. Lying roughly halfway between Damascus and Aleppo, slap-bang in the middle of the Syrian desert, Palmyra has always been on the edge of empires. A major caravan oasis on the Silk Road, it stood on the crossroads of several civilizations, Roman, Greek, Persian, Abbassid, Ummayads- anyone who was anyone in the Levant went through Palmyra. During the First Century AD it was one of the most tolerant, multi-cultural centres of the Ancient World. How times change.
The ruins of Palmyra are like some fantastical archeological theme park, documenting its glorious past. Roman Colonnades, Byzantine inscriptions, Mamluk castles... every wave of conqueror that came to that magical oasis left something of their culture behind. Now sis are at the gates of the town like some all-consuming black hole coming to destroy the past but offering zero future.
We'd always stay at the gloriously run down Hotel Zenobia, a kind of desert Fawlty Towers. It was named after the Third Century warrior queen, a Syrian Boadicea who led a revolt against the Roman Empire. It was a single floor affair plonked right on the edge of the ruins. Anywhere else in the world you would pay top dollar for this location but the Zenobia was two star at best. We'd attempt to confirm a reservation by telex only to arrive and be told that there were no rooms. My dad would remind the cross-eyed owner that he'd been going there since the Fifties and we would be told to go and have a glass of cold Syrian beer in the garden while he sorted something out. Ten or so minutes later we'd watch a gaggle of disgruntled Russians march dejectedly out of the hotel, suitcases in hand. The manager would then come out and tell us that he had "found some rooms." Nobody every knew what the many Russian visitors - "guests of the regime" did in Palmyra and it was best not to ask...
The last time I went there was about seven years ago. Things had visibly changed. The usually hyper-hospitable Bedouin and desert Arabs of the town were far more reticent than before. I had a secret policeman accompany me everywhere and everyone did their best to make sure that I didn't notice the ominous looking building on the edge of town- reputedly one of the most feared prisons of the Assad regime. I drove out into the desert past the tower tombs to the caves under the cliffs where we used to camp and picnic. Out there in the great wide open, all as ever was calm and peaceful but what horrors await poor Palmyra at the senseless hands of its latest invaders?
Dom Joly's latest book, "Here Comes The Clown - A Stumble Through Showbusiness", published by Simon & Schuster, is out next Thursday 21 May