Palmyra, the lost city in the desert.
This was a stunning climax to our visit to Syria, but it was also a rather surreal one: the vast Semiramis Hotel, which must have been completed not long before 9/11 caused the bottom to drop out of Syria's tourist trade, was so devoid of residents that I literally had to wake the barman in order to get a drink. Almost ghostly in its titanic emptiness, the Semiramis is actually an appropriate neighbour for the vast ruins of ancient Palmyra. I won't relate its history - that can be found easily enough, notably at the ubiquitous Wikipedia - but wandering among the columns, the great public spaces, the enormous temple of Bel and the remarkable tower tombs outside the city, caused me to reflect on the fickle processes by which history decides what is or is not 'important' to it. Having visited many of the great monuments of the Nile just six months ago, I'd put Palmyra at least on a par with the great temple of Karnak in terms of sheer spectacle - and arguably, its cultural influence was probably greater than Karnak's, given its position on trade routes that were much more central and important to the ancient world. Palmyra is certainly far more spectacular than Stonehenge or any Roman site in the British Isles. So exactly what process, or set of processes, decreed that Palmyra should be so little known relative to these other sites? Why is ancient Egypt 'sexy', whereas ancient Syria isn't? We can find exactly the same issues in the teaching of history: why are the Tudors taught ad nauseam in our schools, and not the Stuarts - arguably just as sexy (although admittedly women teachers and students are more likely to major on Queen Elizabeth I than Queen Anne), but with political and religious contexts that are claimed to be too 'difficult'?
Ultimately, Palmyra is barely known in Britain simply because our ancestors went to Rome, Greece and Egypt, leaving 'the Levant' chiefly to the French, the Germans and the Italians (whose archaeological teams still overwhelmingly predominate in the area). This unconscious cultural selectivity is still a pervasive and, perhaps, an insidious force in the English-speaking world's perceptions of the wider world today: witness the endless misconceptions about, and deep-rooted fears of, the Islamic world, and the laughably xenophobic reactions to England's failed World Cup bid. And so Syria, tarred with the brush of a 'rogue state' within the 'axis of evil', remains largely unknown to the tourists who flock instead to the Valley of the Kings, the Acropolis and the Coliseum. The barman of the Semiramis can sleep on.