I discovered Palmyra in the winter of 1964. It was cold, terribly cold.
We were staying at the Queen Zenobia Hotel, the only hotel around. This structure, located amid the low and crumbling ruins of the area, had been built by Countess Margot d’Andurain. Margot, a French woman, had long ago married a garrison officer in Palmyra, at the time when Syria was under French mandate. She lived a life that was, one must confess, a bit agitated. The nights with the officers were often coarse; they drank sec and what followed often defied morality. During one evening of drinking, Countess Margot bet the officers that she would enter Mecca. “But you’re a Christian! You can’t go to the Muslim’s holy city,” said the officers. “I will,” she replied.
The bet established, she soon sought out a mendicant in the street and asked him if he would like to marry her. The beggar, stupefied, quickly accepted. “I will give you whatever you want,” she said to the beggar, “You can marry me, but you must sign a document that forbids you from ever touching me.” The beggar agreed and signed the document, the two were soon married. As the wife of a Muslim, Margot d’Andurian herself became Muslim. “You will take me to Mecca,” the Countess said to her husband. He did not make her beg. They made their way to Mecca and upon entering the holy city Margot won the bet.
At the local inn, the other pilgrims were amazed at the beauty of the beggar’s wife, clearly a foreigner of high rank. They thought him very lucky to have married such a woman. The beggar then rather pitifully admitted that he had singed a document promising not to touch her. “But this document is contrary to the laws of Islam,” they protested, “You’re her husband, you can sleep with her as much as you’d like. She is your wife.” The beggar, visibly delighted, climbed on all fours into the bedroom and threw himself upon the Countess, who plunged a knife straight through his heart, killing him instantly.
The following day, Margot was summoned before the King of Saudi Arabia. The aging Saud said to her, “I know who you are. I won’t pursue charges because you are a foreigner. I will give you ten hours to leave Saudi Arabia and you must never return.” And so Countess Margot d’Andurian returned triumphantly to Palymra, where she resumed her life of drinking and debauchery, believing herself to be more and more the Queen Zenobia.
During my first visit to Palmyra, we were guided by an old Syrian crocodile, charming and erudite, named Saouf Bey. He shared with us his memories of the Countess. On one particular occasion, before the war, he was driving between Damascus and Palmyra. In the middle of the desert he saw a burning car surrounded by bloodied passengers. French citizens, they had been attacked by a group of Bedouins, who torched their car and stole their belongings after knocking them around a bit. “But the worst is that we had the Countess d’Andurian with us. The Bedouins took her with them. Who knows what awful fate they have in store for her,” they said. Panicked, they searched the entire area. What had become of the countess? It wasn’t difficult to imagine the fate of such a beauty at the hands of these brutes. Suddenly, Saouf Bey and the travelers saw the countess walking towards them from the dunes of the desert, completely naked. Approaching slowly, in a gracious and simple voice she said, “Those men were absolutely charming.”
During the Second World War the Countess lived in Tangiers. She had organized a black market smuggling operation between Morocco and Spain. To accomplish this she had hired a thief and took on a German partner. It is said that the latter, one fine day, threw her overboard to save the illicit hoard. Thus did the life of this great adventurer come to an end.