Located at the aptly named “Homs Gap,” one of the primary passages through the region’s lengthy north-south mountain chains, Homs has long sat along the path of many significant trade routes. For centuries, the city fostered close operational ties to Palmyra, approximately 125 kilometers east of Homs; the famous desert stronghold provided enough regional security that caravans could travel through the Homs Gap with minimal risk, keeping Homs on their route rather than circumventing the area altogether and heading north toward Aleppo.
Although archaeological evidence suggests that Homs’s history stretches as far back as the first millennium BCE, the city was certainly most famous in the second and third centuries CE during the region’s Roman period. Homs, then known as Emesa, was a city-state ruled by a line of priests in the local temple to the sun god Elagabal. In the late second century, Julia Domna, the daughter of one of these high priests, married a Roman commander named Septimius Severus. This commander later went on to become emperor of Rome.
Due in part to Julia Domna’s popularity in the empire, her children and grandchildren succeeded Septimius Severus as emperor in a short-lived Syro-Roman dynasty. Historians mark this dynasty as particularly chaotic and full of internal strife. One of its most notable figures was the emperor Elagabalus. Originally a priest from Emesa, Elagabalus became emperor at the age of 14 and quickly plunged the empire into controversy and scandal. He was widely known for flouting all religious, social, and sexual norms and for his decadent, exaggerated lifestyle; popular stories from the period refer to a dinner party in which he literally drowned his guests in fragrant rose petals and to his tendency to employ early prototypes of the whoopie cushion when visitors sat down at his table.
Eventually, Elagabalus’s own guard murdered the emperor in an attempt to restore order.
Although these more scandalous stories may be the first to stick in one’s memory, a number of ancient sites of worship scattered throughout Homs point to additional aspects of the city’s history. Near the center of the city, the Church of the Girdle of Our Lady claims to house a strip of wool that was taken from a garment worn by the Virgin Mary and preserved in one way or another in this location since her ascent into heaven.
Named for an early Christian martyr who was killed by his father, a Roman officer from Emesa, the Church of St. Elian has stood in Homs since the fifth century CE and is decorated with impressive murals from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Rumors concerning miracles occurring at the sarcophagus of St. Elian brought a steady stream of Christian pilgrims to the site even in recent years.
Finally, the Mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walad – rebuilt in the early 1900s but occupying the site of a previous Ayyubid mosque – contains the tomb of its namesake, Khalid Ibn al-Walad, an early follower of Muhammad famed for his role in Islamic conquest.