Palmyra is 200 kms NE of Damascus and, in the opposite direction, a five day camel trek from the Euphrates River. This city of palm trees has an interesting history. It is better known to Old Testament scholars as Tadmor-in-the-Wilderness. The word Tadmor is probably derived from the Hebrew word Tamar which also means Palm tree. The Bible records that King Solomon extended his kingdom to this famous outpost. 1 Kings 9:18.
The Arameans were shrewd business men who founded their city in an oasis of the Syrian desert some 395m above sea level. Two great trade routes converged at that point – one crossing from Phoenician ports to the Persian Gulf and the other coming up from Petra and Southern Arabia.
To be exact, not one but three ancient routes converged on Tadmor for R & R and water. The longest and most important traversed the desert to far off India and China. All traded in silks and spices, gold, perfumes, jewellery, incense and anything else they could sell.
The sight of all these luxury goods passing through their oasis must have given the early Tadmorians a bright idea, especially when men and animals drank freely from their precious springs and probably helped themselves to dates from the palms. They could not ask the travellers to pay for these items – such a thought would be abhorrent to Eastern hospitality, but why not provide facilities and a welcome for the caravaneers and then…
So they built safe shelters for the men and their beasts and even maintained a system that guaranteed fair treatment for all in the commotion of constant arrivals and departures. They gave these overseers fancy names such as `Guardian of the Wells,’ `Chief of the Markets,’ and `President of the Banquets of Bel.’ They set up a market place where the caravaneers could display their wares or buy and sell from one another thus saving themselves a lot of time and money.
Of course all this came with a price. Tadmor City Fathers imposed a tax on all goods that were bought or sold (ancient GST)? and Tadmor city grew and flourished.
The trading caravaneers came from different language areas but all business transactions came to be carried out in Aramaic, the uncomplicated, easy to learn language of Tadmor’s founders. In time the merchants spread it throughout Syria and nearby kingdoms as a second or sort of “no frills” communication medium for the masses. The New Testament indicates that Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic.
For many years Tadmor’s inhabitants lived in peace and plenty – then enter the villain. The Roman empire began expanding and looking enviously at Tadmor.
For some time they were content to merely change the name to Palmyra because the oasis had so many palms, and also the rich peace- loving city served as a buffer between the Romans and the Persians who hated each other and often waged bitter wars. In 130 AD Emperor Hadrian visited Palmyra and bestowed upon it the great honour of naming it after himself – Hadriana Palmyra. Palmyra had treaties with Rome that effectually made her part of the empire, but because she was so prosperous and important she retained her independence.
Rome’s power gradually waned under a series of weak rulers and Palmyra decided to rebel against their increasing interference. Unfortunately the Palmyrians lost out in the rebellion and their beautiful city was rased. Palmyrians rebuilt their city only to meet with fresh misfortune. The trading routes changed and as a result many townspeople left. Their houses gradually decayed. The Muslims moved in and the temple became a mosque. As the centuries passed the desert took over, smothering palm trees and buildings alike. A pitifully few Arabs scratched out an existence among the ruins. Like Petra in Jordan, Palmyra was gone and almost forgotten.
At least twice in the 17th century intrepid travellers mentioned seeing its ruins protruding through the sand but it took nearly another century before a great interest in past civilizations swept throughout Europe. Amateur archaeologists sprang up like mushrooms; wealthy people and governments financed expeditions and sent them off to search for treasures to grace their country’s museums. One group even worked in Palmyra, pulling down the ruined mosque and unearthing a few other buildings, but the site has yet to be thoroughly excavated.
Although nothing visible above the sand is older than 50 AD, nonetheless a visit to the ruins of old Palmyra is definitely worthwhile. One enters the oasis through a shallow, tomb-lined valley. The Palmyrians buried their dead underground in graves, a series of catacombs and passages identified by the monument above ground. These `long homes’ or `houses of eternity’ varied greatly in size and splendour and were built like square fortresses with windows and had shelves inside to accommodate more bodies above ground.
A Palmyrian’s prosperity was judged by the size of what we would call his `family vault’. Archaeologists have found one massive tomb, several storeys tall, that could contain 400 bodies.
Inner walls were adorned with the names and sculptured likenesses of the people who were buried there, and outside, the tombs were beautifully decorated with carvings, statuary and paintings, described by modern art critics as “late classic, highly ornate but without refinement.”
The Palmyrian sculptors had a distinctive bold style of deep chiselling and the eyes of a human statue always looked straight ahead so that the person seemed to be arrogantly returning your stare. Many of these beautiful portrait statues, well preserved by the cushioning sand, have been taken to museums and galleries but enough remain at the site to delight a visitor. The greater part of existing inscribed monuments belong to the splendid period of Palmyra around AD 130 to 270.
Art critics conclude that this style of stone carving has its roots in Syria and was adapted and adopted by Roman and Byzantine artists until the time of the Renaissance.
Like most cities, Palmyra had a main street or shopping mall. More than one kilometre long, the colonnade is flanked on either side by rows of 9m high and 1m thick white limestone columns, 750 in all. Each capital is richly carved in Corinthian style. About halfway up each column a small shelf juts out. In former times it supported a statue of a famous citizen. The merchants’ shops opened between the columns and behind them the theatre, the agora and government buildings.
Windblown sand has badly eroded most of the columns, some reduced to just their base, others worn and fragile, but several score still stand bravely defiant of the ravages of time. Arched entrances marked each end of the colonnade; one has disappeared except for its foundation. The other magnificently carved and decorated triple archway still stands at the Baal Temple end of the colonnade to give us some idea of the glory that once was Palmyra.
The story of Palmyra could not end without a reference to its most famous daughter, Zenobia. During the 3rd century AD relations continued between Rome and Palmyra much as they had been. Rome carried on wars with Greeks, Syrians, and Persians, but their once proud rule waned under a series of ineffectual Emperors. Some tried to control the soldiers who virtually ruled the land: others didn’t care what happened as long as they enjoyed their life of ease.
Palmyra largely kept to itself, but at one time Shapur the Persian seemed about to swallow up the enfeebled Roman empire, and Odenathus, self-styled king of Palmyra, rustled up an army from among the Syrian towns and villages. Palmyrians were noted for their expertise in archery and Odenathus counted on this to win the battle. Surprisingly he was correct. Many prisoners and rich booty fell into his hands as a result of this victory.
He might have been tempted to push his luck and march on to make war with Rome but Gallinus, the effeminate ruler at that time, forestalled such a move by praising Odenathus and heaping him with high honours – mostly verbal. Both of these rulers survived a few years more and then co-incidentally they both died in their own land at the hands of traitors.
Odenathus left his kingdom to his second wife, Zenobia. More probably he left it to his son Vaballathus, who was little more than an infant at the time, and Zenobia acted as regent.
Zenobia seems to have combined the beauty and intelligence of Cleopatra with the daring of Boadicea and the ambition of Hatshepsut. Already she had made a name for herself, not only for her sultry beauty, intellect and linguistic ability – she spoke at least four languages – but during her husband’s lifetime she had courageously gone hunting wild animals with him. She often dressed in armour and marched with the soldiers.
As Rome plunged ever deeper into decay Palmyra grew and flourished. Zenobia noted this and decided that it was high time to cut all ties with Rome and rule an empire of her own. She made no outright declaration, she simply disdained Rome and concentrated on Palmyrian expansion.
Her 70,000 strong army fought and took Antioch, and Zenobia had a coin minted to mark the victory. Next she turned to Egypt and her army soon conquered there. Her growing empire reached from Cappadocia to the Nile. Flushed with success she took the unwise step of giving her son the Imperial title of Augustus. She also minted new coins with her son’s head engraved on one side and her own on the other and no mention whatever of Rome. Even in the midst of all its own troubles and changes of rulers, such an act of rebellion could not go unnoticed or unpunished.
Aurelian, then emperor, marched to Antioch where Zenobia and her troops chose to take their stand. Zenobia’s crack forces were her cavalry – weighed down with heavy suits of armour.
Noting this Aurelian instructed his cavalry to pretend to retire before the Palmyrian onslaught and lead them on a hot, tiring chase. The ruse worked. The combination of heavy armour and blazing sun wilted Zenobia’s brave men and when Aurelian’s cavalry turned around and charged – they mowed the hapless horsemen down.
The defeat stunned Zenobia. Not only that, the inhabitants of Antioch made it clear that they did not want to be embroiled in someone else’s war. Fearing that they might turn her over to Aurelian, Zenobia decided to leave and fight from Palmyra itself.
Aurelian followed her and in their first encounter he was defeated, but as the fortunes of war raged back and forth, again he became the victor. Zenobia and her officers shut themselves inside the city and counted on the desert surrounding Palmyra to starve Aurelian and his army. Inside the city she and her soldiers had food and water.
As expected, Aurelian encircled Palmyra and settled down for a siege, but Zenobia had given her desert allies orders to cut off supply lines to the Romans. She herself was expecting help in the form of troops from Persia so she could afford to wait.
Time passed and when supplies failed to reach the besieging army and the troops were hungry and thirsty Aurelian found out what was happening. He bribed the Bedouin to let his supplies through but not to allow any food into Palmyra.
The hoped for Persian aid came too late. Aurelian troops intercepted and cut them to pieces. Now Zenobia was really in trouble; her people were starving and her depleted army was in no mood to fight. She took the easy way out and fled by night on a dromedary.
Sixty miles away the enemy captured her and brought her before Aurelian. There was nothing heroic about Zenobia when she was on the losing side. She tried to save her own skin by blaming the rebellion on her advisers, the troops, anyone but herself.
Aurelian told her that he would not slay her or her son because he wanted the joy of displaying them among the captives on his triumphal entry into Rome – and that is where our known history of this beautiful queen ends.
Historians are divided as to what happened to her. Some say that rather than suffer the humiliation of being dragged in chains through the streets of Rome, she did the Cleopatra trick and committed suicide. Other historians insist that humiliation or not, Zenobia submitted to the indignity of the Triumphal March and subsequently lived out the rest of her life in a peaceful little villa on the outskirts of Rome.
As for Palmyra itself, Aurelian destroyed the city in AD 272 and slew all the inhabitants. A year later he ordered the walls rebuilt and restored the great Temple of the Sun, or Bel Temple. But Palmyra was never the same again and gradually sank into the desert sand.
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