BootsnAll Travel Network

Palmyra, Syria: Bride of the desert

After Damascus I headed out on a very short and sweet drive across the Syrian desert passing many Iraq turnoffs (pretty tempting). I got dropped just out of town of the small town of Palmyra, home of some of the largest and intact Roman ruins in the Middle East. It is one of Syrias main tourist sites, unfortunately haven fallen times since 9/11 when the tourist flow turned to a trickle. Still, there are bus loads of tourists here from all over Europe and even the America’s. The town did not have much to offer except if you liked Dates (the food variety.) The town was surrounded by date trees, so there were loads of Date stores selling clumps of dates. I can eat a few dates, 8 to be exact before I am dated out so my tourist help to the local economy was focused on my little chicken shop that kept me full with a half roasted chicken on a bed of rice with salad, hummus, pita, and all the tea I could drink. Very nice. They called it Chicken Mensaf which is usually lamb, but I like the chicken.

The site itself is huge but it also two other outlying areas made up of a bunch of funerary towers and a castle overlooking the valley. I stayed a couple of nights so I could have the full day of site visiting, tomb searching, and then trekking up the mountain to see the sunset at the castle. A very ruinish day of a lot of walking. The weather has cooled down considerably so that during the short sunlight day (dark at 5pm), you could walk around in a t-shirt, but come sun down it gets a bit brisk and requires some added layers. It is winter now and it does get cold in the Middle East. You know where it isn’t cold? The lower half of India thats where. Man, I don’t want to go to Turkey and freeze my ass off. Decisions. Decisions.

Anyways, some photos to follow.

The castle The site from the Castle
The Castle was about four kilometers from town on top of a hill. It gave remarkable views of the city, the ruins, and for as far as the eyes can see. It was actually a pleasant hike up.

Funerary tower valley A funerary tower
These towers marked the burial location of multiple people. There was one tower (the photo) one was fairly reconstructed and was open for tours. I ended up skipping that one and climbed through a bunch of other ones scattered among the valley. The chambers were interesting in that they carved out rails into the side walls so that the caskets would slide along on them and would allow for stacking just like what you would see in the drawers of a Coroners office.

Palmyra Ruins 1 Palmyra ruins 2 Palmyra ruins 3 Palmyra ruins 4 Palmyra ruins 5

(Some cut and paste for your enjoyment.)

In the mid-first century, Palmyra, a wealthy and elegant city located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria and Phoenicia, came under Roman control. During the following period of great prosperity, the Arab citizens of Palmyra adopted customs and modes of dress from both the Iranian Parthian world to the east and the Graeco-Roman west.

Temple of Bel.Tadmor is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Second Book of Chronicles 8:4) as a desert city built by the King Solomon of Judea, the son of David.

In the First Book of Kings (9:18) is mentioned the city of ??? Tamor or Tamar, also built by Solomon. But it is traditionally read (see Qere) as Tadmor, and several citations in the tractates of the Talmud and of the Midrash refer to that city in the Syrian desert (sometimes interchanging the letters “t” and “d” – “Tarmod” instead of “Tadmor”). (Some modern scholars wrote that it could refer to a place near the Dead Sea.)

Tadmor is also mentioned as built by Solomon in Flavius Josephus Antiquities of the Jews – Book VIII, along with the Greek name of Palmyra.

Tadmor is the name of Palmyra in modern Hebrew. The exact etymology of the name “Palmyra” in this case is unknown, although some scholars believe it was related to the palm trees in the area. Others, however, are less certain, and believe it may have come out of an incorrect translation of the name “Tadmor”; c.f. Colledge, Seyrig, Starcky, and others.

The city was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium BC. It was another trading city in the extensive trade network that linked Mesopotamia and northern Syria. Terry Jones and Alan Ereira write in ‘Barbarians’, p. 183:

“There had been a temple at Palmyra, for instance, for 2000 years before the Romans ever saw it. Its form, a large stone-walled chamber with columns outside, is much closer to the sort of thing attributed to Solomon than to anything Roman. It is mentioned in the Bible as part of Solomon’s Kingdom. In fact, it says he built it (2 Chronicles 8 v. 4).”

Greco-Roman & Persian Periods

Palmyrene deities. From left to right: the lunar god Aglibôl, the supreme god Beelshamên, the sun god Malakbêl, 1st century, found near Bir Wereb, Wadi Miyah, Syria. Louvre Museum.

Parthian calvaryman (escorting a camel caravan, detail). He wears large chaps over decorated trousers, as well as a polylobed dagger (Akinakes) on the right side. Palmyra relief.When the Seleucids took control of Syria in 323 BC, the city was left to itself and it became independent. The city flourished as a caravan halt in the 1st century BC. In 41 BC, the Romans under Mark Antony tried to occupy Palmyra but failed as the Palmyrans escaped to the other side of the Euphrates. The Palmyrans had received intelligence of the Roman approach. This proves that at that time Palmyra was still a nomadic settlement and its valuables could be removed at short notice.

Jones and Erieira note that Palmyran merchants owned ships in Italian waters and controlled the Indian silk trade. “Palmyra became one of the richest cities of the Near East.””The Palmyrans had really pulled off a great trick, they were the only people who managed to live alongside Rome without being Romanized. They simply pretended to be Romans.”

Palmyra was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37). It steadily grew in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman empire. In 129, Hadrian visited the city and was so enthralled by it that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana.

Beginning in 212, Palmyra’s trade diminished as the Sassanids occupied the mouth of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Septimius Odaenathus, a Prince of Palmyra, was appointed by Valerian as the governor of the province of Syria. After Valerian was captured by the Sassanids and died in captivity in Bishapur, Odaenathus campaigned as far as Ctesiphon (near modern-day Baghdad) for revenge, invading the city twice. When Odaenathus was assassinated by his nephew Maconius, his wife Septimia Zenobia took power, ruling Palmyra on the behalf of her son, Vabalathus. Zenobia rebelled against Roman authority with the help of Cassius Dionysius Longinus and took over Bosra and lands as far to the west as Egypt, establishing the short-lived Palmyrene Empire. Next, she attempted to take Antioch to the north. In 272, the Roman Emperor Aurelian finally retaliated and captured her and brought her back to Rome. He paraded her in golden chains but allowed her to retire to a villa in Tibur, where she took an active part in society for years. This rebellion greatly disturbed Rome, and so Palmyra was forced by the empire to become a military base for the Roman legions. Diocletian expanded it to harbor even more legions and walled it in to try and save it from the Sassanid threat. The Byzantine period only resulted in the building of a few churches and much of the city was in ruin.

Islamic rule

Sheikh of Palmyra.In 634 the first Muslims arrived in Palmyra. The city was taken by the Muslim Arabs under Khalid ibn Walid in 636. In the 6th century, Fakhreddine al Maany castle was built on top of a mountain overlooking the oasis. The castle was surrounded by a moat, with access only available through a drawbridge. The city of Palmyra was kept intact. After 800 people started abandoning the city.

Funerary Art

Funerary bust of a woman. Palmyra. Mid-late 2nd century. British Museum.Palmyrenes constructed a series of large-scale funerary monuments. These structures, some of which were below ground, had interior walls that were cut away or constructed to form burial compartments in which the deceased, extended at full length, was placed. Limestone slabs with human busts (in Roman and Parthian Iranian fashions) in high relief sealed the rectangular openings of the compartments.

These reliefs represented the “personality” or “soul” of the person interred and formed part of the wall decoration inside the tomb chamber. A banquet scene as depicted on this relief would have been displayed in a family tomb rather than that of an individual.

(I only add these things to enrich your mind)

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