1934 – 18 August 2015
28th March 2016
Thinking of Khaled al-Asaad who loved this place and died protecting it from the deluded followers of Islamic State and their twisted , obscene take on Islam. Although to late to save his life and the ancient sites he loved and studied – hopefully he will be looking down from heaven and rejoicing at its recapture and the news that the damage was not as great as first thought.
Rest in peace Khaled – Now with those you loved and studied.
The retaking of Palmyra by the Syrian army ends 10 months of occupation by the so-called Islamic State (IS). It is an important step in the containment and eventual defeat of the jihadist group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.
It may not mean the end for IS, whose heartlands of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Mosul remain safe havens, but it is a step in chipping away at the group’s power base, both geographically and strategically, as well as debasing the myth that the caliphate’s armies are all-conquering and unable to be defeated.
Quite apart from protecting its beauty and historic importance – which IS forces have shown no respect for – reversing the fall of Palmyra is psychologically important.
Palmyra archaeologist beheaded by ISIS
Satellite image of IS destruction
Khaled Mohamad al-Asaad (Arabic pronunciation: [ɐlʔæsʕæd] Arabic: خالد الأسعد (1934 – 18 August 2015), also Khaled Asaad, was a Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He held this position for over 40 years. At age 81, al-Asaad was publicly beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Khaled al-Asaad in 2002
|Died||18 August 2015 (aged 81)
|Cause of death||Beheaded by ISIS|
|Alma mater||University of Damascus|
|Known for||Head of antiquities in Palmyra|
Early life, education and family
Al-Asaad was born in Palmyra, Syria, and lived there most of his life. He held a diploma in history and was educated at the University of Damascus. Al-Asaad was the father of eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after the well-known Palmyrene queen.
During his career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of Palmyra. He had become the principal custodian of the Palmyra site for 40 years since 1963. He worked with American, Polish, German, French and Swiss archaeological missions. His achievement is the elevation of Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was also fluent in Aramaic and regularly translated texts until 2011.
In 2003, he was part of a Syrian-Polish team that uncovered a 3rd-century mosaic which portrayed a struggle between a human and a winged animal. He described it as “one of the most precious discoveries ever made in Palmyra”. In 2001, he announced the discovery of 700 7th-century silver coins bearing images of Kings Khosru I and Khosru II, part of the Sassanid dynasty that ruled Persia before the Muslim conquest.
He was a sought-after speaker at conferences, presenting his vigorous and extensive research. Leading academics and researchers spoke warmly of his affection for Palmyra and his mastery of its history. When he retired in 2003, his son Walid took on the mantle of his work at the site of Palmyra. They both were reportedly detained by ISIS in August 2015; the fate of his son is not yet known.
In 1954 it is believed that he joined the Syrian Ba’ath Party. However, it is not clear whether he was an active supporter of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. According to The Economist, some have said he was a “staunch supporter” of Assad.
In May 2015, Tadmur (the modern city of Palmyra) and the adjacent ancient city of Palmyra came under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Al-Asaad helped evacuate the city museum prior to ISIS’s takeover. Al-Asaad was among those captured during this time, and ISIS attempted to get al-Asaad to reveal the location of the ancient artifacts that he had helped to hide. He was murdered in Tadmur on 18 August 2015. The New York Times reported:
After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters.
A placard hanging from the waist of his dead body listed al-Asaad’s alleged crimes: being an “apostate,” representing Syria at “infidel conferences,” serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran” and communicating with a brother in the Syrian security services. His body was reportedly displayed in Tadmur and then in the ancient city of Palmyra.
In addition to al-Asaad, Qassem Abdullah Yehya, the Deputy Director of the DGAM Laboratories, also protected the Palmyra site. Qassem too was killed by ISIL while on duty on 12 August 2015. He was 37 years old.
- The Chief of Syrian Antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, condemned al-Asaad’s death, calling him “a scholar who gave such memorable services to the place Palmyra and to history”. He called al-Asaad’s ISIL killers a “bad omen on Palmyra”.
- Yasser Tabbaa, a specialist on Islamic art and architecture in Syria and Iraq, said of al-Asaad: “He was a very important authority on possibly the most important archaeological site in Syria.”
- Dario Franceschini, the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism announced that the flags of all Italian museums would be flown at half-mast in honor of al-Asaad.
- UNESCO and its general director Irina Bokova condemned al-Asaad’s murder, saying “They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra. Here is where he dedicated his life.”
- The Aligarh Historians Society has issued a statement expressing hope that the killers would one day be brought to justice. The Society said that “Civilized people, irrespective of country or religion, must unite in their support for all political and military measures designed to achieve this end, especially those being made by the governments of Syria and Iraq.”
Honours and medal
ISIS blows ancient Baal Shamin temple in Palmyra
Palmyra (/ˌpælˈmaɪrə/; Aramaic: ܬܕܡܘܪܬܐ Tedmurtā ; Arabic: تدمر Tadmor) was an ancient Semitic city in present Homs Governorate, Syria. Archaeological finds date back to the Neolithic, and it was first documented in the early second millennium BC as a caravan stop for travellers crossing the Syrian Desert. The city was noted in the annals of the Assyrian kings, and may have been mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Palmyra was a part of the Seleucid Empire and prospered after its incorporation into the Roman Empire in the first century.
The city’s wealth enabled the construction of monumental projects. By the third century AD the city was a prosperous metropolis and regional center. Before 273 it enjoyed autonomy for much of its existence. It was attached to the Roman province of Syria and its political organization was influenced by the Greek city-state model during the first two centuries AD. The city was governed by a senate, which was responsible for public works and the military. After becoming a colonia during the third century, Palmyra incorporated Roman governing institutions before adopting a monarchical system in 260. The city received its wealth from trade caravans; the Palmyrenes, renowned merchants, established colonies along the Silk Road and operated throughout the Roman Empire. The Palmyrenes were primarily a mix of Amorites, Arameans and Arabs, with a Jewish minority. The city’s social structure was tribal, and its inhabitants spoke Palmyrene (a dialect of Aramaic); Greek was used for commercial and diplomatic purposes. The culture of Palmyra, influenced by those of the Greco-Roman world and Persia, produced distinctive art and architecture. The city’s inhabitants worshiped local deities and Mesopotamian and Arab gods.
In 260 the Palmyrene king Odaenathus defeated the Persian emperor Shapur I. He fought several battles against the Persians before his assassination in 267. Odaenathus was succeeded by his two young sons under the regency of Queen Zenobia, who rebelled against Rome and began invading its eastern provinces in 270. The Palmyrene rulers adopted imperial titles in 271; the Roman emperor Aurelian defeated the city in 272, destroying it in 273 after a failed second rebellion.
Palmyra was a minor center under the Byzantines, Rashiduns, Ummayads, Abbasids, Mamluks and their vassals. The Palmyrenes converted to Christianity during the fourth century and to Islam in the second half of the first millennium, and the Palmyrene and Greek languages were replaced by Arabic. The city—destroyed by the Timurids in 1400—remained a small village under the Ottomans until 1918, followed by the Syrian kingdom and the French Mandate. In 1929, the French began moving villagers into the new village of Tadmur. The transfer was completed in 1932, with the site abandoned and available for excavations. On 21 May 2015, Palmyra came under the control of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Location and etymology
Palmyra is 215 km (134 mi) northeast of the Syrian capital, Damascus, in an oasis surrounded by palms (of which twenty varieties have been reported). Two mountain ranges overlook the city; the northern Palmyrene mountain belt from the north and the southern Palmyrene mountains from the southwest. In the south and the east Palmyra is exposed to the Syrian Desert. A small wadi (al-Qubur) crosses the area, flowing from the western hills past the city before disappearing in the eastern gardens of the oasis. South of the wadi is a spring, Efqa. Pliny the Elder described the town in the 70s AD as famous for its desert location, the richness of its soil, and the springs surrounding it, which made agriculture and herding possible.[note 1]
“Tadmor” is the Semitic, earliest-attested native name of the city, appearing in the first half of the second millennium BC. The word’s etymology is vague; according to Albert Schultens, it derived from the Semitic word for “dates” (tamar,[note 2] referring to the palm trees surrounding the city).[note 3]
The name “Palmyra” appeared during the early first century AD in the works of Pliny the Elder, and was used throughout the Greco-Roman world. It is generally believed that “Palmyra” derives from “Tadmor” as an alteration (supported by Schultens),[note 4] or a translation of “Tadmor” (assuming that it meant palm), and derived from the Greek word for palm “Palame” (supported by Jean Starcky).
Michael Patrick O’Connor proposed a Hurrian origin of “Palmyra” and “Tadmor”, citing the inexplicability of alterations to the theorized roots of both names (represented in the addition of -d- to tamar and -ra- to palame). According to this theory, “Tadmor” derives from the Hurrian tad (“to love”) with the addition of the typical Hurrian mid vowel rising (mVr) formant mar. “Palmyra” derives from pal (“to know”) using the same mVr formant (mar). Thirteenth-century Syrian geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi wrote that Tadmor, the daughter of one of Noah’s distant descendants, was buried in the city.
The site at Palmyra provided evidence for a Neolithic settlement near Efqa, with stone tools dated to 7500 BC. Archaeoacoustics in the tell beneath the Temple of Bel indicated traces of cultic activity dated to 2300 BC.
Palmyra entered the historical record during the Bronze Age around 2000 BC, when Puzur-Ishtar the Tadmorean agreed to a contract at an Assyrian trading colony in Kultepe. It was mentioned next in the Mari tablets as a stop for trade caravans and nomadic tribes, such as the Suteans. King Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria passed the area on his way to the Mediterranean at the beginning of the 18th century BC; by then, Palmyra was the easternmost point of the kingdom of Qatna. The town was mentioned in a 13th-century BC tablet discovered at Emar, which recorded the names of two “Tadmorean” witnesses. At the beginning of the 11th century BC, King Tiglath-Pileser I of Assyria recorded his defeat of the “Arameans” of “Tadmar”.
The Hebrew Bible (Second Book of Chronicles 8:4) records a city by the name “Tadmor” as a desert city built (or fortified) by King Solomon of Israel; Flavius Josephus mentions the Greek name “Palmyra”, attributing its founding to Solomon in Book VIII of his Antiquities of the Jews. Later Islamic traditions attribute the city’s founding to Solomon’s Jinn. The association of Palmyra with Solomon is a conflation of “Tadmor” and a city built by Solomon in Judea and known as “Tamar” in the Books of Kings (1 Kings 9:18). The biblical description of “Tadmor” and its buildings does not fit archaeological findings in Palmyra, which was a settlement during Solomon’s reign in the 10th century BC.
Hellenistic and Roman periods
During the Hellenistic period under the Seleucids (between 312 and 64 BC), Palmyra became a prosperous settlement owing allegiance to the Seleucid king. In 217 BC, a Palmyrene force led by a sheikh named Zabdibel joined the army of King Antiochus III in the Battle of Raphia which ended in a Seleucid defeat.[note 5] In the middle of the Hellenistic era, Palmyra, formerly south of the al-Qubur wadi, began to expand beyond its northern bank. By the late second century BC, the tower tombs in the Palmyrene Valley of Tombs and the city temples (most notably, the temples of Baalshamin, Al-lāt and the Hellenistic temple) began to be built.
In 64 BC the Roman Republic annexed the Seleucid kingdom, and the Roman general Pompey established the province of Syria. Palmyra was left independent, trading with Rome and Parthia but belonging to neither. The earliest known Palmyrene inscription is dated to around 44 BC; Palmyra was still a minor sheikhdom, offering water to caravans which occasionally took the desert route on which it was located. However, according to Appian Palmyra was wealthy enough for Mark Antony to send a force to conquer it in 41 BC. The Palmyrenes evacuated to Parthian lands beyond the eastern bank of the Euphrates, which they prepared to defend.
Autonomous Palmyrene region
Palmyra became part of the Roman Empire when it was annexed and paid tribute during Tiberius‘ early reign, around 14 AD.[note 6] The Romans included Palmyra in the province of Syria, and defined the region’s boundaries; a boundary marker laid by Roman governor Silanus was found 75 kilometres (47 mi) northwest of the city at Khirbet el-Bilaas. A marker at the city’s southwestern border was found at Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, and its eastern border extended to the Euphrates valley. This region included numerous villages subordinate to the center such as Al-Qaryatayn (35 other settlements have been identified by 2012). The Roman imperial period brought great prosperity to the city, which enjoyed a privileged status under the empire—retaining much of its internal autonomy, being ruled by a council, and incorporating many Greek city-state (polis) institutions into its government.[note 7]
The earliest Palmyrene text attesting a Roman presence in the city dates to 18 AD, when the Roman general Germanicus tried to develop a friendly relationship with Parthia; he sent the Palmyrene Alexandros to Mesene, a Parthian vassal kingdom.[note 8] This was followed by the arrival of the Roman legion Legio X Fretensis the following year.[note 9] Roman authority was minimal during the first century AD, although tax collectors were resident, and a road connecting Palmyra and Sura was built in 75 AD.[note 10] The Romans used Palmyrene soldiers, but (unlike typical Roman cities) no local magistrates or prefects are recorded in the city. Palmyra saw intensive construction during the first century, including the city’s first walled fortifications and the Temple of Bel (completed and dedicated in 32 AD). During the first century Palmyra developed from a minor desert caravan station into a leading trading center,[note 11] with Palmyrene merchants establishing colonies in surrounding trade centers.
Palmyrene trade reached its apex during the second century, aided by two factors; the first was a trade route built by Palmyrenes, and protected by garrisons at major locations, including a garrison in Dura-Europos manned in 117 AD. The second was the Roman annexation of the Nabataean capital Petra in 106, shifting control over southern trade routes of the Arabian Peninsula from the Nabataeans to Palmyra.[note 12]
In 129 Palmyra was visited by Hadrian, who named it “Hadriane Palmyra” and made it a free city. Hadrian promoted Hellenism throughout the empire, and Palmyra’s urban expansion was modeled on that of Greece. This led to new projects, including the theatre, the colonnade and the temple of Nabu. Roman authority in Palmyra was reinforced in 167, when the cavalry Ala I Thracum Herculiana garrison was moved to the city.[note 13]
In the 190s, Palmyra was assigned to the province of Phoenice, newly created by the Severan dynasty. Toward the end of the second century, Palmyra began a steady transition from a traditional Greek city-state to a monarchy; urban development diminished after the city’s building projects peaked. The Severan ascension to the imperial throne in Rome played a major role in Palmyra’s transition:
- The new dynasty favored the city, stationing the Cohors I Flavia Chalcidenorum garrison there by 206. Caracalla made Palmyra a colonia between 213 and 216, replacing many Greek institutions with Roman constitutional ones. Severus Alexander, emperor from 222 to 235, visited Palmyra in 229.
- The Severan-led Roman–Parthian War, from 194 to 217, influenced regional security and affected the city’s trade. Bandits began attacking caravans by 199, leading Palmyra to strengthen its military presence. The city devoted more energy to protecting the Roman east than to commerce, and its importance increased.
Palmyrene kingdom and Persian wars
The rise of the Sasanian Empire in Persia considerably damaged Palmyrene trade. The Sasanians disbanded Palmyrene colonies in their lands, and began a war against the Roman empire. In an inscription dated to 252 Odaenathus appears bearing the title of exarchos (lord) of Palmyra. The weakness of the Roman empire and the constant Persian danger were probably the reasons behind the Palmyrene council’s decision to elect a lord for the city in order for him to lead a strengthened army. Odaenathus approached Shapur I of Persia to request him to guarantee Palmyrene interests in Persia, but was rebuffed. In 260 the Emperor Valerian fought Shapur at the Battle of Edessa, but was defeated and captured.
Odaenathus formed an army of Palmyrenes, peasants and the remaining Roman soldiers in the region against Shapur. According to the Augustan History, Odaenathus declared himself king prior to the battle. The Palmyrene leader won a decisive victory near the banks of the Euphrates later in 260 forcing the Persians to retreat. One of Valerian’s officers, Macrianus Major, his sons Quietus and Macrianus, and the prefect Balista then rebelled against Valerian’s son Gallienus, usurping imperial power in Syria. In 261 Odaenathus marched against the remaining usurpers in Syria, defeating and killing Quietus and Balista. As a reward, he received the title Imperator Totius Orientis (“Governor of the East”) from Gallienus, and ruled Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Anatolia‘s eastern regions as the imperial representative. In 262 Odaenathus launched a new campaign against Shapur, reclaiming the rest of Roman Mesopotamia (most importantly, the cities of Nisibis and Carrhae), sacking the Jewish city of Nehardea,[note 14] and besieging the Persian capital Ctesiphon. Following his victory, the Palmyrene monarch assumed the title King of Kings.[note 15]
After defeating a Persian army in 263 (or 264), Odaenathus crowned his son Hairan as co-King of Kings near Antioch, then marched and besieged Ctesiphon for the second time (in 264). Although he did not take the Persian capital, Odaenathus drove the Persians out of all Roman lands conquered since the beginning of Shapur’s wars in 252. A Persian attack on Palmyra was repelled, and they were defeated by Odaenathus in 266 near Ctesiphon. In 267 Odaenathus, accompanied by Hairan, moved north to repel Gothic attacks on Asia Minor. The king and his son were assassinated during their return; according to the Augustan History and John Zonaras, Odaenathus was killed by a cousin (Zonaras says nephew) named in the History as Maeonius. The Augustan History also says that Maeonius was proclaimed emperor for a brief period before being tried and executed by Odaenathus’ widow, Zenobia. However, no inscriptions or other evidence exist for Maeonius’ reign and he was probably killed immediately after assassinating Odaenathus.
Odaenathus was succeeded by his sons: ten-year-old Vaballathus and the younger Herodianus, who died soon after his father. Zenobia, their mother, was the de facto ruler and Vaballathus remained in her shadow while she consolidated her power. Gallienus dispatched his prefect Praetorio Heraclian to command military operations against the Persians, but he was marginalized by Zenobia and returned to the West. The queen was careful not to provoke Rome, claiming for herself and her son the titles held by her husband while guaranteeing the safety of the borders with Persia and pacifying the Tanukhids in Hauran. To protect the borders with Persia, Zenobia fortified different settlements on the Euphrates including the citadels of Halabiye and Zalabiye. Circumstantial evidence exist for confrontations with the Sasanians; probably in 269 Vaballathus took the title Persicus Maximus (“The great victor in Persia”) and the title might be linked with an unrecorded battle against a Persian army trying to regain control of Northern Mesopotamia.
Zenobia began her military career in the spring of 270, during the reign of Claudius Gothicus. Under the pretext of attacking the Tanukhids, she annexed Roman Arabia. This was followed in October by an invasion of Egypt, ending with a Palmyrene victory and Zenobia’s proclamation as queen of Egypt. Palmyra invaded Anatolia the following year, reaching Ankara and the pinnacle of its expansion.
The conquests were made behind a mask of subordination to Rome. Zenobia issued coins in the name of Claudius’ successor Aurelian, with Vaballathus depicted as king;[note 16] since Aurelian was occupied with repelling insurgencies in Europe, he permitted the Palmyrene coinage and conferred the royal titles. In late 271, Vaballathus and his mother assumed the titles of Augustus (emperor) and Augusta.[note 17]
The following year, Aurelian crossed the Bosphorus and advanced quickly through Anatolia. According to one account, Roman general Marcus Aurelius Probus regained Egypt from Palmyra;[note 18] Aurelian entered Issus and headed to Antioch, where he defeated Zenobia in the Battle of Immae. Zenobia was defeated again at the Battle of Emesa, taking refuge in Homs before quickly returning to her capital. When the Romans besieged Palmyra, Zenobia refused their order to surrender in person to the emperor. She escaped east to ask the Persians for help, but was captured by the Romans; the city capitulated soon afterwards.
Later Roman and Byzantine periods
Aurelian spared the city and stationed a garrison of 600 archers, led by Sandarion, as a peacekeeping force. In 273 Palmyra rebelled under the leadership of Septimius Apsaios, declaring Antiochus (a relative of Zenobia) as Augustus. Aurelian marched against Palmyra, razing it to the ground and seizing the most valuable monuments to decorate his Temple of Sol. Palmyrene buildings were smashed, residents massacred and the temple of Bel pillaged.
Palmyra was reduced to a village without territory. Aurelian repaired the temple of Bel, and the Legio I Illyricorum was stationed in the city. Shortly before 303 the Camp of Diocletian, a castra in the western part of the city, was built. The 4-hectare (9.9-acre) camp was a base for the Legio I Illyricorum, which guarded the trade routes around the city.
Palmyra became a Christian city in the decades following its destruction by Aurelian. In late 527, Justinian I ordered its fortification and the restoration of its churches and public buildings to protect the empire against raids by Lakhmid king Al-Mundhir III ibn al-Nu’man.
Palmyra was annexed by the Rashidun Caliphate after its 634 capture by the Muslim general Khalid ibn al-Walid, who took the city after an 18-day march by his army through the Syrian Desert from Mesopotamia. By then Palmyra was limited to the Diocletian camp, and became part of Homs Province.
Umayyad and early Abbasid periods
Palmyra experienced a degree of prosperity as part of the Umayyad Caliphate, which used part of the Temple of Bel as a mosque. Palmyra was a key stop on the East-West trade route, with a large souq (market) built by the Ummayads, and the city’s population increased. During this period, Palmyra was a stronghold of the Banu Kalb tribe. After being defeated by Marwan II during a civil war in the caliphate, Umayyad contender Sulayman ibn Hisham fled to the Banu Kalb in Palmyra, but eventually pledged allegiance to Marwan in 744; Palmyra continued to oppose Marwan until the surrender of Banu Kalb leader al-Abrash al-Kalbi in 745. That year, Marwan ordered the city’s walls demolished.
In 750 a revolt, led by Majza’a ibn al-Kawthar and Ummayad pretender Abu-Muhammad al-Sufyani, against the new Abbasid Caliphate swept across Syria; the tribes in Palmyra supported the rebels. After his defeat Abu-Muhammad took refuge in the city, which withstood the Abbasid attack long enough to allow him to escape.
Abbasid power dwindled during the 10th century, when the empire disintegrated and was divided among a number of vassals. Most of the new rulers acknowledged the caliph as their nominal sovereign, a situation which continued until the Mongol destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258.
In 955 Sayf al-Dawla, the Hamdanid prince of Aleppo, defeated the nomads near the city, and built a kasbah (fortress) in response to campaigns by the Byzantine emperors Nikephoros II Phokas and John I Tzimiskes. After the early-11th-century Hamdanid collapse, Palmyra was controlled by the successor Mirdasid dynasty. Earthquakes devastated the city in 1068 and 1089. The Mirdasids were followed in the second half of the 11th century by Khalaf of the Mala’ib tribe, centered in Homs. Starting in the 1070s Syria came under the Seljuk Empire, whose sultan Malik-Shah I expelled the Mala’ib and imprisoned Khalaf in 1090. Khalaf’s lands were given to Malik-Shah’s brother, Tutush I, who gained his independence after his brother’s 1092 death and established a cadet branch of the Seljuk dynasty in Syria.
During the early 12th century Palmyra was ruled by Toghtekin, the Burid atabeg of Damascus, who appointed his nephew governor. Toghtekin’s nephew was killed by rebels, and the atabeg retook the city in 1126. Palmyra was given to Toghtekin’s grandson, Shihab-ud-din Mahmud, who was replaced by governor Yusuf ibn Firuz when Shihab-ud-din Mahmud returned to Damascus after his father Taj al-Muluk Buri succeeded Toghtekin. The Burids transformed the Temple of Bel into a citadel in 1132, fortifying the city, and transferring it to the Bin Qaraja family three years later in exchange for Homs.
During the mid-12th century, Palmyra was ruled by the Zengid dynasty king Nur ad-Din Mahmud. It became part of the district of Homs, which was given as a fiefdom to the Ayyubid general Shirkuh in 1167 and confiscated after his death in 1169. Homs was annexed by the Ayyubid sultanate in 1174; the following year, Saladin gave Homs (including Palmyra) to his cousin Nasir al-Din Muhammad as a fiefdom. After Saladin’s death, the Ayyubid realm was divided and Palmyra was given to Nasir al-Din Muhammad’s son Al-Mujahid Shirkuh II (who built the castle of Palmyra known as Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle around 1230). Five years before, Syrian geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi described Palmyra’s residents as living in “a castle surrounded by a stone wall”.
Palmyra was used as a refuge by Sherkoh II’s grandson, Al-Ashraf Musa, who allied himself with Mongol king Hulagu Khan and fled after the Mongol defeat in the 1260 Battle of Ain Jalut against the Mamluks. Al-Ashraf Musa asked the Mamluk sultan Qutuz for pardon and was accepted as a vassal. Al-Ashraf Musa died in 1263 without a heir bringing the Homs district under direct Mamluk rule.
The Al-Fadl clan (a branch of the Tayy tribe) declared its loyalty to the Mamluks, and in 1284 prince Muhanna bin Issa of the Al-Fadl was appointed lord of Palmyra by sultan Qalawun. He was imprisoned by sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil in 1293, and restored two years later by sultan Al-Adil Kitbugha. Muhanna declared his loyalty to Öljaitü of the Ilkhanate in 1312 and was dismissed and replaced with his brother Fadl by sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad. Although Muhanna was forgiven by Al-Nasir and restored in 1317, he and his tribe were expelled in 1320 for his continued relations with the Ilkhanate and he was replaced by tribal chief Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr.
Muhanna was forgiven and restored by Al-Nasir in 1330; he remained loyal to the sultan until his death three years later, when he was succeeded by his son. Contemporary historian Ibn Fadlallah al-Omari described the city as having “vast gardens, flourishing trades and bizarre monuments”. The Fadl family protected the trade routes and villages from Bedouin raids, raiding other cities and fighting among themselves. The Mamluks intervened militarily several times, dismissing, imprisoning or expelling its leaders. In 1400 Palmyra was attacked by Timur, who took 200,000 sheep and destroyed the city. The Fadl prince Nu’air escaped the battle against Timur and later fought Jakam, the sultan of Aleppo. Nu’air was captured, taken to Aleppo and executed in 1406; this, according to Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, ended the Fadl family’s power.
Ottoman and later periods
Syria became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516, and Palmyra was incorporated into Damascus Eyalet as the center of an administrative district (Sanjak).[note 19] During the Ottoman era, Palmyra was a small village in the courtyard of the temple of Bel. After 1568 the Ottomans appointed the Lebanese prince Ali bin Musa Harfush as governor of Palmyra’s sanjak, dismissing him in 1584 for treason.
In 1630 Palmyra came under the authority of another Lebanese prince, Fakhr-al-Din II, who renovated Sherkoh II’s castle (which became known as Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle). The prince fell from grace with the Ottomans in 1633 and lost control of the village, which remained a separate sanjak until it was absorbed by Zor Sanjak in 1857. The village became home to an Ottoman garrison to control the Bedouin in 1867.
Palmyra regained some of its importance at the beginning of the 20th century as a station for caravans, and its revival was aided by the advent of motorized transport. In 1918, as World War I was ending, the Royal Air Force built an airfield for two planes,[note 20] and in November the Ottomans retreated from Zor Sanjak without a fight.[note 21] The Syrian Emirate‘s army entered Deir ez-Zor on 4 December, and Zor Sanjak became part of Syria. In 1919, as the British and French argued over the borders of the planned mandates, British permanent military representative to the Supreme War Council Henry Wilson suggested adding Palmyra to the British mandate. However, British general Edmund Allenby persuaded his government to abandon this plan. Syria (including Palmyra) became part of the French Mandate after Syria’s defeat in the Battle of Maysalun in 24 July 1920.
As Palmyra gained importance to French efforts to pacify the Syrian Desert, a base was constructed in the village near the temple of Bel in 1921. In 1929 the general director of antiquities in Syria, Henri Arnold Seyrig, began excavating the ruins and convinced the villagers to move to a new, French-built village next to the site. The relocation was completed in 1932; ancient Palmyra was ready for excavation as its villagers settled into the new village of Tadmur.
Syrian Civil War
As a result of the Syrian Civil War, Palmyra experienced widespread looting and damage by combatants. During the summer of 2012, concerns about looting in the museum and the site increased when an amateur video of Syrian soldiers carrying funerary stones was posted. However, according to France 24‘s report, “From the information gathered, it is impossible to determine whether pillaging was taking place.” The following year the facade of the temple of Bel sustained a large hole from mortar fire, and colonnade columns have been damaged by shrapnel. According to Maamoun Abdulkarim, director of antiquities and museums at the Syrian Ministry of Culture, the Syrian Army positioned its troops in some archaeological-site areas, while Syrian opposition soldiers stationed themselves in gardens around the city.
On 13 May 2015, ISIL launched an attack on the modern town of Tadmur, sparking fears that the iconoclastic group would destroy the adjacent ancient site Palmyra. On 21 May 2015, some artifacts were removed from the Palmyra museum by the Syrian curators and transported in 2 trucks to Damascus. A number of Greco-Roman busts, jewelry, and other objects looted from the Palmyra museum have been found on the international market. The same day, ISIL forces entered the World Heritage Site. According to eyewitnesses, on 23 May the militants destroyed the lion of Al-lāt and other statues. Local residents reported that the Syrian air force bombed the site on 13 June, damaging the northern wall close to the Temple of Baalshamin.
Since at least 27 May 2015, Palmyra’s theatre was used as a place of public executions of ISIL opponents. A video released by ISIL shows the killing of 20 prisoners at the hands of teenaged male executioners, watched by hundreds of men and boys. On 18 August 2015, Palmyra’s retired antiquities chief Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by ISIL after being tortured for a month to get information about the city and its treasures; al-Asaad refused to give any information to his captors. The militant group destroyed the temple of Baalshamin on 23 August 2015 according to Abdulkarim and activists while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that the destruction took place one month earlier.
People, language and society
At its height during the reign of Zenobia, Palmyra had more than 200,000 residents. Its earliest known inhabitants were the Amorites in the early second millennium BC, and by the end of the millennium Arameans were mentioned as inhabitanting the area. Arabs arrived in the city in the late first millennium BC; Zabdibel’s soldiers, who aided the Seleucids in the battle of Raphia (217 BC), were described as Arabs. The newcomers were assimilated by the earlier inhabitants, spoke their language, and formed a significant segment of the aristocracy. The city also had a Jewish community; inscriptions in Palmyrene from the necropolis of Beit She’arim in Lower Galilee confirm the burial of Palmyrene Jews.
During the Umayyad period Palmyra was mainly inhabited by the Kalb tribe. Benjamin of Tudela recorded the existence of 2,000 Jews in the city during the twelfth century, but after the invasion by Timur it was a small village until the relocation in 1932.
Before 274 AD, Palmyrenes spoke a dialect of Aramaic and used the Palmyrene alphabet.[note 22] The use of Latin was minimal, but Greek was used by wealthier members of society for commercial and diplomatic purposes, and it became the dominant language during the Byzantine era. After the Arab conquest Greek was replaced by Arabic, from which a Palmyrene dialect evolved.
Palmyra’s society before 273 was a mixture of the different peoples inhabiting the city, which is seen in Aramaic, Arabic and Amorite clan names.[note 23] Palmyra was a tribal community but due to the lack of sources, an understanding of the nature of Palmyrene tribes structure building or maintaining is not possible. Thirty clans have been documented; five of which were identified as tribes (Phyle (φυλή)) comprising several sub-clans.[note 24] By the time of Nero Palmyra had four tribes, each residing in an area of the city bearing its name. Three of the tribes were the Komare, Mattabol and Ma’zin; the fourth tribe is uncertain, but was probably the Mita. In time, the four tribes became highly civic and tribal lines blurred;[note 25] by the second century clan identity lost its importance, and it disappeared during the third century.[note 26] Palmyra declined, and was a village of 6,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 20th century; although surrounded by Bedouin, the villagers preserved their dialect, and maintained the life of a small settlement.
Palmyra had a distinctive culture, based on a local Semitic tradition, and influenced by Greece and Rome.[note 27] The extent of Greek influence on Palmyra’s culture is debated; according to traditional scholarship, the Palmyrenes’ Greek practices were a superficial layer over a local essence. Palmyra’s senate was an example; although Palmyrene texts written in Greek described it as a “boule” (a Greek institution), the senate was a gathering of non-elected tribal elders (a Near-Eastern assembly tradition). Some scholars, such as Fergus Millar, view Palmyra’s culture as a fusion of local and Greco-Roman traditions.
The culture of Persia influenced Palmyrene military tactics, dress and court ceremonies. Palmyra had no large libraries or publishing facilities, and it lacked an intellectual movement characteristic of other Eastern cities such as Edessa or Antioch. Although Zenobia opened her court to academics, the only notable scholar documented was Cassius Longinus.
Palmyra had a large agora.[note 28] However, unlike the Greek Agoras (public gathering places shared with public buildings), Palmyra’s agora resembled an Eastern caravanserai more than a hub of public life. The Palmyrenes buried their dead in elaborate family mausoleums, most with interior walls forming rows of burial chambers (loculi) in which the dead, laying at full length, were placed. A relief of the person interred formed part of the wall’s decoration, acting as a headstone. Sarcophagi appeared in the late second century and were used in some of the tombs. Many burial monuments contained fully dressed, bejeweled mummies, embalmed in a method similar to that used in Ancient Egypt.
Art and architecture
Although Palmyrene art was related to that of Greece, it had a distinctive style unique to the middle-Euphrates region. Palmyrene art is well represented by the bust reliefs which seal the openings of its burial chambers. The reliefs emphasized clothing, jewelry and a frontal representation of the person depicted, characteristics which can be seen as a forerunner of Byzantine art. According to Michael Rostovtzeff, Palmyra’s art was influenced by the Parthian art. However, the origin of frontality that characterized Palmyrene and Parthian arts is a controversial issue; while Parthian origin has been suggested (by Daniel Schlumberger), Michael Avi-Yonah contends that it was a local Syrian tradition that influenced Parthian art. Little painting, and none of the bronze statues of prominent citizens (which stood on brackets on the main columns of the Great Colonnade), have survived. A damaged frieze and other sculptures from the Temple of Bel, many removed to museums in Syria and abroad, suggest the city’s public monumental sculpture.
Many surviving funerary busts reached Western museums during the 19th century. Palmyra provided the most convenient Eastern examples bolstering an art-history controversy at the turn of the 20th century: to what extent Eastern influence on Roman art replaced idealized classicism with frontal, hieratic and simplified figures (as believed by Josef Strzygowski and others). This transition is seen as a response to cultural changes in the Western Roman Empire, rather than artistic influence from the East. Palmyrene bust reliefs, unlike Roman sculptures, are rudimentary portraits; although many have a “striking individual quality”, their details vary little across figures of similar age and gender.
Like its art, Palmyra’s architecture was influenced by the Greco-Roman style, while preserving local elements (best seen in the Temple of Bel). Enclosed by a massive wall flanked with traditional Roman columns, Bel’s sanctuary plan was primarily Semitic. Similar to the Second Temple, the sanctuary consisted of a large courtyard with the deity’s main shrine off-center against its entrance (a plan preserving elements of the temples of Ebla and Ugarit).
From the beginning of its history to the first century AD Palmyra was a petty sheikhdom, and by the first century BC a Palmyrene identity began to develop. During the first half of the first century AD, Palmyra incorporated some institutions of a Greek city (polis); the concept of citizenship (demos) appears in an inscription, dated to 10 AD, describing the Palmyrenes as a community. In 74 AD, an inscription mentions the city’s boule (senate). The tribal role in Palmyra is debated; during the first century, four treasurers representing the four tribes seems to have partially controlled the administration but their role became ceremonial by the second century and power rested in the hands of the council.
The Palmyrene council consisted of about six hundred members of the local elite (such as the elders or heads of wealthy families or clans),[note 29] representing the city’s four quarters. The council, headed by a president, managed civic responsibilities; it supervised public works (including the construction of public buildings), approved expenditures, collected taxes, and appointed two archons (lords) each year. Palmyra’s military was led by strategoi (generals) appointed by the council. Roman provincial authority set and approved Palmyra’s tariff structure, but the provincial interference in local government was kept minimal as the empire sought to ensure the continuous success of Palmyrene trade most beneficial to Rome. An imposition of direct provincial administration would have jeopardized Palmyra’s ability to conduct its trading activities in the East, specially in Parthia.
With the elevation of Palmyra to a colonia around 213-216, the city ceased being subject to Roman provincial governors and taxes. Palmyra incorporated Roman institutions into its system while keeping many of its former ones. The council remained, and the strategos designated one of two annually-elected magistrates. This duumviri implemented the new colonial constitution, replacing the archons. Palmyra’s political scene changed with the rise of Odaenathus family; an inscription dated to 251 describe Odaenathus’ son Hairan as “Ras” (lord) of Palmyra (exarch in the Greek section of the inscription) and another inscription dated to 252 describe Odaenathus with the same title.[note 30] Odaenathus was probably elected by the council as exarch, which was an unusual title in the Roman empire and was not part of the traditional Palmyrene governance institutions. Whether Odaenathus’ title indicated a military or a priestly position is unknown, but the military role is more likely. By 257 Odaenathus was known as a consularis, possibly the legatus of the province of Phoenice. In 258 Odaenathus began extending his political influence, taking advantage of regional instability caused by Sasanian aggression; this culminated in the Battle of Edessa, Odaenathus’ royal elevation and mobilization of troops, which made Palmyra a kingdom.
The monarchy maintained the council and most civic institutions, permitting the election of magistrates until 264. In the absence of the monarch, the city was administered by a viceroy. Although governors of the eastern Roman provinces under Odaenathus’ control were still appointed by Rome, the king had overall authority. During Zenobia’s rebellion, governors were appointed by the queen.
Not all Palmyrenes accepted the dominion of the royal family; a senator, Septimius Haddudan, appears in a later Palmyrene inscription as aiding Aurelian’s armies during the 273 rebellion. After the Roman destruction of the city, Palmyra was ruled directly by Rome, and its following states (including the Burids and Ayyubids), or by subordinate Bedouin chiefs—primarily the Fadl family, who governed for the Mamluks.
Due to its military character and efficiency in battle, Irfan Shahîd described Palmyra as the “Sparta among the cities of the Orient”; even Palmyrene gods were depicted in full military uniforms. Palmyra’s army protected the city and its economy, helping extend Palmyrene authority beyond the city walls and protecting the countryside’s desert trade routes. The city had a substantial military; Zabdibel commanded a force of 10,000 in the third century BC, and Zenobia led an army of 70,000 in the Battle of Emesa. Soldiers were recruited from the city and its territories, spanning several thousand square kilometers from the outskirts of Homs to the Euphrates valley. Non-Palmyrene soldiers were also recruited; a Nabatean cavalryman is recorded in 132 as serving in a Palmyrene unit stationed at Anah. Palmyra’s recruiting system is unknown; the city might have selected and equipped the troops and the strategoi led, trained and disciplined them.
The strategoi were appointed by the council with the approval of Rome. The royal army was under the leadership of the monarch aided by generals, and was modeled on the Sasanians in arms and tactics. The Palmyrenes were noted archers. They used infantry while a heavily armored cavalry (clibanarii) constituted the main attacking force.[note 31] Palmyra’s infantry was armed with swords, lances and small round shields; the clibanarii were fully armored (including their horses), and used heavy spears (kontos) 3.65 metres (12.0 ft) long without shields.
Relations with Rome
Citing Palmyrenes’ combat skills in large, sparsely populated areas, the Romans formed a Palmyrene Auxilia to serve in the imperial Roman army. Vespasian reportedly had 8,000 Palmyrene archers in Judea, and Trajan established the first Palmyrene Auxilia in 116 (a camel cavalry unit, Ala I Ulpia dromedariorum Palmyrenorum). Palmyrene units were deployed throughout the Roman Empire,[note 32] serving in Dacia late in Hadrian’s reign, and at El Kantara in Numidia and Moesia under Antoninus Pius. During the late second century Rome formed the Cohors XX Palmyrenorum, which was stationed in Dura-Europos.
|Odaenathus||260-267||King of Kings|
|Hairan||263-267||King of Kings||Son of Odaenathus, crowned by his father as co-King of Kings near Antioch.|
|Vaballathus||267-272||King of Kings
|Dropped the “King of Kings” title in 270, replacing it with the Latin rex (king) and declared emperor in 271. Reigned under the regency of his mother, Zenobia.|
|Herodianus||267||King of Kings||Son of Odaenathus and Zenobia; attested with his mother on a lead seal, and died shortly after his father.|
|Ruled as a regent for her children and did not claim to rule in her own right.|
|Antiochus||273||Emperor||According to an inscription, he was a relative (possibly a son) of Zenobia.|
|Muhanna bin Issa||1284-1293||Prince||Imprisoned by the Mamluks.|
|Muhanna bin Issa||1295-1312||Prince||Second reign.|
|Fadl bin Issa||1312-1317||Prince||Brother of Muhanna.|
|Muhanna bin Issa||1317-1320||Prince||Expelled with his tribe.|
|Muhanna bin Issa||1330-1333||Prince||Fourth reign.|
|Muzaffar al-Din Musa||1333-1341||Prince||Son of Muhanna.|
|Suleiman I||1341-1342||Prince||Son of Muhanna.|
|Sharaf al-Din Issa||1342-1343||Prince||Son of Fadl bin Issa.|
|Saif||1343-1345||Prince||Son of Fadl bin Issa.|
|Ahmad||1345-1347||Prince||Son of Muhanna.|
|Fayad||1348||Prince||Son of Muhanna.|
|Hayar||1348-1350||Prince||Son of Muhanna.|
|Hayar||1361-1364||Prince||Second reign; rebelled and was dismissed.|
|Zamil||1364-1366||Prince||Son of Muhanna’s brother Musa.|
|Hayar||1366-1368||Prince||Third reign; rebelled and was dismissed.|
|Zamil||1368||Prince||Second reign; rebelled and was dismissed.|
|Mu’ayqil||1368-1373||Prince||Son of Fadl bin Issa.|
|Malik||1375-1379||Prince||Son of Muhanna.|
|Zamil||1379-1380||Prince||Third reign; ruled with Mu’ayqil.|
|Mu’ayqil||1379-1380||Prince||Second reign; ruled with Zamil.|
|Nu’air bin Hayar||1380-||Prince||Son of Hayar.|
|Musa||-1396||Prince||Son of Hayar’s brother Assaf.|
|Suleiman II||1396-1398||Prince||Son of Hayar’s brother ‘Anqa.|
|Muhammad||1398-1399||Prince||Brother of Suleiman II.|
|Nu’air bin Hayar||1399-1406||Prince||Second reign.|
Palmyra’s gods were primarily part of the northwestern Semitic pantheon, with the addition of gods from the Mesopotamian and Arab pantheons. The city’s chief pre-Hellenistic deity was called Bol, an abbreviation of Baal (a northwestern Semitic honorific). The Babylonian cult of Bel-Marduk influenced the Palmyrene religion and by 217 BC the chief deity’s name was changed to Bel. This did not indicate the replacing of the northwestern Semitic Bol with a Mesopotamian deity, but was a mere change in the name.
Second in importance after the supreme deity, were over sixty ancestral gods of the Palmyrene clans. Palmyra had unique deities, such as the god of justice and Efqa’s guardian Yarhibol, the sun god Malakbel, and the moon god Aglibol. Palmyrenes worshiped regional deities, including the greater Levantine gods Astarte, Baal-hamon, Baalshamin and Atargatis; the Babylonian gods Nabu and Nergal, and the Arab Azizos, Arsu, Šams and Al-lāt.
The deities worshiped in the countryside were depicted as camel or horse riders and bore Arab names. The nature of those deities is left to theory as only names are known, most importantly Abgal. The Palmyrene pantheon included ginnaye (some were given the designation “Gad”), a group of lesser deities popular in the countryside, who were similar to the Arab jinn and the Roman genius. Ginnaye were believed to have the appearance and behavior of humans, similar to Arab jinn. Unlike jinn, however, the ginnaye could not possess or injure humans. Their role was similar to the Roman genius: tutelary deities who guarded individuals and their caravans, cattle and villages.
Although the Palmyrenes worshiped their deities as individuals, some were associated with other gods. Bel had Astarte-Belti as his consort, and formed a triple deity with Aglibol and Yarhibol (who became a sun god in his association with Bel). Malakbel was part of many associations, pairing with Gad Taimi and Aglibol, and forming a triple deity with Baalshamin and Aglibol. Palmyra hosted an Akitu (spring festival) each Nisan. Each of the city’s four quarters had a sanctuary for a deity considered ancestral to the resident tribe; Malakbel and Aglibol’s sanctuary was in the Komare quarter. The Baalshamin sanctuary was in the Ma’zin quarter, the Arsu sanctuary in the Mattabol quarter, and the Atargatis sanctuary in the fourth tribe’s quarter.[note 33]
Palmyra’s paganism was replaced with Christianity as the religion spread across the Roman Empire, and a bishop was reported in the city by 325. Although most temples became churches, the temple of Al-lāt was destroyed in 385 at the order of Maternus Cynegius (the eastern praetorian prefect). After the Arab conquest in 634 Islam gradually replaced Christianity, and the last known bishop of Palmyra was consecrated in 818.
Palmyra’s economy before and at the beginning of the Roman period was based on agriculture, pastoralism, trade, and serving as a rest station for the caravans which sporadically crossed the desert. By the end of the first century BC, the city had a mixed economy based on agriculture, pastoralism, taxation, and, most importantly, the caravan trade.
Taxation was an important source of revenue for Palmyra. Caravaneers paid taxes in a building known as the Tariff Court, where a tax law dating to 137 was discovered in 1881 by Armenian prince Abamelek Lazarew who was visiting the ruins. The law regulated the tariffs paid by the merchants for goods sold at the internal market or exported from the city.[note 34] Most land was owned by the city, which collected grazing taxes. The oasis had about 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of irrigable land, surrounded by the countryside. The Palmyrenes constructed an extensive irrigation system in the northern mountains that consisted of reservoirs and channels to capture and store the occasional rainfall. The countryside was intensively planted with olive, fig, pistachio and barley. However, agriculture could not support the population and food was imported.
After Palmyra’s destruction in 273, it became a market for villagers and nomads from the surrounding area. The city regained some of its prosperity during the Ummayad era, indicated by the discovery of a large Ummayad souq in the colonnade street. Palmyra was a minor trading center until the Timurid destruction, which reduced it to a settlement on the desert border whose inhabitants herded and cultivated small plots for vegetables and corn.
Palmyra’s main trade route ran east to the Euphrates, where it connected to the Silk Road. The route then ran south along the river toward the port of Charax Spasinu on the Persian Gulf, where Palmyrene ships traveled back and forth to India. Goods were imported from India, China and Transoxiana, and exported west to Emesa (or Antioch) then the Mediterranean ports, from which they were distributed throughout the Roman Empire. In addition to the usual route some Palmyrene merchants used the Red Sea, probably as a result of the Roman–Parthian Wars. Goods were carried overland from the seaports to a Nile port, and then taken to the Egyptian Mediterranean ports for export. Inscriptions attesting a Palmyrene presence in Egypt date to the reign of Hadrian.
Since Palmyra was not on the Silk Road (which followed the Euphrates), the Palmyrenes secured the desert route passing their city. They connected it to the Euphrates valley, providing water and shelter. The Palmyrene route was used almost exclusively by the city’s merchants, who maintained a presence in many cities, including Dura-Europos in 33 BC, Babylon by 19 AD, Seleucia by 24 AD, Dendera, Coptos, Bahrain, the Indus River Delta, Merv and Rome.
The caravan trade depended on patrons and merchants. Patrons owned the land on which the caravan animals were raised, providing animals and guards for the merchants. The lands were located in the numerous villages of the Palmyrene countryside. Although merchants used the patrons to conduct business, their roles often overlapped and a patron would sometimes lead a caravan. Commerce made Palmyra and its merchants among the wealthiest in the region. Some caravans were financed by a single merchant, such as Male’ Agrippa (who financed Hadrian’s visit in 129 and the 139 rebuilding of the temple of Bel). The primary income-generating trade good was silk, which was exported from the East to the West. Other exported goods included jade, muslin, spices, ebony, ivory and precious stones. For its domestic market Palmyra imported slaves, prostitutes, olive oil, dyed goods, myrrh and perfume.
Palmyra began as a small settlement near the Efqa spring on the southern bank of Wadi al-Qubur. The settlement, known as the Hellenistic settlement, had residences expanding to the wadi’s northern bank during the first century. Although the city’s walls originally enclosed an extensive area on both banks of the wadi, the walls rebuilt during Diocletian’s reign surrounded only the northern-bank section.
Most of the city’s monumental projects were built on the wadi’s northern bank. Among them is the temple of Bel, on a tell which was the site of an earlier temple (known as the Hellenistic temple). However, excavation supports the theory that the temple was originally located on the southern bank; the wadi’s bed was diverted to incorporate the temple into Palmyra’s new urban organization, which began with its prosperity during the late first and early second centuries.
Also north of the wadi was the Great Colonnade, Palmyra’s 1.1-kilometre-long (0.68 mi) main street, which extended from the temple of Bel in the east, to the Funerary Temple no.86 in the city’s western part. It has a monumental arch in its eastern section, and a tetrapylon stands in the center.
The Baths of Diocletian, built on the ruins of an earlier building which might have been the royal palace, were on the left side of the colonnade. Nearby were the temple of Baalshamin, residences, and the Byzantine churches, which include a 1,500-year-old church (Palmyra’s fourth, and believed to be the largest ever discovered in Syria). The church columns were estimated to be 6 metres (20 ft) tall, and its base measured 12 by 24 metres (39 by 79 ft). A small amphitheatre was found in the church’s courtyard.
The temple of Nabu and the Roman theater were built on the colonnade’s southern side. Behind the theater were a small senate building and the large Agora, with the remains of a triclinium (banquet room) and the Tariff Court. A cross street at the western end of the colonnade leads to the Camp of Diocletian, built by Sosianus Hierocles (the Roman governor of Syria). Nearby are the temple of Al-lāt and the Damascus Gate.
West of the ancient walls the Palmyrenes built a number of large-scale funerary monuments which now form the Valley of Tombs, a 1-kilometre-long (0.62 mi) necropolis. The more than 50 monuments were primarily tower-shaped and up to four stories high. Towers were replaced by funerary temples as above ground tombs after 128, which is the date of the most recent tower. The city had other cemeteries in the north, southwest and southeast, where the tombs are primarily hypogea (underground).
- The senate building is largely ruined. It is a small building that consists of a peristyle courtyard and a chamber that has an apse at one end and rows of seats around it.
- Much of the Baths of Diocletian are ruined and do not survive above the level of the foundations. The complex’s entrance is marked by four massive Egyptian granite columns each 1.3 metres (4 ft 3 in) in diameter, 12.5 metres (41 ft) high and weigh 20 tonnes. Inside, the outline of a bathing pool surrounded by a colonnade of Corinthian columns is still visible in addition to an octagonal room that served as a dressing room containing a drain in its center.
- The Agora of Palmyra was built c. 193. It is a massive 71 by 84 metres (233 by 276 ft) structure with 11 entrances. Inside the agora, 200 columnar bases that used to hold statues of prominent citizens were found. The inscriptions on the bases allowed an understanding of the order by which the statues were grouped; the eastern side was reserved for senators, the northern side for Palmyrene officials, the western side for soldiers and the southern side for caravan chiefs.
- The Tariff Court is a large rectangular enclosure south of the agora and sharing its northern wall with it. Originally, the entrance of the court was a massive vestibule in its southwestern wall. However, the entrance was blocked by the construction of a defensive wall and the court was entered through three doors from the Agora. The court gained its name by containing a 5 meters long stone slab that had the Palmyrene tax law inscribed on it.
- The Triclinium of the Agora is located to the northwestern corner of the Agora and can host up to 40 person. It is a small 12 by 15 metres (39 by 49 ft) hall decorated with Greek key motifs that run in a continuous line halfway up the wall. The building was probably used by the rulers of the city; Seyrig proposed that it was a small temple before being turned into a banqueting hall.
- The temple of Nabu is largely ruined. The temple was Eastern in its plan; the outer enclosure’s propylaea led to a 20 by 9 metres (66 by 30 ft) podium through a portico of which the bases of the columns survives. The peristyle cella opened onto an outdoor altar.
- The temple of Al-lāt is largely ruined with only a podium, few columns and the door frame remaining. Inside the compound, a giant lion relief (Lion of Al-lāt) was excavated and in its original form, was a relief protruding from the temple compound’s wall.
- The ruined temple of Baal-hamon is located on the top of Jabal al-Muntar hill which oversees the spring of Efqa. Constructed in 89 AD, it consists of a cella and a vestibule with two columns. The temple had a defensive tower attached to it; a tessera depicting the sanctuary was excavated and it reveled that both the cella and the vestibule were decorated with merlons.
- The Funerary Temple no.86 (also known as the House Tomb) is located at the western end of the Great Colonnade. It was built in the third century and has a portico of six columns and vine patterns carvings. Inside the chamber, steps leads down to a vault crypt. The shrine might have been connected to the royal family being the only tomb inside the city’s walls.
- The Tetrapylon was erected during the renovations of Diocletian at the end of the third century. It is a square platform and each corner contains a grouping of four columns. Each column group supports a 150 tons cornice and contains a pedestal in its center that originally carried a statue. Out of sixteen columns, only one is original while the rest are concrete reconstruction carried out in 1963 by the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities. The original columns were brought from Egypt and carved out of pink granite.
- The city’s current walls were erected during the reign of Diocletian whose fortification of the city enclosed a much smaller area than the original pre-273 city. The Diocletianic walls had protective towers and fortified gateways.
- The pre-273 walls were narrow and while encircling the whole city, they do not seem to have provided real protection against an invasion. No signs of towers or fortified gates exist and it can not be proven that the walls enclosed the city as many gaps appears to have never been defended. Those walls seems to have been a tool to protect the city against Bedouins and to provide a costume barrier.
During the Middle Ages Palmyra was largely forgotten by the West, although it was visited by travelers such as Pietro Della Valle (between 1616 and 1625), Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (in 1638) and many Swedish and German explorers. In 1678 a group of English merchants visited the city, and its first scholarly description appeared in a 1705 book by Abednego Seller. In 1751, an expedition led by Robert Wood and James Dawkins studied Palmyra’s architecture; visits by travelers and antiquarians continued, including one made by Lady Hester Stanhope in 1813. In 1901 the stone slab containing the Palmyrene tax law was removed to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Palmyra’s first excavations were conducted in 1902 by Otto Puchstein and in 1917 by Theodor Wiegand. In 1929, French general director of antiquities of Syria and Lebanon Henri Arnold Seyrig began large-scale excavation of the site; interrupted by World War II, it resumed soon after the war’s end. Seyrig started with the Temple of Bel in 1929 and between 1939 and 1940 he excavated the Agora. Daniel Schlumberger conducted excavations in the Palmyrene northwest countryside in 1934 and 1935 where he studied different local sanctuaries in the Palmyrene villages. From 1954 to 1956, a Swiss expedition organized by UNESCO excavated the temple of Baalshamin. Since 1958, the site has been excavated by the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities, and Polish expeditions led by many archaeologists including Kazimierz Michałowski (until 1980) and Michael Gawlikowski (until 2011).
The Polish expedition concentrated its work in the Camp of Diocletian while the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities excavated the temple of Nabu. Most of the hypogea were excavated jointly by the Polish expedition and the Syrian Directorate, while the area of Efqa was excavated by Jean Starcky and Jafar al-Hassani. The temple of Baal-hamon was discovered by Robert du Mesnil du Buisson in the 1970s. The Palmyrene irrigation system was discovered in 2008 by Jørgen Christian Meyer who researched the Palmyrene countryside through ground inspections and satellite images. Most of Palmyra still remains unexplored especially the residential quarters in the north and south while the necropolis has been thoroughly excavated by the Directorate and the Polish expedition. Excavation expeditions departed Palmyra in 2011 due to the Syrian Civil War.
In 1980, the historic site including the necropolis outside the walls was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. In November 2010 Austrian media manager Helmut Thoma admitted looting a Palmyrene grave in 1980, stealing architectural pieces for his home; German and Austrian archaeologists protested the theft.