Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Friday, September 25, 2015

The glorious days of Palmyra

My first view of Palmyra was at nightfall when the entire city bathed in the floodlights. My eyes could not take in this fascinating scenery; it was a mere flash, a snapshot of columns and arches, of waving and fluted lines, of temples and streets whose warm tones strongly contrasted with the black velvet night sky. The mirage disappeared with a blink of the eye, but tomorrow looked most promising!

This city, which the Arabs called Tadmor, is not mentioned in Alexander’s history and was strangely enough ignored by the succeeding Seleucids who ruled over Greater Syria from 305 BC till it was annexed by Rome in 63 BC. Even at that time, it already had a long history going back to the second millennium BC as mentioned in the clay tablets found at Mari as well as in the Bible as part of Solomon’s realm. The oasis of Palmyra was generally an independent city, ideally located at the heart of the Syrian Desert, an important crossroad of several trade routes on the Silk Road. In other words, a strategic place that was most envied by the Roman Emperors.

For the next one hundred years, business boomed thanks to Palmyra’s intensive trading with Persia, India, and China and even with the Parthians who for many years were the enemies of Rome. The well-travelled Emperor Hadrian inevitably visited Palmyra in 129 AD and he was so much taken by this city that he renamed it Palmyra Hadriana and declared it independent. Unfortunately the good days did not last and in 212 it became a Roman colony. From then onward it played a mere military role and its trading regressed, especially when the Sassanids occupied the lands between Tigris and Euphrates in the third century AD.

However, in 256/257 Palmyra’s King Odenathus (Septimus Edeinat) was held in high esteem by the Roman Emperor Valerian who appointed him Consul and Governor of the province Syria-Phoenicia that belonged to Palmyra since 194 AD. A few years later, Valerian was killed by the Sassanids (see: Sassanid reliefs tell a story oftheir own in Persia) and apparently Odenathus felt morally obligated to revenge the emperor’s death. He pursued the Sassanids to their capital Ctesiphon, situated on the Tigris River, on the opposite bank of Seleucia, but failed to take the city.

At this period of time Palmyra had reached its glory, much to the chagrin of Rome and Odenathus was murdered under obscure circumstances. His wife, Queen Zenobia took over and ruled in the name of her minor son Vaballath. Zenobia was a tough lady who caused quite a stir in history. Classical as well as Arabic sources describe her as handsome and intelligent, with a dark skin, pearly-white teeth and sharp black eyes. She is said to be more beautiful than Cleopatra, yet very chaste. Zenobia could ride a horse like a man, and on hunting or drinking parties she stood her man. She also was very learned, being fluent in Arabic, Greek, Aramean, and Egyptian and had a good knowledge of Latin. She was a sophisticated hostess and entertained philosophers and poets, among whom the famous Cassius Longinus. This Longinus wrote especially for her one of his masterpieces in which he integrated now lost parts of love poems by Sappho of Lesbos, who composed them in the 6th century BC.

Zenobia also was very ambitious and extended her territory to the west, occupying Bosra, and in 269-270 she even marched all the way to Egypt; on the way back she took the harbour of Antioch-on-the-Orontes. She even managed to annex a big part of Anatolia including Ancyra (Ankara) in her empire. As can be expected, the Romans were not grateful for her interference and in 272 Emperor Aurelian took Antioch-on-the-Orontes back, followed by Emesa (Homs) and finally also Palmyra. Zenobia tried to escape by fleeing across the Euphrates but she was captured and taken to Rome, together with her son, Vaballath.

Vaballath probably died on the way to Rome. In 274 Zenobia appears in golden chains during Aurelian’s triumphal march through Rome. Out of pity but also taken by her beauty and pride, he granted Zenobia her freedom and installed her in an elegant villa at Tibur (today’s Tivoli, Italy), where she lived under her Roman name of Iulia (or Julia) Aurelia Zenobia. She spent her days in wealth and became a prominent philosopher, hostess and Roman matron. She married a Roman governor and senator whose name is not known, giving him several daughters who all married into prominent Roman families. Some sources mention that Zenobia committed suicide after Aurelian’s defeat, but that is not very credible. A great number of her descendents have been traced to far into the 4th and 5th century.

In the meantime, Palmyra had not been entirely forgotten. Emperor Diocletian enlarged the city in order to install his Roman legions in all comfort and built a city wall to protect them against a possible invasion by the Sassanids from Persia. Later the Byzantines constructed several churches, but after the conquest by the Arabs Palmyra played only a marginal role.

It is still early and bone-chilling when I arrive at the site of Palmyra on this November day in 2009. The blistering wind chases freely through the colonnades and ruins but strangely enough the surrounding hills remain shrouded in a low foggy veil – an eerie scenery. For a moment I pause to get my bearings and it all seems too much to take in, so many columns, stones, arches, walls, streets, remains, etc. I am totally overwhelmed and have to kick myself to move on.

My visit starts at the eastern city gate, very appropriately called the Monumental Arch, consisting of three Roman arches of which the middle one is the largest and leads immediately unto the unpaved main street. We owe this arch to Septimus Severus (193-211 AD) who ingeniously built it with a twist to cover up the 30-degrees-angle between the Decumanus on one side of the arch and the Temple of Nebo on the other side. Nebo or Nabo was the Mesopotamian god of oracles, later assimilated with Apollo – hence the importance of this temple. The remains are still imposing with its columns along the temenos in reserved Doric style, while the columns of the temple itself are enhanced with Corinthian capitals.

With wide open eyes I set foot on the Great Colonnade Street or Decumanus with its wonderful 10-meter-high monolithic columns crowned with Corinthian capitals. Each column has an empty pedestal where rich or prominent gentiles could place their likeness against payment that is. Public Relations even in those days were an important tool!

Then I come across the Baths of Zenobia, a rather large bathing complex where the Frigidarium as well as the Tepidarium and the Caldarium are clearly recognizable. At the entrance there are four remarkable pink granite monolithic columns, which with their Corinthian capitals stand in pleasant contrast with the white-pinkish stones used for the construction of the Baths.

On the opposite side of the street, I find the remains of the theatre which looks too small for a city like Palmyra. Appearances are deceptive for originally this theatre from the 2nd century AD must have counted at least 30 tiers of seats but only nine have survived. The stage with the entire scaena however is still in excellent condition. The theatre has obviously been restored to be used for local festivals. The high stone wall around the orchestra indicates that it was also used for wild animals’ fights, a favourite sport of the Romans.

At an angle lies the Agora, also from the 2nd century, complete with its annexes. The market area is well preserved as are a number of the surrounding shops and buildings. It is always exciting to discover that beside the original columns, the 2,000 years-old walls of the building have survived, including their windows and doorframes.

Elegant typical Roman arches are still marking the crossroads along this Great Colonnade Street, and that’s how I reach the Tetrapylon, a group of four times four columns. Only one of the sixteen pink granite columns is original, imported all the way from Aswan in Egypt. The other columns are modern copies but clearly illustrate the key position of this Tetrapylon at the bend in the Great Colonnade Street. This 1200-meters-long street or Decumanus although very impressive, is however shorter than the main street at Apamea (see: Apamea, heritage of Alexander), which I found more impressive. It may seem strange that this street was never paved but the reason therefore is that the camels needed a comfortable passage through the city – an animal friendly consideration! With its porticoes and sidewalks this Decumanus was exceptionally wide and measured nothing less than 23 meters! This avenue alone would be worth the visit.

On this sidewalk, I discover a long row of connecting pipes belonging to an aqueduct. An awkward place, but not so when you realize that this aqueduct ran on top of the colonnade along the Decumanus. The image brings back memories of the grand aqueduct of Aspendos (see: Aspendos the unfaithful) in Turkey where I saw these elements for the first time.

And that is how I reach the columns carrying the inscriptions of Zenobia, a bilingual text in Greek and Palmyrean. On one columns one can read that it was dedicated by the rulers of Tadmor to their king and master Odenathus. The other column was dedicated to Septimia Bath-Zabbai (in Greek, Zenobia), their religious and saintly queen.

From afar the Citadel with the Arabian fortress probably built in the 13th century by the Mameluks controls the landscape. However, what we see here dates mainly from the early 17th century when Emir Fakhr-ud-Ding-ibn-Ma’ani occupied what is now Syria and Lebanon, and constructed a number of strongholds as a defence against the Ottomans. It is a constant backdrop in between the columns and streets of Palmyra, and a photogenic one for that matter.

Walking northwards, I stop at the Temple of Baal-Shamin, the god of rain and fertility. It was built around 150 AD and is very well preserved because the Byzantines converted it into a church. It is a cosy temple that somehow reminds me of the Temple of Nike high on the Acropolis in Athens, except that is has Corinthian columns and a window in the sidewall. The inside is very inviting with the antique naos in the back, now a semi-circular apse with slender columns. It is a lovely spot, in the shade of a young tree that grows within its sheltering walls.

Keeping the best for last is a visit to the magnificent Temple of Bel that I treated in a separate blog (see: The Temple of Bel at Palmyra – In Memoriam).

A visit is, of course, not complete without a stop at one of the many tower tombs with their underground Hypogea. I have never seen anything like it, but there always is a first time for everything. After the Valley of the Queens in Egypt, this is the largest and most impressive collection of tombs. Surprisingly the entire landscape between the city walls of Palmyra and the surrounding hills is dotted with square towers or remains thereof, containing burial sites underground as well as above ground. They generally can be dated to between the 9th century BC and the 2nd century AD. I am told there are as many as 150 tombs, a significant number. Yet I have no idea what to expect.

The tower-tomb of the Elahbel Family from 103 AD seems to be the most popular, and that is no wonder. I step inside a rather large rectangular room, deeper than it is wide and pretty high as well. The ceiling is still intact and is made of colourful starry caissons with in its centre four portraits of the founders set against a bright blue background. What a beauty! The long side walls are meant to receive the remains of the dead in one of the four stories high slots. In this way there was enough space for future generations, at least 300 family members. The vertical pillars separating the rows are fluted and crowned with a Corinthian capital. To the left of the entrance door is a staircase that leads to the upper floor, meaning that access to the superposed niches was easy enough.

Unfortunately I am running out of time and I have to skip the less impressive remains on the north-western side of Palmyra with the Temple of Allat, the Temple with the Emblems, the Grave Temple, the Camp of Diocletian and especially the Oval Forum – although I was curious whether it was as big as the one at Gerasa (Jerash) in Jordan; probably not since I haven’t seen any picture so far.

Yes, I am one of the lucky few to have seen this great and glorious city with my own eyes. The famous Temple of Bel (see: The Temple of Bel at Palmyra – In Memoriam) survived wars and conflicts for nearly two thousand years to shine in all its glory. This glory is gone now in 2015 as this great sanctuary and many other precious buildings have been blasted to dust. A part of the world’s history has been annihilated and obliterated. Our ancestors deserved a better fate.

My story and my pictures are a praise to Palmyra’s rich memory and to all those brave forefathers and fellow citizens who have lived there and lead the city to its greatness.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Palmyra]
[The picture of Odenathus comes from Wikipedia. The picture of Zenobia from Zenobia, empress of the East]

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