My first view of
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! Palmyra
For the next one hundred years, business boomed thanks to
trading with Persia, India, and China
and even with the Parthians who for many years were the enemies of . The well-travelled
Emperor Hadrian inevitably visited Rome 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 Palmyra Euphrates in the
third century AD.
However, in 256/257
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 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 Palmyra Ctesiphon, situated on the Tigris
River, on the opposite bank of ,
but failed to take the city. Seleucia
At this period of time
had reached its glory, much to the chagrin of 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. Rome
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
on the way back she took the .
She even managed to annex a big part of Anatolia including Ancyra ( harbour
of Antioch )
in her empire. As can be expected, the Romans were not grateful for her
interference and in 272 Emperor Aurelian
took Ankara Antioch back, followed
and finally also .
Zenobia tried to escape by fleeing
across the Euphrates but she was captured and taken to Palmyra , together with her son, Vaballath. Rome
Vaballath probably died on the way to
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 Rome ), 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. Tivoli, Italy
In the meantime,
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 Palmyra . Later
the Byzantines constructed several churches, but after the conquest by the
Arabs Persia played only a marginal role. Palmyra
It is still early and bone-chilling when I arrive at the site of
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. Palmyra
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
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. Palmyra
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 .
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 Egypt 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
where I saw these elements for the first time. Turkey
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
and a photogenic one for that matter. Palmyra
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
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. Athens
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
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. Palmyra
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
(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. Temple of Bel
My story and my pictures are a praise to
rich memory and to all those brave forefathers and fellow citizens who have
lived there and lead the city to its greatness. Palmyra