Each night at sunset, the “bride of the desert,” as she has been known for centuries, gets dressed for her wedding. In those last moments of daylight, she dons a robe of stunning colors—the buttery yellow of her limestone columns mixing with the blue shadows of her temples and the soft pinks of the desert floor. It is a scene that has inspired countless cultural suitors over the centuries, from Persians and Romans to Georgian Britons and Arab Nationalists. But could a new suitor materialize out of the current turmoil in Syria?
By Christian Sahner
First published in the Wall Street Journal
“She” is the ancient city of Palmyra—one of the most arrestingly beautiful archaeological sites in the Middle East. Her ruins, dating from the three centuries after Christ, lay strewn across a desert oasis 150 miles northeast of Damascus. A slice of Roman civility in this sun-scorched waste, Palmyra is home to majestic colonnades, public baths, stately mausoleums and temples galore.
First settled in the third millennium B.C., the city made her fortunes as a trading depot. Silk, Palmyra’s prized commodity, began its westward journey at the Indian port of Barbaricon, passing by boat to Seleucia and Babylon, before traveling by caravan to Palmyra, and then on to the Mediterranean coast.
Palmyra’s importance also depended on her strategic location between the two greatest powers of the ancient world: Rome and Persia. Recognizing this, the emperor Tiberius, who reigned from A.D. 14 to 37, transformed Palmyra into a client state and a buffer against his eastern rivals. Despite its formal submission to Rome, however, Palmyra retained a measure of autonomy. Its society was dominated by a small clique of ruling families, tribal bluebloods who met in a local senate. In 252, as Rome lost control over the region, one of these families established itself as a royal dynasty, led by its famous first king, Odenathus.
Syria’s eastern desert—a still sea of sand and rock partitioning two empires—gave rise to one of the richest, most eclectic civilizations of the ancient world. We can see this distinctive mixture most clearly in the city’s art and architecture, especially its greatest monument, the Sanctuary of Bel.
Constructed around the turn of the first millennium A.D., the Sanctuary of Bel still dominates Palmyra and the modern city of Tadmor that sits beside it. Bel was originally a Mesopotamian god of the sky, who merged with Zeus as Roman religion spread throughout the Levant. The plan of the sanctuary complex, now a dignified patchwork of ruins, is quintessentially Syrian, with a small central temple surrounded by an expansive precinct known as the temenos. Worshipers would enter this area through a massive gate, or propylaeum, before processing toward a sacrificial altar and basin.
Built along a north-south axis, Palmyra’s temple contains two niches, or adyta, that once housed the cult statues of Bel, Iarhibol and Aglibol, members of the city’s divine triad. The statues in the northern adyton were probably permanent, while those on the south side were portable, paraded around the city on major feast days.
Another striking feature of the temple is the delicate stone carving found above the two adyta. On the north side, there is a much-eroded zodiac motif, set within a detailed coffered ceiling. On the south side, a large acanthus medallion sprouts amid a field of stone rosettes, as delicate as on the day they were first chiseled. In the late 18th century, these designs found their way into the parlors of posh English homes, thanks to the sketches of the antiquarians James Dawkins and Robert Wood, who visited Palmyra in 1751.
The most vivid iconography at Palmyra is found just outside the main entrance of the temple, carved onto a group of fallen beams. One depicts a Palmyrene religious procession, with a camel carrying a curtained “tabernacle” atop its back, followed by a group of veiled women. It is a scene strikingly reminiscent of medieval Islamic paintings of the pilgrimage caravan—and here one realizes the surprising story of cultural continuity at Palmyra. Indeed, stepping back inside the temple, one senses that this place had a religious afterlife well after the Roman period—first as a Byzantine church, indicated by faint frescoes of saints decorating the temple walls, and later as a mosque, suggested by the rough-hewn prayer niche inside the southern adyton.
The Sanctuary of Bel would have been familiar turf to Palmyra’s most famous resident, Queen Zenobia, who ruled here between 267 and 274. She came to power as Rome was reeling from a string of military coups and provincial rebellions. No longer content to play the lapdog, Zenobia dispatched her troops throughout the Roman Near East, establishing a short-lived empire that stretched from Asia Minor to Egypt. It did not take long for Rome to notice. In 274, the emperor Aurelian retaliated, marching 40,000 of his men into the desert to subdue this “new Cleopatra.” Zenobia was captured and eventually brought to Rome in golden chains—a melancholy trophy from a failed revolt.
In modern times, Zenobia has become a patriotic symbol in Syria—an Arab nationalist avant la lettre who threw off the yoke of imperialism and tyranny. She appears on Syrian money and stars in a thinly veiled television miniseries about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Zenobia is even the subject of a glowing biography—or more accurately, a heavy-handed meditation on power politics—by Gen. Mustafa Tlass, the longtime Syrian defense minister and an architect of the Baathist state.
As with many historical symbols in modern Syria, there is a certain ambiguity in the regime’s promotion of Zenobia. Not far from where the queen once defended freedom stands the abandoned Tadmor Prison, where political prisoners used to languish in fetid terror, and where Syrian commandos famously massacred hundreds of inmates in 1980. One wonders what Zenobia would have made of this place, or of the crackdowns that have roiled Syria over the past few months. One suspects she would have found the violence altogether more “Roman” than “Palmyrene.”
—Mr. Sahner, a Rhodes Scholar, is a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University