Palmyra

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Ruins of Palmyra, Syria
Ruins of Palmyra, Syria / Paul Stocker, / CC BY 2.0
One of the richest and most sophisticated cities of antiquity was Palmyra. Today one can only imagine what impression this beautiful city left on caravans after long walk through the desert.

Unfortunately the events in 2015 show that at least a part of humankind has managed to go backwards in its development by many millenia. Palmyra has been invaded by ISIS and the unique cultural heritage was deliberately eliminated. These are dark times in this part of the world.

History

Beginnings

Palmyra is very old settlement which developed in oasis in the central part of Syrian Desert. No one can tell when it was established – but first time in written sources it was mentioned sometimes around 1800 BC on clay tablets found in another ancient city – Mari.

Oldest known inhabitants of the city were Aramaic people and the original name of city – Tadmor – in Aramaic means "undefeatable town". Current name – Palmyra – might originate from Greek language, but its origin is unclear.

Palmyra is mentioned also in Bible and Talmud – according to Bible it was built by King Solomon.

Ruins of Palmyra from above, Syria
Ruins of Palmyra from above / James Gordon, / CC BY 2.0

Free Hellenic city

Conquest by Alexander the Great (around 330 BC) changed the course of history in Levant. Soon his empire was divided and Palmyra became an independent city in Seleucid Empire – Hellenistic successor of Alexander’s empire.

In this time – the 4th – 3rd century BC – Palmyra was established caravan city of great importance, increasingly rich and sophisticated.

Roman Arabia

By the 1st century BC Palmyra was one of main links in the trade between Persia and Roman Empire. Palmyra controlled silk trade with India, city had its own fleet in Mediterranean and was one of the richest cities in the ancient world.

In this time Palmyra was seen as a part of Roman world, albeit economically independent.

Formally this prosperous city was included in Roman Empire, province of Arabia by Emperor Trajan (second half of the 1st century AD). Palmyra became more and more influential and in 129 AD it was declared to be a free city by emperor Hadrian. It was the most important caravan city in Roman Empire.

By this time Palmyra developed distinct style in architecture and art by fusion of local, Greek, Roman and Persian influence. City had active social life and its own intellectuals and higher society.

Collonade and triumphal arch, Palmyra
Collonade and triumphal arch / american_rugbier, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Palmyrene Empire

In the second half of the 3rd century ruler of Palmyra Odaenathus started a military campaigns in order to regain the control of trade routes (Persians took the ports in Mesopotamia). These campaigns initially were supported by Romans as this helped to spread the influende of ROman Empire.

Odaenathus managed to pusch back Persians, forces of Palmyra twice reached Ctesiphon – capital of Persia.

When Odaenathus was assassinated, throne was taken by his second wife – Septimia Zenobia.

Palmyra, necropolis in the background
Palmyra, necropolis in the background / ian.plumb, / CC BY 2.0

Zenobia was one of the most outstanding personalities in the history of ancient world. She was gorgeous, well educated and righteous. Zenobia knew many languages, including ancient Egyptian language, she had deep interest in Egyptian culture and admired it.

The young ryler of Palmyra soon became an empress – armies of Palmyra managed to take Egypt (269 AD), part of Minor Asia and almost whole Levant and part of Mesopotamia. This was a direct attack on Roman Empire.

Return of Roman Empire

Empire responded with a full force – and soon after, in 274 AD Palmyra was taken by Roman legions and walls of the city were torn down.

Zenobia was captured and brought to Rome. According to some legends she became a well known socialite in Rome after this.

Golden age of Plamyra was over – but city successfully lived on for centuries to come.

Romans in the times of Diocletian (284 – 305) built a lot – city was extended, here were housed many legions and new city walls were built – Palmyra was preparing for standoff with Sassanid Empire. In Byzantine times some churches were built here but most of the city in this period was in ruins.

Medieval Palmyra Castle as seen through collonade
Medieval Palmyra Castle as seen through collonade / Hendrik Dacquin, / CC BY 2.0

Arabs

In 634 AD the city was captured. This was not done by the old rival – Sassanid Empire. A new force rised in Near East: tribes of Arabs united for the first time and were successful in fights both against the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. Palmyra was taken by one of the most successful Arab warriors – Khalid ibn al-Walid, a companion of prophet Muhammad.

Happily, city was left intact. It continued to be an important trade city. In 1401 it was captured by Timur – but, again, the decline was short and later, in the 15th century, it again was a splendid, prosperous trade city.

Abandonment

In the times of Osmanic Empire, after the 16th century Palmyra was almost fully abandoned. Since then in its ruins dwelled some families, but last people were dislodged from here in 1929.

Ruins of city were rediscovered by travellers in the 17th and 18th century. These romantic remnants of once powerful city in the middle of desert to a large extent influenced the architecture and art in Europe. It was one of key stymulus in the development of Neo-Classical architecture and innovations of European urban planning.

Description

Location

Palmyra was built in oasis, in the middle of desert. From all sides this splendid city was surrounded by barren, dry deserts and mountains. At first this might seem to be impossible location for one of the most sophisticated cities of antiquity, but one should look not locally but regionally: Palmyra happened to be in the middle of regional trade routes including the legendary Silk Road.

Significant structures

Roman Theater in Palmyra
Roman Theater in Palmyra / Varun Shiv Kapur, / CC BY 2.0
  • Temple of Ba’al was located in the east of city. This was the most impressive structure in the city, 205 by 210 m large. Temple was one of the most important religious structures in the Middle East in the first centuries CE. Originally it was built as Hellenistic temple but just a little remain of the original building. In the 1st century AD there was built new central shrine and a little later – other parts. Temple was deliberately eliminated by ISIS in summer 2015.
  • Great Collonade of Palmyra might be the most recognisable landmark of Palmyra. It was the main, representative street of the city which was built in the 2nd – 3rd century AD. Both sides of the street in approximately 1 100 m long segment are adorned with numerous columns. Collonade starts with opulent arch, which was built in the early 3rd century AD. Several more streets in Palmyra have been adorned with columns.
  • Roman Theater is enormous structure which was built in the beginning of the 1st century AD. It is located at the Great Collonade.
  • Senate, Tariff Court and some more administrative buildings have been preserved neat the theater. Tariff Court most likely was the place where caravans paid a tax to the city. City had also agora (central place) and triclinium – banquet room.
  • Camp of Diocletian is large complex of buildings some 600 m north-east from the theater. It was built in the late 3rd century AD, when, after the suppression of Palmyrene Empire, in the city was housed Roman legion.
  • Temple of Allāt is located at the western end of Collonade. It was built in the 2nd century AD and is devoted to Allāt – once important Arabian goddess.
  • Funerary towers in Valley of Tombs, Palmyra
    Funerary towers in Valley of Tombs / yeowatzup, / CC BY 2.0
    Palmyra Castle (Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle) was built on the top of hill some 1.7 km north-west from Roman Theatre and whole city more than 100 m below can be overseen from it. This is medieval castle which was built in the 13th century by Mamluks.
  • Valley of Tombs is located to the west from the city. This is enormous cemetery with numerous beautiful monuments of art and architecture. Some tombs are below the ground, in many have been preserved rich decorations. Oldest funerary structures here are the funerary towers – multistorey structures built by the richest families of Palmyra. Best known is Tower of Elahbel.

Palmyra has many more structures – remnants of Roman aqueduct, ruins of four Christian churches, numerous apartment buildings.

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Palmyra 34.551312, 38.268173 Palmyra
Coordinates: 34.5513 N 38.2682 E
Categories: Ancient cities and towns, Abandoned cities and towns
Values: Visual, Archaeology, Architecture, History
Rating: (4.5 / 5)
Address: Asia, Syria, Homs governorate, Syrian desert
Name in Arabic: تدمر‎
Alternate names: Tadmor (ancient and also Arabic name)
UNESCO World Heritage status: "Site of Palmyra", 1980, No.23
Founded: ˜ 1800 BC
Abandoned: the 16th century (last persons – 1929)

Landmarks of Syria

Shmemis Castle ruins on the top of extinct volcano, Syria
Shmemis Castle ruins on the top of extinct volcano / Bertramz, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The sands in Syria most likely hide many secrets which one day will tell how the civilization started on Earth. Throughout many millenia in this country appeared and disappeared many cities, some persist up to this day, some are in ruins but many are covered with sand. Here are found some of the oldest fortifications, palaces, castles and some of the oldest Christian churches.

Ancient cities and towns

Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan, Mexico
Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan, Mexico / Dennis Jarvis, / CC BY-SA 2.0

It turns out that urban planning is very old profession. The urban fabric of ancient settlements – their structure and evolution gives a lot of food for thoughts about the nature of humans and civilization.

Wondermondo includes in the category of ancient cities and towns those settlements which have developed as urban areas at least 1500 years ago – around 500 AD.

Recommended books

Palmyra: An Irreplaceable Treasure


Located northeast of Damascus, in an oasis surrounded by palms and two mountain ranges, the ancient city of Palmyra has the aura of myth. According to the Bible, the city was built by Solomon. Regardless of its actual origins, it was an influential city, serving for centuries as a caravan stop for those crossing the Syrian Desert. It became a Roman province under Tiberius and served as the most powerful commercial center in the Middle East between the first and the third centuries CE.

Palmyra


One of the great tragedies of the twenty-first century has been the rise of religious intolerance and the disrespect of other faiths that has been associated with it. Around the world, bias, bigotry, religious venom, and violence have led to the wanton destruction of sacred shrines across the planet. Nowhere has this intolerance been as virulent as in the Middle East, which is the heart and soul of the three great Western religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

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