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HomeArchaeologyDealing with the Palmyrenes - World Archaeology

Dealing with the Palmyrenes – World Archaeology


Exploring life and loss of life in a desert metropolis

What can a rare group of sculptures commemorating the useless reveal about historic life in Palmyra? Hundreds of historic inhabitants’ portraits as soon as graced lavish household tombs in cemeteries simply past the desert metropolis. Learning this artistry can reveal a lot about wealth, energy, household, and even the steadiness between native custom and out of doors influences in a significant buying and selling hub, as Eva Mortensen and Rubina Raja reveal.

A sculpture showing the head and torso of a woman with elaborate headwear, jewellery, and clothing
Hanging sculptures that depict hundreds of the inhabitants of Palmyra can reveal outstanding particulars about historic life within the metropolis. Reliefs akin to this had been used to seal the tip of ledges the place our bodies had been positioned in tombs. This high-quality instance is historically often called the ‘Fantastic thing about Palmyra’, and reveals an exceptionally well-dressed lady. Observe the traces of color that may nonetheless be made out on the reduction. [Image: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, I.N. 2795. Courtesy of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, photographer Anders Sune Berg]

You’ll nearly definitely have heard of Palmyra. This historic oasis and caravan metropolis lies in the course of the Syrian Desert, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Web site since 1980. Sadly, over the past decade a lot of the information from the location has involved heart-breaking loss, of each folks and archaeology, throughout the devastating civil battle in Syria. However even when you have by no means had an opportunity to go to Syria, you might effectively have turn out to be acquainted with a number of of the Palmyrenes of the previous. It is because hundreds of limestone portraits of Palmyra’s historic inhabitants are scattered throughout museums and collections everywhere in the world.

Since 2012, a workforce of researchers based mostly at Aarhus College, Denmark, has been learning these funerary portraits. Not solely do they permit us to place a face to hundreds of Palmyrenes, however additionally they reveal an ideal deal about their lives and tradition, which had been formed by sturdy traditions and really specific native circumstances. The Palmyrenes lived in an oasis surrounded by many miles of steppe desert, with hours of arduous journey mandatory to achieve another giant – and even small – metropolis, akin to Damascus to the west and Dura-Europos to the east. An extra issue including flavour to native life is that the Palmyrenes lived in what grew to become a border area between the Roman and the Parthian empires: two main powers who usually entered into direct competitors with one another. Regardless of mendacity on the fringes of those empires – or maybe exactly due to that – the Palmyrenes retained a particular id throughout greater than 300 years of Roman rule, whereas their metropolis flourished as a buying and selling hub between East and West. Unsurprisingly for an oasis metropolis, Palmyra was a significant participant within the camel caravan commerce, however it additionally had a hand in maritime change by way of the Euphrates, the Crimson Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

A map showing the location of Palmyra in relation to other sites including Petra, Babylon, and Jerusalem
Map of the area round Palmyra. [Image: Courtesy of Eivind Heldaas Seland; basemap copyright ESRI 2014.]

Inevitably, publicity to outdoors influences helped form such a proud buying and selling metropolis, however the Palmyrenes additionally remained true to their very own native customs and specific methods of life. Even so, specializing in the primary three centuries AD reveals that the Palmyrene respect for custom was balanced by a expertise for agility. Lengthy-term local weather change, financial fluctuations, and new ruling empires, in addition to unexpected crises akin to epidemics or political and navy upheavals, required a capability to adapt with the intention to keep on high of enterprise. On the identical time, the town’s distance from different city centres required a willingness to make use of and reuse sure assets in inventive methods.

City Palmyra

The folks of Palmyra lived in a metropolis that grew to become embellished with splendid monuments, together with magnificent temple complexes, broad colonnaded avenues, a big theatre, bathtub complexes, an agora, and a triumphal arch. Simply past the city space, giant plots had been put aside as burial locations, with 4 in depth necropolises forming the ultimate resting place for historic Palmyrenes. As these cemeteries lay alongside the primary entry routes to the town, their tombs could be the very first thing that locals and foreigners alike had been confronted with when approaching the settlement.

A black-and-white aerial photograph of Palmyra
An aerial {photograph} of Palmyra taken within the Twenties. The western necropolis, additionally referred to as the Valley of the Tombs, might be seen on the high of the picture. Within the foreground, the ruins of a part of city Palmyra and its colonnaded streets are seen. [Image: © Palmyra Portrait Project.]

Throughout its heyday, caravans would have been a daily sight in Palmyra – or extra doubtless simply outdoors its city space. There, we will think about a miasma of fragrance, spices, wine, and salted fish, blended with the scent of damp camels and donkeys – together with their faeces – wafting over the caravan station. Donkeys and camels would have arrived and departed ceaselessly, carrying slaves, prostitutes, wool, several types of dry items akin to nuts and dried fish, or alabaster jars and goat skins full of perfumed oil and olive oil. The main lights of this enterprising commerce had been the socialite Palmyrene male inhabitants, who had been additionally precisely the sort of high-status people portrayed within the historic funerary sculptures.

It was throughout the first three centuries AD that city Palmyra took on its acquainted type, because the affluent settlement grew quickly. The town had been annexed by the Roman Republic within the 60s BC, after Pompey the Nice swept by means of the area together with his military. Palmyra was destined to stay beneath Roman management for a lot of the subsequent seven centuries, till the Arab invasion in AD 634 introduced a brand new political regime. The lengthy years of Roman rule didn’t move unbroken, although, as Palmyra rebelled towards its overlords within the late third century and succeeded – for a short time – in casting them off. For a couple of years, the town ran its personal affairs, however when the reckoning got here it value Palmyra every part.

A map showing the layout of Palmyra
A map displaying Palmyra – together with the good Sanctuary of Bel – and the cemeteries that developed simply past the city space. [IMAGE: Courtesy of K Schnädelbach]

Zenobia, a Palmyrene ruler, led the insurrection towards Rome. The origins of this affair lie within the assassination of her husband, Odaenath, in AD 267 or 268, whereas he was campaigning towards the Sassanians. Odaenath had been an vital Roman ally and profitable navy chief, however when Zenobia took energy to rule on behalf of their son, Vallabath, who had not but come of age, she established an impartial Palmyrene Empire. Underneath Zenobia, Palmyra’s territory expanded dramatically and in the end included components of Asia Minor and Egypt. This positioned Palmyra accountable for infrastructure that was key to Rome’s regional pursuits, setting the town on a collision course with its former rulers. In the long run, Zenobia’s disruption of the geopolitical scenario lasted for just some years, with the Roman emperor Aurelian besieging Palmyra and capturing Zenobia in AD 272. The Palmyrenes tried a second rebellion in AD 273, however it was swiftly suppressed, and this time the town was sacked, and plenty of members of its rebellious forces had been executed. Though the town nonetheless existed within the aftermath, it misplaced each its political clout and affect over regional commerce networks. The town retracted immensely, in all probability as a result of its inhabitants dwindled after many erstwhile inhabitants turned to a life within the rural hinterland of Palmyra.

Though Palmyra in the end grew to become a a lot smaller settlement, it was by no means actually forgotten. Each historic Palmyra and its limestone sculptural reliefs have acquired consideration from archaeologists and artwork historians for over a century. However even earlier than the primary excavations commenced throughout the early twentieth century, it was a widely known web site. Written sources, largely courting from late antiquity onwards, advised the story of this oasis metropolis and its insurgent queen, drawing in western travellers on Seventeenth-, 18th-, and Nineteenth-century grand excursions. In flip, the romantic ruins grew to become a focus for literature, music, and the painted arts. It was additionally within the late Nineteenth century that Palmyrene reduction sculptures started being shipped abroad, destined for museums and personal collections. Among the many former, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and the Musée du Louvre in Paris had been the primary European museums to amass giant collections of Palmyrene funerary portrait sculptures.

A relief sculpture depicting the head and torso of a man, with a camel behind him.
A tomb reduction displaying a person in entrance of a camel – proven right here as {a photograph} on a sheet from the Ingholt Archive, PS 1016. The reduction dates to across the center of the 2nd century AD. [IMAGE: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, I.N. 2833. Palmyra Portrait Project; Ingholt Archive at Ny Carlsberg Glyptote]

A key second for his or her research got here within the Twenties and ’30s, when the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt investigated quite a few tomb complexes outdoors Palmyra. He was working in collaboration with a French workforce, beneath a concession granted by means of the French Mandate in Syria, and was impressed to undertake the primary complete research of the iconography and chronology of the portrait reliefs. This was printed in Danish as his greater doctoral dissertation in 1928. So it was that upper-class Palmyrenes got here to play an vital function once more – this time within the research of Roman-period portraiture.

Over the past decade, round 4,000 portraits of upper-class Palmyrenes have been extensively studied by the Palmyra Portrait Undertaking, based mostly at Aarhus College. It’s completely distinctive to have such a big surviving corpus of sculptural materials from a single location within the historic world. These portraits had been created over a interval of round 300 years, and all of them had been commissioned to commemorate the useless. A database with pictures and descriptions of each single portrait has been compiled and can quickly be printed. This corpus brings us nose to nose with hundreds of rich Palmyrenes, whereas the analysis it generated has additionally offered contemporary insights into financial fluctuations, style traits, manufacturing patterns, and shifting inhabitants sizes, to say just some of the analysis avenues which were explored thus far.


Additional studying
R Raja, Y-B Yon, and J Steding (2021) Excavating Palmyra. Harald Ingholt’s Excavation Diaries: atranscript, translation, and commentary, Research in Palmyrene Archaeology and Historical past 4. Turnhout: Brepols.
R Raja and J Steding (eds.) (2021) Manufacturing Financial system in Larger Roman Syria: commerce networks and manufacturing processes, Research in Palmyrene Archaeology and Historical past 2. Turnhout: Brepols.
R Raja, O Bobou, and I Romanowska (2021) ‘300 years of Palmyrene historical past. Unlocking archaeological knowledge for learning previous societal transformations’, PLoS ONE 16.11: e0256081. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0256081.


That is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 111. Learn on within the journal (Click on right here to subscribe) or on our new web site, The Previous, which affords the entire journal’s content material digitally. At The Previous it is possible for you to to learn every article in full in addition to the content material of our different magazines, Present ArchaeologyMinerva, and Army Historical past Issues

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