Advice to the visitor…
Get up before dawn. Leave your hotel and wander out into the ruins…
It soon becomes quite a tricky business, walking over the uneven ground dotted with thistles; one stumbles over the pebbles with only the odd piece of marble paving to reflect the moonlight. Great shadows rise up suddenly, scattered blocks of stone take on fantastic shapes. Feeling the rough stone one makes out the sharp edge of a cornice or the curve of an acanthusleaf.
Walk towards the great stone barrier, still shrouded in darkness but appearing to stretch in a straight line right across the horizon from east to west… Hundreds of columns continue the night-watch that has already lasted a thousand years. As one nears the first group the sky lightens, turns palest green, then pink, bringing out the details, the almost infinite perspective of the porticos, revealing the vastness of the plain, silent and littered with debris, like a battlefield An icy breeze blows for a moment over Palmyra.
Before we have walked a third of the way down the main colonnade street we suddenly see an ancient fortress, lit up by a beam of red sunlight, on the hillside straight ahead of us. Then everything speeds up. The tops of numberless columns are touched suddenly with fire. The wide spreading palm-leaf capitals light up. The pillars become for an instant flaring torches. The light hovers the wide ledges of the consoles half-way up the columns, before bathing the whole dead city in sunshine… With a minute the dogs are barking and people are about. From all directions they come navies and masons, crane-drivers and architects, alone or in small groups, on foot, by cart or in a swaying lorry, to coverage on the diggings that under way down there to the west. Palmyra is awake. Palmyra is being reborn.
The ruins of Palmyra are impressive both by extent and by their remarkable state of preservation. The ancient Arab and Syrian city is gradually being restored in all its grandeur. To be sure vast areas still await excavation, and there are no doubt many riches left to delight the archaeologist; but expeditions of experts of every nationality are at work all the time, making the stones speak again, and undertaking skilful and intelligent restoration, a contribution to the vast and splendid scheme of the Syrian Department of Antiquities to completely excavate the city.
The reddish color of the limestone of the upper parts of the colonnades and buildings exposed to oxidization from the air over the centuries shoes the depth of the sand (three or four meters sometimes) that had to be excavated. Some discoveries are relatively recent - the agora, the theatre, the baths, the Temple of Nabo amongst others - while the restoration of the great Temple of Bel, one of the finest monuments in all the East, dates back to 1930. This latter operation involved a bold solution that no one would now disagree with. The inhabitants of Palmyra has used the Temple as the center of their village and a whole new settlement had to be built for them outside the walls of the old city. Thirty thousand Syrians now live in this town and the Temple, freed now of all later accretion, is the wonder and delight of experts and tourists alike.
Palmyra is one of those exceptional places where art and history have fused to produce a synthesis that will dazzle succeeding generations. It needs little commentary to understand its development; its general layout cab be easily grasped by strolling around or climbing one of the nearby hills.
Palmyra is separated by some one hundred and fifty kilometers of steppe from the lush valley of the Orontes, to the west. There are more than tow hundred kilometers of desert to cross before you reach the fertile banks of the Euphrates, to the east. To both north and south there is nothing but sand and stone… But here at Palmyra a last fold of the Anti-Lebanon forms a kind of basin on the edge of which a spring rises out of a long underground channel whose depth has never been measured (near the Palmyra Cham Palace to the right of the road coming in from Homs). This spring is called Afqa (or Ephka) in inscriptions, an Aramaic word meaning "way out". Its clear blue, slightly sulphurous waters are said to have medicinal properties; they have fed an oasis here with olives and date-palms and cotton and cereals. For generations this oasis was known as Tadmor.
This remarkable site in the center of the Syrian desert became a necessary stopping-place for caravans taking the short route from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, as well as for those taking the silk Route and crossing the Tigris near Seleucis in Babylon. Tadmor is mentioned on tablets in Cappadocia dating from the 19th century B.C. From the end of the second millennium Aramaic was the language spoken there, this language persisted until the Byzantine period. Its distinctive written script was respected; later on there were few Greek inscriptions, still fewer Latin ones; Arabic script was very much influenced by Palmyrene. The population consisted, from very early times, half of people of Aramean origin and half of Arab nomads of Nabatean extraction.
But it was from the 1st century B.C., when the Romans invaded Syria, that Tadmor (city of dates), now Palmyra (city of palm-trees), took full advantage of her geographical isolation, which gave her some protection against military coups, and her economic opportunity as a staging post between the Orient and the Mediterranean world. Both ships and pack-camels are to be found sculpted on the facades of her buildings.
For four hundred years the city enjoyed uninterrupted prosperity.
At the center of the caravan traffic, Palmyra levied heavy taxes on goods in transit. A desert fortress, she hired out her famous camel troops to the Roman armies. Jealous of her independence she negotiated skillfully with her powerful neighbors, the Romans and the Persians whose expansionist policies were not the least of their faults.
In 129 the Emperor Hadrian visited the city. Breaking with his predecessors’ dreams of hegemony he abandoned the Euphrates line and recognized Palmyra as a "Free City", only too pleased to put a buffer-state between the Persians and his Legions. In recognition the city adopted the name of Adriana Palmyra for a time. The main temples were built or enlarged during this period; the agora was made; the residential quarters grew up on both sides of the great colonnaded central avenues.
At the end of the first century, under the Emperor Severus, of African and Syrian origins, Palmyra enjoyed new favors. Moreover, her ancient rival Petra (in present-day Jordan) had disappeared from the scene. In 217 the Emperor Caracalla proclaimed Palmyra a "Roman colony" - a popular move amongst the merchants of the city for it freed them from taxes. Spices, perfumes, ivory and silks from the East, glassware statues, and objects d’art from Phoenicia, all passed through Palmyra. The traffic was organized by the Palmyrians; some of them even owned ships sailing the Indian Ocean.
Luxury came to Palmyra. Contemporary sculpture depict a wealthy bourgeoisie, believed and splendidly dressed. Magistrates, merchants, citizens whom the city wished to honor, had their statues erected, inscribed, on consoles along the innumerable columns that lined the streets. The grand colonnade was extended eastwards and, at the same time another was built, at an angle to it, leading to the Temple of Bel. In the valley of the Tombs, to the east of the city, the "houses of the dead", veritable underground palaces, were decorated with particularly fine sculpture and frescoes.
The whole city reflected activity and great prosperity, but this in no way hampered cultural development nor did it restrict innovation in thought. Alongside the traditional worship of Bel, a kind of Babylonian equivalent of Zeus, and his two acolytes Rarhibôl (the sun) and Aglibôl (the moon), and that of Baalshamain, "Master of the Heavens", a tendency to monotheism very soon appeared - illustrated by dedications "to the one, single, merciful god", "to him whose name is ever blessed", etc. Christianity was already prevalent before the year 300, since a Palmyrene bishop played a leading role at the Nicene Council.
During the 3rd century the wars in which Rome was involved caused a slacking of trade between East and West. Persia once more became a major threat to the Roman world. In 260 the Emperor Valerian himself was captured by the Sassanid King, Shahpur I. The confrontation of these two giants, and Rome’s need to call and more on the aid of her former subject peoples caused the leaders of Palmyra to come to the logical conclusion that the hour had perhaps come to liberate the whole of the Middle East from foreign domination, whether Roman or Persian. But ways had to be found to do this..
Impelled by an influential Arab family, Palmyra passed, in two or three stages, from being a merchant republic governed by a senate, to being a kingdom under a certain Odenathus the Younger who awarded himself the original title of "King of Kings".
To be sure, his brilliant military actions had earned him the gratitude of Rome: the Palmyrene armies had twice defeated the Persian armies and, in 267, the Senate of Rome named him the "Corrector of the East" in return. The authority of Oriental Palmyra seemed destined to extend over a vast territory.
But at the end of 267, Odenathus and his, the heir to the throne, were assassinated in mysterious circumstances. Rumor had is that Zenobia, the king’s second wife and mother of a very young son, was in some way involved in the crime. In fact, the queen immediately revealed herself to be an exceptionally able monarch. She was boundlessly ambitious for herself, for her son and for her people. Within six years she had affected the whole life of Palmyra. Her dreams of unattainable glory and greatness had brought ill fortune, ruin and death to the flourishing city.
In 270, the Queen, who claimed to be descended from Cleopatra, took possession of the whole of Syria, conquered Lower Egypt and sent her armies across Asia Minor as far as the Bosphorus.
In open defiance of Rome, Zenobia and her son took the title "August", and had coinage struck in the name, thus setting themselves up as rival to Aurelian who was at that time having difficulties on the German borders of the Empire.
They had acted rashly and too hastily. The Emperor Aurelian disengaged from the northern front, raised a new army, crossed Anatolia, hustled the Palmyrians out of their positions at Antioch and Emesa (Homs) and made straight for Palmyra which fell after a few weeks siege. Zenobia managed to escape and fled east, mounted on a dromedary, hoping for help from the Sassanids. The Romans, fear lending them wings, recaptured her as she was crossing the Euphrates (in the autumn of 272). Zenobia was taken prisoner to Rome where she was forced to ride in Aurelian’s "Triumph" in 274. She died soon afterwards, in comfortable exile at Tibur (Tivoli), but not before she had learned that a last revolt by her subjects against their Roman rulers had been bloody put down, and that her splendid wealthy city had been pillaged and was due to be destroyed (273).
Palmyra was reduced from being a capital to a mere Syrian frontier stronghold. New walls were built, smaller than those in Zenobia’s time, and under Diocletian (293-303), the Romans established a military camp to the west of the city, apparently on the site of the palace of Odenathus and Zenobia, which is said to have been demolished and of which archaeologists have so far discovered no trace.
Palmyra never recovered her position. Aleppo, during the Byzantine period, and then Damascus, after 634, from the beginning of the Islamic period, became, in their respective ways, equally important as centers of commerce and ideas. The temples of Palmyra were converted first into churches then into mosques. In the 12th century the walls around the shrine of Bel itself were adapted for use as a fortress. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Emir Fakhr ad-Din was still using Palmyra as a place which to exercise his police. However he was anxious to have greater security than that offered by the ruined city, so he had a castle built on the hillside overlooking it. Down below, the ruins soon sheltered only a few peasants.
In 1751 Palmyra was visited by two English travelers, in the course of a long and difficult journey around the Orient. They brought back books of sketches which astounded the contemporary artistic and scientific world. The elegant and mysterious Palmyrene script was deciphered soon afterwards. However, it was not really until our own time, eighteenth centuries after the dramatic end of the Arab Queens Zenobia’s reign, that Palmyra finally re-emerged from oblivion.
Palmyra, now Tadmor once again, a peaceful town, lives from the produce of its gardens and palm-roves, still watered Afqa spring. The nomads are virtually extinct. No more do riches come by slow caravan from the East. But curiously the surrounding desert still continues to be an economic factor, since enormous deposits of phosphates have been found there. The ancient caravan trail is now a road along which lies the long green and yellow ribbon of an oil pipe line.
Finally, and not the last of the signs of rebirth, are the visitors who come, sometimes from the ends of the earth, alone or in small groups, simply to have the pleasure of watching the sunrise over some magnificent ruins - silent witnesses to the will of a queen possessed by a mad dream of liberty and glory for her city.
It takes a long while to see all round Palmyra-Tadmor - a whole day is necessary - and it is quite an exhausting business because the site itself is so large: more than six square kilometers. There is a surfaced road, however, between the two furthest points, the Valley of the Tombs and the Museum, which also passes quite close to the great Temple of Bel. There is a small entrance charge at the row latter buildings and one is taken around them by a guide,. Photography is permitted. The weekly closing day is Tuesday. One is free to walk about over all the rest of the site, by day or by night. The services of one of the two or three official guides may be found useful at first, especially in exploring the vaults in the Valley of Dead.
The site divides naturally into four distinct areas which can be best visited perhaps in the following order. In the very early morning, the Great Colonnade and the monuments along its length; at the end of the morning, the museum; at the beginning of the afternoon, since the cella is located to the west, the great Temple of Bel; at the end of the afternoon, the tombs and, if you still have the energy, the Arab Castle; the view over Palmyra from the high ground to the east is very fine at sunset.
Four tall columns that have been re-erected beside the modern road show the alignment of the roadway that used to link the Temple of Bel with a great porticoed avenue. They are splendid in their isolation and from a magnificent foreground to the Monumental Arch which commands the main perspective.
This well-proportioned arch is made up of one central semi-circular opening, flanked by two smaller ones. It stands at a point where the central avenue makes a bend of thirty degrees. But its triangular base cleverly ensure that the perspective remains unbroken no matter from which side it is approached.
The Great Colonnade stretched for more than a thousand meters. Its porticos have been re-erected over about a third distance. The roadway, 11 meters wide, is bordered by raised roadway, 6 meters wide, which used to be covered. The diameter of the columns, 0.95 meter, is one tenth of their height, 9.5 meters.
Pleasantly harmonious in style the columns are all crowned by wide Corinthian capitals.
The Moulded consoles, half-way up the shafts of the columns, supported statues of public figures; only one of these survives and it has been put back in place. There are also some inscriptions commemorating the citizens who contributed to the costs if building the avenue itself. On both sides there were warehouses and the principal public building of the city.
On the right-hand side (going towards the center of the city) four granite columns - unusual in the limestone region - indicate the site of Baths dating from the later Diocletian period. The other public buildings are all on the left of the central colonnaded avenue. The first one we come to after the monumental arch is a nymphaeum (a sacred fountain). Then, immediately past the arch, there is the base of a temple, excavated in 1963-65; this excavation yielded many objects, frescoes, bas-relieves and twenty-five texts hitherto unknown. The temple was dedicated to Nabô (variously Nebô, Nebû), a Babylonian divinity who enjoyed great popularity in Syria. "A good and generous god", Nebô directed the destinies of morals and was also the scribe of the gods. Identified later with Hermes and Apollo, he was, like the latter, the god of oracles and wisdom.
Further on along the Great Colonnade is the outside wall of the theatre. Two perfect arches outlined against the sky from an entrance to the semi-circular road surround the hemicycle of the theatre itself. From the highest row of seats inside there is a fine view down over the orchestra pit, the stage and the wall behind which looks like the facades of a palace. Everything seems ready for a performance…
From the left-hand side of the theatre a short street, lined with the remains of shops and those of a more important building, the Senate House, leads to the agora, a great open space, almost a perfect square (84 by 71m), surrounded by porticos. Eleven passageways led into it, making it easy for crowds to gather here on market days or for public meetings. In the north-east corner stood the tribune from which speeches were made. There were public fountains at each end of the north portico. Statues of Septimus Severus and his (Syrian) family adorned the central gateway of the east portico. The laudatory inscriptions that went with statues, now lost, that stood on the consoles, have been either left where they were or laid out on the ground in the agora; they show that the north portico was for officials, the west for the military, the east for senators and the south for leaders of caravans.
Near the west portico is the entrance to the official banqueting hall with its stone benches ranged round the walls on three sides. On the other wall there is a "pyrea" or altar at which incense was burned. As they entered the official guests would hand in a "tessera", a sort of token made of terracotta, usually depicting the god Bel; several of these tesserae are displayed in the Museum.
We rejoin the Great Colonnade near a group of eight columns which look extremely slender by contrast with a colossal monument that stands at the intersection of the two main axes of the city. Two of these columns used to carry statues of King Odenathus and Queen Zenobia. The monument, made up of four groups of four columns at the corners of a platform 18 meters square, is known as the tetrapylon. A statue used to stand in the center of each of the pedestals. Only one of the great granite pylons is old.
The great porticoed avenue continues beyond the tetrapylon, but there are fewer and fewer columns still standing, or restored, the nearer we get to the portico frontal of a charming small temple built right in the center of the roadway. This funerary temple, built during the 3rd century outside the city as it was in Palmyrene times, was included within the new city wall built by Diocletian, whose entrenched camp is not far away on the left. The gravestones from several tombs nearby were reused in the construction of the ramparts, with their bastion 37 meters.
As has been already mentioned, Diocletian’s camp is being intensively excavated at the moment, one of the aims being to discover whether the Romans did in fact build upon the foundation of Zenobia’s palace.
The roads at right-angles to the Great Colonnade lead to quarters that have not yet been extensively excavated. The only buildings of any importance, in the northern sector two Byzantine churches and specially, the temple of Baalshamain, the "Master of the Heavens". The cella of this temple remains almost intact, with the six columns of the facade (pronaos), its pilastered side-walls and its open forecourt in front giving onto a main road that leads back to the Great Colonnade not far from the tetrapylon.
A visit to the Archaeological Museum which has been installed in a building specially built for it, will answer most of the questions the visitor has been asking himself as he walked around the ancient city. The items on display have been carefully chosen in order to cover every aspect of Palmyrene civilization throughout the ages; they are many but there is little repetition or duplication. There are informative labels in Arabic and French. Points of particular interest ate illustrated by large charts.
There is thus little point in going into detail about the collections in this guide. A few landmarks will be sufficient.
The entrance hall is devoted to prehistory - depicted in a series of highly realistic dioramas.
The room to the right of the entrance shows the evolutions of the Palmyrene script.
In the next room there are religious sculptures. One of the most beautiful is a carved lintel on which the god Baalshamin, "God of the Heavens", is depicted as an eagle with outstretched wings and smaller eagles by its side, each with an olive branch in its beak; also beside it are figures of the gods of the sun and moon with light beaming from their heads.
There is also a great model of the Temple of Bel as it was when it was built.
In the third room there are sculptures mostly from public buildings. They depict everyday life, commerce, honors. In them people are dressed either in local costumes: a long down under a wide cloak worn round the shoulders, or in Parthian dress: a tunic worn over trousers tucked into boots. The pack or army dromedaries wear harness very similar to that used today.
The gallery that leads back to the entrance contains many representations of the various gods of Palmyra, notably of Yarhibol, the sun god, dressed in Palmyrene costume.
The three rooms and gallery on the left of the entrance hall are occupied mainly by splendid funerary sculptures. The actual tomb chests in the hypogeia were sealed by limestone slabs on which the deceased was depicted, as if alive, in high relief, in an attitude of serenity. Various details reveals his social rank or symbolize traits. One hand is generally open, as a token of resignation in the face of death, while the other clasps some familiar object to indicate attachment to life.
In the museum there are many collections of objects, explanatory panels, and reconstruction - with life-size wax figures - which together constitute a veritable museum of the Syrian desert and its traditions.
Certain scenes show everyday life in the oasis of Tadmor, others depict nomadic life which is gradually disappearing today. Family life is portrayed most realistically, with all the appropriate clothes, chests and tools, appropriately arranged, and models of men and women going about their household tasks. Elsewhere the range of Palmyrene craft-work is displayed - rugs, trays, made of straw, leather and wickerwork. The production of turpentine is also shown, with the special press that is used. The turpentine tree, the rare plant much sought after by Egyptians for the mummification of their dead, grows in abundance on the hills around Palmyra.
In other rooms, camels, Arab horses, tents, and the desert itself with the animals that live there - eagles, falcons, wolves, and hyenas - help to illustrate the life of the nomadic Bedouin, a people whose social structures, adapted over centuries to severe conditions of life, have been severely shaken by the development of the economy, by modern transport and by changes in customs and behavior.
The great Temple ofBel
The temple is surrounded by a great blank wall, 200 meters on each side, the walls of the fortress that replaced its ancient propylaea during the 12th century. This bleak exterior gives no hint of the magnificence of the building’s internal layout.
There is an immense courtyard surfaced with smooth rock, which rises gently towards a majestic edifice at its highest point; this is the cella, the holy of holies, towards which the faithful used to crowed, where the sacrificial mysteries were celebrated. The wall surrounding it, lined with porticos whose columns are still standing for the most part, allows one to appreciate the vast proportions of the whole building, but at the same time emphasize the enclosed nature of this shrine to the chief god of the city.
The layout of the temple corresponds to the arrangement of Semitic sanctuaries. Thus here there is, in front of the cella, the great sacrificial altar and a ritual basin in which the priests performed their ablutions and in which ritual vessels were washed.
The cella was surrounded by a colonnade. Its capitals were made of bronze; only the stone cores remain. The limestone beams joining the colonnade to the wall behind show by their sculptures with what refinement and abundance the building was decorated. Their themes are floral, representations of the god and of processions. One particularly remarkable scene shows a camel carrying a statue of the god Bel passing in front of people dressed in the local costume, a cloth draped and tied around its middle, and followed by a group of veiled women, their heads bowed in reverence. The altar is shown loaded with gifts: pomegranates, pine cones, grapes and a kid. The two worshippers are in Parthian dress.
The interior of the cella consists of two open chapels facing each other with ceilings made from single slabs of stone, and richly decorated; the one on the left (as you enter) with signs of the zodiac, the one on the right with very fine geometric designs. The Palmyrene trinity (Bel, Yarhibol, and Aglibôl) is also depicted. The arrangement of these two chapels, like two opposed niches, is enough to show original this Palmyrene architecture is, typically Arab and Syrian.
Other details noted by specialist have shown that, far from having been influenced by the Greeks and Romans, the civilization of Palmyra, earlier than that of Rome itself, inspired both the architecture and the decoration practiced by her invaders.
There are enormous cemeteries all around the city, but it is above all on the slopes of the hills to the east that the ancient tombs have been furnished new evidence about Palmyrene civilization. There are four types of burial place to be found here: the tomb-tower (a square structure with narrow windows), the house-tomb (the one that stands in the perspective from the Great Colonnade for example), the hypogeum-tower (a stairway linking a network of underground chambers inside a tomb-tower, and finally the hypogeum-tomb, built to receive the bodies of one family over a period of two centuries, a real underground house decorated with frescoes, each cell of which is sealed with a sculpture representing with deceased.
There is a guided tour of the most remarkable of the tombs. These include: to the north of the city, beyond the ramparts, the so-called Marona house-tomb; behind Diocletian’s Camp the Jamblique tomb-tower, built in 83 A.D., and 500 meters further on, up the hill, the tomb-tower of the Elhabel family, 103 A.D. Near the latter, on the edge of the sandy road, is a hypogeum-tower, from the terrace of which, in the evening, there is a fine view over Palmyra. Near the top of the hillside there is an entrance at ground level, to the hypogeum of Atenatan which was dug in 98.
But the most impressive of all the underground tombs is that known as the Tomb of the Three Brothers (at the beginning of the Valley of the Tombs), which contains some four hundred niches and whose walls are covered with frescoes in a remarkable state of preservation.
If you climb the hill crowned by a 17th century fort you will be rewarded by a magnificent general view of Palmyra - the ruins, the market.
Also worth noting are the two castles some distance away in the desert sands. To the north-east of Palmyra there is Qasr-al Heir el-Sharqi (15 km by an indifferent track, turning off the Deir-Ezzor road at the 99 km post). To the south-west of Palmyra there is Qasr-al Heir el-Gharbi, which is more accessible since it lies alongside the track, suitable for motor vehicles, from Damascus To Palmyra, some 40 kilometers from the road to Homs.
These castles, both at the same time palaces and military camps, have the same square plan, with round towers at the corners and two semi-circular towers flanking the main entrance. They date from the time of the Omayyad Caliph Hisham, who also built a residence at Rasafah, i.e. from about 688-9 (the 110th year of Hegira).
The fortified gateway of Qasr-al Heir el-Gharbi has been moved and re-erected in the National Museum in Damascus.
The remains of irrigation channels, ruined market towns and cisterns in the mountains nearby, all show that Palmyra was less isolated in years gone by than is generally thought. Recent excavations have shown, moreover, that the hill overlooking of Afqa spring was inhabited by the Amorites from the end of the 3rd millenium. The region has indeed a long and splendid history…