The Site of Palmyra

The Site of Palmyra

A desert oasis located in the hottest part of Syria, the site of Palmyra harbors the monumental ruins of a great city that was once one of the most important cultural centers of the antique world. At the crossroads of several civilizations, Palmyra’s art and architecture united Greco-Roman traditions with local and Persian influences from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. It was inscribed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage list as an important cultural site in 1980.

“Palmyra” is a Greek word, and means “city of palm trees.” Its original pre-Semitic name was Tadmur (meaning “city of dates”), which is the name still used by the local Arabs today.

Some History…
According to Biblic tradition, Palmyra was founded by Solomon in the 10th century B.C., although historically, the town in mentioned nine centuries earlier in an Assyrian text and on tablets found in the dead city of Mari. The city came under Roman rule around 30 B.C. and was developed into an important trading post. In the year 120 A.D., the Roman Emperor visited the city and declared Palmyra to be a “free city,” which put a buffer-state between the expansionist Persians and the Roman Empire. It also gave it great trading privileges and liberties of free settlement to Palmyra. The city’s wealth came from its strategic position. Because all caravans had to pass through or near the city to stock up on water, Palmyra was able to heavily tax the caravans in their passage through trading stations the city. Palmyra’s trade reached as far as Rome in the west, Egypt in the south, and India in the East, and both ships and pack-camels are to be found sculpted on the facades of her buildings. It was during this time period that the main temples were built or enlarged, the Agora constructed, and residential quarters expanded.

It was during the third century that Persia once again became a major threat to Rome. The Palmyrene armies had twice defeated the Persian armies and, in 267, the Roman Senate named the King of Palmyra the “Corrector of the East” in gratitude. He seemed destined to rule over a vast territory; however, he was assassinated, and his second wife, Queen Zenobia, took the reigns and immediately showed herself to be an able monarch. Her ambition and dreams of glory led her to conquer all of Syria and lower Egypt within three years, and she set herself up as a rival to the Roman Emperor. The Emperor reacted by sending troops to Palmyra, which fell after only a few weeks. Zenobia escaped, but was captured in 272 and brought to Rome. The next year, following a rebellion in Palmyra, the city was razed and its inhabitants slaughtered. Her dreams of greatness had brought ruin and destruction to the flourishing city.

Palmyra was reduced from being a capital to a mere Syrian frontier stronghold. Its defenses were rebuilt in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and the following century, in 634, it was captured by the Muslims and became part of the Muslim empire. Its temples were first converted into churches and then into mosques. The city was completely destroyed in 1089 by a devastating earthquake and was never rebuilt.

Over time, wind covered the city with sand, and it had “disappeared” until 1678, when it was “redisovered” by two English merchants. Excavations, however, didn’t begin until 1924. The Roman Ampitheater was discovered in the 1950’s, and is almost entirely intact.

The Site of Palmyra…
The ruins of Palmyra are quite extensive, covering approximately 10 sq. km. Although a large part of the city remains in ruins after centuries of rampage, siege, and earthquakes, an impressive part is still standing, and large parts remain to be uncovered. The site is impressive by its silence, and covered with debris and fallen building blocks. The site divides naturally into distinct zones: the Great Colonnade and the monuments along its length; the great Temple of Bel; and the Valley of Tombs.

The Great Colonnade:
The network of main streets remains standing, with the 1.2 km.-long main colonnaded street running from west to east and ending in the Temple of Bel. Immediately to the south lies the Agora (Forum), the Senate, and the Roman Ampitheater, which latter stands in almost full glory.

Four tall columns have been re-erected beside the modern road showing the alignment of the road that linked the Temple of Bel with the Great Colonnade. Isolated, they form a splendid foreground to the Monumental Arch, which commands the main perspective. The Great Colonnade stretched for over a thousand meters – the longest of its kind in the world – and its porticos have been re-erected over about a third of the distance. Hundreds of columns line the avenue. Just past the arch is the base of a temple, whose excavation in the 1960’s yielded many objects, frescoes, bas-relieves and texts. The temple was dedicated to a Babylonian divinity who was the god of oracles and wisdom.

Further on along the Great Colonnade is the Roman ampitheater, which was buried by sand until the 1950’s. Two perfect arches form an entrance the theatre itself, which is wonderfully preserved. We watched a Syrian fashion show and musical dance troupe give a performance in the theater during the evening, as the desert winds blew furiously.

From the left-hand side of the theatre, one can see the remains of the Senate House and the Agora (a great open space, almost a square, surrounded by porticos). Crowds gathered in the Agora on market days or for public meetings. Also along the Great Colonnade is the Tetrapylon, a monument made up of four groups of four columns at the corners of a platform. A statue used to stand in the center of each of the pedestals.

The roads at right-angles to the Great Colonnade lead to areas that have not yet been extensively excavated. The only buildings of any importance are two Byzantine churches and the Temple of Ba’al Shamin, god of storms and fertilizing rains – the “Master of the Heavens”.

The Great Temple of Bel:
The great Temple of Bel lies at the end of the Great Colonnade. It is immense, and the layout of the temple corresponds to that of Semitic sanctuaries. The complex consists of two parts: a huge, walled courtyard and a temple proper (cella), constructed in 32 A.D. There is a great sacrificial altar and a ritual basin in which the priests performed their ablutions and in which ritual vessels were washed. The temple is surrounded by a great wall, 200 m. on each side, a legacy of when it had been turned into a fortress in the 12th century. The courtyard is immense, and many columns run its exterior. There are sanctuaries and processional ramps. Representations in the temple show floral themes and representations of the god and of processions. The altar is shown loaded with gifts: pomegranates, pine cones, grapes, and a goat. The two worshippers are in Parthian dress. Two open chapels face each other inside the courtyard. One has signs of the zodiac, the other has fine geometric designs. The arrangement of these two chapels shows that the architecture is typically Arab and Syrian.

The Babylonians dominated the religion of Palmyra, though there were several local influences. The main diety was Bel, who was the lord of the universe, the creator of the world, and the master of the gods. The priests could detect Bel’s actions in the movement of the stars and believed that they could thus predict the future.

Certain details have shown that, instead of having been influenced by the Greeks and Romans, the civilization of Palmyra – earlier than that of Rome itself – inspired both the art and architecture of her invaders.

The Valley of the Tombs:
To the southwest, just behind the ancient city, lies the Valley of Tombs, which is a fascinating area of towers and underground tombs. It was Palmyra’s custom to bury their dead in family towers, some of which are still standing today. Most of the tower tombs date back to pre-Roman times, while the underground tombs were in use until 251 A.D. Some of the towers contained hundreds of deceased. There are four types of burial places, and although they are all in the same valley, each tower is different. Some are high, some are low. Richer families decorated their towers more fully. The most impressive of the underground tombs is the Tomb of the Three Brothers, which contains approximately 400 niches and whose walls are covered with remarkably preserved frescoes. The towers blend wonderfully into the natural landscape.

Excavation Still in Progress:
The ruins of Palmyra are impressive both by their extent and by their remarkable state of preservation. The stretch that has less excavation is littered with tumbled columns and assorted building blocks, and vast areas are still awaiting excavation. However, the ancient city is gradually being restored in all its grandeur by experts of every nationality.

“The reddish color of the limestone of the upper parts of the colonnades and buildings exposed to oxidization from the air over the centuries shows 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.” (

The site of Palmyra is quite unlike the city of old. It is silent, a witness to its long past, and only a few tourists and bedouins hoping to seduce them with camel rides wander among the ruins. The nomadic tribes are virtually extinct. The site is located in the middle of the Syrian desert, and sand stretches on all sides but one, where there is a green oasis with palm, olive, and pomegranate trees, bedouin camps, and fancy, new hotels. It looks like a mirage in the middle of a vast desert. It was in this oasis that we were invited by the locals to party under their tents, to ride atop their camels, and to share a cup of tea and camel milk with the bedouins under the palms.