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Palmyra: Timeless Gem of Antiquity.

In the desert of Palmyra, a photograph freezes the moment when two children embrace a baby camel with tenderness.

Palmyra:

Palmyra, situated in south-central Syria about 130 miles (210 km) northeast of Damascus, is an ancient city with a rich historical background. Its name, meaning “city of palm trees,” was given by the Romans in the 1st century CE, while the pre-Semitic name Tadmur, Tadmor, or Tudmur is still in use. The city’s existence dates back to tablets from the 19th century BCE, and it gained prominence in the 3rd century BCE when it became a major trade route connecting the Roman world with Mesopotamia and the East.

Although Palmyra enjoyed autonomy for much of its history, it came under Roman control during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14–37 CE). Emperor Hadrian visited the city around 129 CE and granted it the status of a civitas libera (“free city”). Later, Emperor Caracalla bestowed upon it the title of colonia, exempting it from taxes.

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, Palmyra flourished as a center of trade, overcoming obstacles such as disruptions in caravan routes to the East and instability in the Roman-controlled Mediterranean. When the Sāsānians replaced the Parthians in Persia and southern Mesopotamia in 227 CE, Palmyra’s trade route to the Persian Gulf was closed.

As a result, the Romans established the rule of the family of Septimius Odaenathus in Palmyra. Odaenathus, appointed governor of Syria Phoenice by Emperor Valerian (253–260 CE), and later granted the title of corrector totius Orientis (“governor of all the East”) by Emperor Gallienus, played a significant role in Palmyra’s history. However, after Odaenathus and his eldest son were assassinated, his second wife Zenobia took control of the city and led it to conquer most of Anatolia in 270 CE, declaring independence from Rome. Nevertheless, the Roman Emperor Aurelian recaptured Anatolia in 272 CE and destroyed Palmyra the following year.

Despite its decline, Palmyra remained an important stop along the strata Diocletiana, a paved road connecting Damascus to the Euphrates. In 634 CE, it was captured by Khālid ibn al-Walīd on behalf of the first Muslim caliph, Abū Bakr, marking a shift in its significance as a trading hub.

The language spoken in Palmyra was Aramaic, and the city’s script, which included a monumental form and a Mesopotamian cursive, reflected its location between East and West. The Tariff of Palmyra, a notable bilingual inscription, along with inscriptions found below the statues of prominent caravan leaders, provide insights into Palmyra’s trade organization. The city engaged in commerce with India via the Persian Gulf route and traded with cities such as Coptos on the Nile River, Rome, and Doura-Europus in Syria.

The chief deity of the Aramaeans in Palmyra was Bol, later known as Bel due to assimilation with the Babylonian god Bel-Marduk. Bel was associated with the sun, while Yarhibol and Aglibol represented the moon and stars, respectively. Another prominent deity was Baal Shamen, referred to as the “lord of heaven,” similar to the Phoenician god Hadad. In the 2nd century CE, a monotheistic trend emerged with the worship of an unnamed god described as merciful and good, whose name was blessed forever.

The archaeological ruins of Palmyra offer a glimpse into the city’s layout. The central east-west street, known as the Grand Colonnade, features a double portico adorned with three nymphaea. To the south, one can find the agora, the Senate House, and the theater. Other significant ruins include Diocletian’s Camp and the primary Palmyrene sanctuary dedicated to Bel, Yarhibol, and Aglibol. 

Notably, several ancient Christian churches have also been discovered. The architectural style predominantly follows the Corinthian order, but influences from Mesopotamia and Iran are evident. The artistic depictions found on monuments and tombs reflect the cultural exchange between the Roman and Persian empires. In recognition of its historical importance, the ancient city of Palmyra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.

In May 2015, the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized control of Palmyra, raising concerns about the potential destruction of its monuments. In August 2015, photographs emerged showing the Temple of Baal Shamen being demolished with explosives. Subsequently, satellite images confirmed the destruction of Palmyra’s main temple, the Temple of Bel, in September 2015. In March 2016, Syrian Army reclaimed Palmyra from ISIL. 

However, in December 2016, ISIL regained control of the city while Syrian Army were preoccupied with fighting rebels in Aleppo. Once again, ISIL inflicted damage on the monuments, including significant destruction to the theater and the Tetrapylon.

Despite the losses, ongoing efforts are underway to preserve and restore the remaining structures in Palmyra. Visiting Palmyra today provides a powerful and moving experience, showcasing the city’s resilience in the face of adversity and the passage of time. It serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of safeguarding cultural heritage and appreciating the invaluable contributions of past civilizations.

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