Getty Research Institute


Caravan City and Cultural Crossroads

Joan Aruz
Curator Emerita, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

THE WONDROUS SITE OF PALMYRA, with its sun-drenched antiquities, has evoked many poetic phrases, such as “bride of the desert.” The words of two preeminent Syrian archaeologists, Adnan Bounni and Khaled al-As’ad, more fully capture the setting of this remarkable place, with its magnificent temples and tombs and majestic colonnaded street and monumental arch:

To the east and south, the oasis spreads out towards a seemingly infinite desert. Five hundred thousand olive trees, date palms and pomegranate trees surround the immense expanse of ruins like a crown of laurel.1

A grand caravan city and center of multiculturalism, Palmyra was well situated on a desert path linking the great land, sea, and river trading corridors that extended from China to Rome, popularly known as the Silk Road. Indeed, the city, which lay at the intersection of two great empires—Rome and Parthia—manifested the crosscurrents of cultural exchange in every aspect of life. One only has to look at its distinctive arts and architecture, its extraordinary imports of Chinese textiles and other eastern luxury goods, the imagery of its divinities, and inscriptions surviving in its two local languages, Palmyrene and Aramaic, as well as in Greek and Latin.

Such a brilliant, diverse culture could not have been more abhorrent to the fanatics of the Islamic State (ISIS), who, beginning in 2015, sought to erase it from history through bombing campaigns intended to obliterate its monuments and through the brutal murder of al-As’ad, who lost his life while protecting his beloved homeland (read the interview with his son and successor Waleed al-As’ad). His legacy and that of Palmyra are closely connected and have only been enhanced by the public attention and scholarly studies that arose in the wake of such tragedy.

Landscapes and the

History of Interaction

Tadmor, the site’s Semitic name, was first referred to as Palmyra, an allusion to the abundant palms in its oasis, by the Roman writer and statesman Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 CE) in his encyclopedic Natural History.2 Already known for international trade during the first part of the 2nd millennium BCE, Tadmor is mentioned in texts found at the Assyrian trading center of Kültepe on the central Anatolian plateau (in ancient Turkey) and at the emporium of Mari in western Syria. Mari texts notably document a trade route through the Syrian desert that must have passed through the oasis.3

The name also appears in the annals of the Middle Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076 BCE), who boasts that he crossed the Euphrates 28 times in pursuit of the Aḫlamū-Aramaeans, defeating them “from the city of Tadmar of the land of Amurru.”4 Biblical texts, written most probably in the 4th to 3rd century BCE, around the inception of the Hellenistic era, belong to the realm of myth, associating the founding of the city of “Tadmor in the wilderness” with King Solomon.5

An even more fanciful account, dated to the 6th century, thus just a few hundred years after the destruction of the ancient city, is recounted in The Chronicle of John Malalas of nearby Antioch. He writes of Palmyra’s churches and public baths but similarly attributes to Solomon the origins of the city, built in honor of his father, David, to commemorate his confrontation with Goliath at the site.6 Malalas also mistakenly refers to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II as a Persian emperor who conquered Palmyra.7 The 10th century Persian geographer Ibn al-Faqih, while repeating that King Solomon built the city of Tadmor, does provide a picture of its ruins that is partially accurate: “It was of marvelous construction, with many statues. It is said that he [Sulayman] built there a palace in which there were wings, colonnades, chambers, arched hallways and other things.”8

The primary textual sources for Graeco-Roman Palmyra are honorific, along with other inscriptions found mainly at the site but also in the Palmyrene diaspora, as well as the accounts of Greek and Roman writers.9 Pliny tells us that Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, “is a city famous for its location, for the richness of its soil and its pleasant springs, and its fields surrounded by a vast sea of sand.”10 His views, both of the desert setting and of Palmyra as an autonomous state “having a destiny of its own between the two mighty empires of Rome and Parthia,” have come under scrutiny in modern scholarship.

Most recently, the landscape surrounding part of the city has been shown to be an enormous dry steppe, with agricultural resources derived from not only winter rainfall but water sources particularly to the north. This food supply enhanced the riches derived from the Tadmor oasis, which flourished as it fed from the Efqa geothermal spring to the west. The spring was a source of potable water for thousands of years, from the time a Neolithic settlement arose in its vicinity to the present day, drying up only decades ago.11

From Alexander to Artabanus

Palmyra’s development and fortunes were deeply intertwined in the politics of Western Asia during the centuries of great volatility after Alexander the Great’s conquests destroyed the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the late 4th century BCE. His generals founded the Seleucid Empire, which at its high point extended from Central Anatolia to Central Asia, with cities reflecting a strong Hellenic impact on local art and society. It was in this context, during the 3rd through 1st centuries BCE, that a prosperous settlement grew at Palmyra in the vicinity of the Bel sanctuary. The site bore traces of a temple, probably preceded by earlier shrines, all destroyed to construct the deep foundations of the subsequent monumental Temple of Bel built in a similar alignment.12

Numerous defeats eventually brought the Seleucid Empire to its knees, much of its eastern territory conquered by Mithridates I of Parthia. Its western possessions were captured in 63 BCE by Pompey the Great, who created the Roman province of Syria, which seems not to have included Palmyra at the time. This view is reinforced by the account of the historian Appian, writing two centuries later, of an unsuccessful attempt by Mark Antony to plunder the merchant city in 41 BCE.13

Interest in Palmyra and allusions to its trading activities persisted during the Roman Empire’s Julio-Claudian dynasty. While the degree of political domination that Rome—more than 3,000 miles away—exercised over Palmyra during the 1st century CE remains uncertain, the early annexation of the city has been attributed to the reign of Tiberius (14–37 CE). This period was marked by the 18/19 CE expedition to Syria of his nephew and adopted son Germanicus, who appears to have been engaged in establishing the first tariff laws, reflected on the famous Palmyra Tariff inscription, dated to 137 CE (fig. 1).14 Germanicus was honored, along with Tiberius and his adoptive brother, Tiberius’s son Drusus, by statues in the Temple of Bel.

Tacitus, in The Annals of 109 CE, tells us that Germanicus also met with ambassadors sent by the Parthian king Artabanus on a peace mission. Additionally, according to a Palmyrene inscription, Germanicus sent a Palmyrene envoy named Alexandros to the kingdom of Mesene in southern Mesopotamia, crucial for commerce with its vital Persian Gulf port of Spasinou Charax.15 While no further details are given, a Roman understanding of the indispensable relationship between Palmyrene and Parthian traders is implied. Thus, as has been pointed out, both Palmyra and Spasinou Charax were able to operate “in the shadow of” the two dominant powers of Rome and Parthia.16

Conflict in Rome’s Eastern Provinces

For much of the 1st to early 3rd century, the Roman and Parthian empires appear to have been in a state of conflict. Roman troops were first garrisoned at Palmyra during the reigns of Trajan (98–117 CE) and his successor, Hadrian (117–138 CE), whose visit to the city in 129/130 was marked by its formal name change to Hadriana Tadmor, as recorded on the Tariff stele. Inscriptions referring to Hadrianic Palmyrenes continue into the 3rd century.17 Palmyrene soldiers served in Roman legions as distant as Britain but their efforts were concentrated mainly on control of the Euphrates River trading corridor.18

Trajan’s eastern campaign to Mesopotamia in 115–117 resulted in the first of many conquests of Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, on the east bank of the Tigris opposite Seleucia. Lucius Verus’s commanders briefly captured Ctesiphon in 164, and 33 years later it was sacked again by Septimius Severus, resulting in the enslavement of a large portion of the local population. By this time, a permanent Roman military presence was established at Palmyra, now firmly part of the Roman province of Syria. Soon afterward, likely during the reign of Caracalla (211–217), Palmyra was declared a Roman colony with citizenship rights for all free men.19

Amid a period of upheaval in the early 3rd century, the Parthian Empire suffered its final blow in 224 at the hand of Ardashir I, founder of the Sasanian Persian dynasty, posing a new threat to an unstable Roman Empire. Clashes ensued in Mesopotamia and Syria with losses on both sides, and the probable visit to Palmyra by Severus Alexander with his Roman legions, on their march toward the Euphrates in 231/232, has been cited as evidence for the military significance of the city.

Twenty years later, Ardashir’s powerful son Shapur I waged war against Rome’s eastern provinces to devastating effect, culminating in the conquest of Antioch and the capture of the Roman emperor Valerian in 260 near the northern Syrian border.20 After this humiliation, with Syria left in disarray, Odenathus came to power in Palmyra. As ruler of the east, he was instrumental in driving Shapur’s army out of the Levant, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. He lay siege to Ctesiphon in 262 and took the Near Eastern title “king of kings,” acting as an independent monarch within the Roman imperial structure.

Odenathus, “who made the Persians’ hearts tremble,” was assassinated in 267. His widow, the renowned Zenobia, with “the courage of a man,” assumed power as regent to their son Vaballathus.21 The queen’s ambitions went beyond protection of the eastern frontier to the forging of a Palmyrene empire that would control the Roman province of Arabia and secure the wealth and trade routes of Egypt. Facing assured retribution from Rome, which came swiftly from the emperor Aurelian in 272, Zenobia attempted to hold onto her command, adopting Roman royal titles for herself and her son on their coinage. Her demise became the stuff of legend, and the furor of the victorious Aurelian, who, upon learning the following year that the Palmyrenes had rebelled, returned to the city and wreaked havoc on its monuments and inhabitants.

Aurelian never got the chance to launch a third Persian war, as he was stabbed to death just a few years later.22 Although the cause was taken up by his successors, the economic and political landscape of the world between Rome and Persia had dramatically changed, with large multicultural cities destroyed. Trade routes shifted northward as a result of a peace treaty concluded between Diocletian and the Persian king Narseh in 299, establishing Nisibis (in modern Turkey) as the only acceptable point of trade between the Roman and Sasanian empires.23 In the early 4th century, Palmyra became part of a strategic Roman defensive system of forts along the Strata Diocletiana, centered on a camp for Diocletian’s troops that included a huge bath complex, built with stones pillaged from the city’s illustrious monuments.24

After Antiquity

The Byzantine scholar Procopius, writing in the 6th century, famously called Palmyra a city “built in a neighborless region . . . which through lapse of time had come to be almost completely deserted,” while also praising the improvements made by the emperor Justinian (r. 527–565), who built defenses and supplied water and troops to ward off “raids of the Saracens.”25

Accounts of urban decline are echoed by other writers, although new constructions from the 4th to the 6th century throughout the city provide evidence of the introduction of Christianity. The Temple of Bel was converted into a church, which bears traces of wall paintings, one depicting Mary, Christ, and an angel (fig. 2). Another church may have occupied the Baalshamin sanctuary, and other structures arose along the colonnaded street and a lane to the northwest. Inscriptions quoting the Hebrew Bible and depictions of menorahs attest to a Jewish presence as well.26

Despite intermittent years of peace in the 6th century, neither the Roman east nor the Sasanian Empire could withstand the Arab invasions of the 7th century, and the Palmyrenes eventually submitted to the conquerors. While the invaders were intimidated by the city’s “impregnable” walls, they were able to convince the populace to accept a peace treaty that, according to the local governor, would preserve their palm trees and their crops.27

With the accession of the Umayyad dynasty, centered in Syria during the mid-7th to the mid-8th century, Palmyra thrived once more as the medina (traditional Arab city) of a tribe loyal to the Umayyad caliph. Its colonnaded street was converted into a suq (bazaar), dealing more in local produce than imported exotic luxuries. Public spaces, such as the theater and the agora, were lost to housing, and the central crossroad of the city, previously marked by a tetrapylon, became the site of a new gathering place, a congregational mosque.28 The city’s revival, however, was curtailed by the Abbasid conquest of 750 and the shift of the caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad.

The endurance of Tadmor and its vital role in defending routes through the Syrian desert are corroborated by the fortified village that arose in the sanctuary of Bel and by the small but imposing medieval citadel dominating the landscape above Palmyra, probably first built in the 13th century by the Ayubbid emir Shirkuh II but conquered and reinforced over the years and ultimately occupied by Fakhr al-Din from 1630 to 1632.29 Safi al-Din al-Baghdadi, in a gazetteer of the 14th century, describes life in Palmyra during these times: “People live in its fortress. . . . It also has granaries. They have a river that irrigates their palm trees and gardens.”30 The Syrian scholar Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-‘Umarī, writing in the 15th century, further alludes to Palmyra’s prosperity, noting its “vast gardens, flourishing trades and bizarre monuments.”31

The Art of Interaction

Monuments and Society

The extraordinary 19th-century photographs of the Frenchman Louis Vignes, at first glance, capture the ruins of Palmyra as a Graeco-Roman city, with detailed images of its surviving temples and their columned facades and its grand triple archway articulating the colonnaded street.32 On closer examination, however, the fluid cultural amalgam that defines every aspect of the city is revealed. Palmyra’s main sanctuary, surrounded by a massive courtyard that could accommodate the city’s entire population, was dedicated to the god Bel, a Mesopotamian title associated with the chief Babylonian god, Marduk. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the worship of Bel apparently survived in Babylon into the late Parthian period, contemporary with the god’s veneration at Palmyra.33

The depth and complexity of cultural interaction in Palmyra is manifested throughout the design and construction of the great Temple of Bel: the building of its precinct, financed in part by Palmyrene merchants from Babylon; its consecration in 32 CE in the month of April, coinciding with the Babylonian New Year; its exterior architecture, displaying a classical façade reflective of innovations from the 2nd century BCE made by the famed Hellenistic architect Hermogenes, along with Near Eastern details such as stepped triangular crenellations (fig. 3); an interior modeled to accommodate Near Eastern ritual, albeit with astrological ceilings that deviate from Babylonian zodiac imagery; and an architectural frieze that may depict Bel combating the primordial goddess Tiamat, as recounted in the Babylonian myth of creation (fig. 4).34

The smaller Temple of Baalshamin combined a classical façade with windows lighting an interior adorned with a cult relief of Baalshamin, a local Syro-Phoenician Baal weather deity, seated beneath cosmic symbols.35

The array of gods and goddesses worshiped, often syncretized, with rituals and paraphernalia derived from both Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman traditions (fig. 5), provide evidence for the mixture of stimuli that permeated all aspects of life in Palmyra. Images of thousands of its elite citizens, depicted on funerary reliefs and sarcophagi in impressive tombs, offer a glimpse into other aspects of social identity, including family units, professions, and gender roles. Among them are numerous portraits of bejewelled ladies with elaborate hairstyles and draped western-type garments, heads of households reclining in tunics and embroidered Iranian trousers, and priests wearing distinctive high hats.

Although sculptors at times adapted western gestures and compositional schemes, the frontal gazes and rather stiff, formulaic depictions of these figures represent an eastern stylistic approach. Thus the art of Palmyra offers a stark contrast to the naturalism of Graeco-Roman sculptures, one being the colossal Athena from the Temple of Allat, who shared some of the Near Eastern goddess’s attributes. This statue survived damage inflicted during the early Christian occupation’s aim to erase a pagan past, only to be hacked to pieces recently by ISIS zealots (fig. 6).

The Caravan Trade and

Palmyra’s Eastern Contacts

Rare images of men with camels and ships (figs. 7 , 8) appear on Palmyrene funerary reliefs, alluding to their role in the lucrative caravan and maritime trade, leading one scholar to lyrically name the city “Venice of the Sands.”36 While 1st-century BCE/CE accounts of long-distance sea and land routes—The Parthian Stations by Isidore of Charax and The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea—do not mention Palmyra, they do provide evidence of sea routes from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and overland caravan routes from Syria to India.

Around that time, Pliny located Palmyra at a distance of 337 Roman miles from Seleucia on the Tigris, which along with the Euphrates River provided access to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Appian, in his account of Mark Antony’s raid of 41 BCE, describes the people of Palmyra as “merchants” who “bring the products of India and Arabia [from Persia] and dispose of them in the Roman territory.”37

Inscriptions provide more detail, including evidence for communities of Palmyrene merchants and wealthy local residents supporting the caravan trade in Parthian Vologesias, on the Euphrates, and in Spasinou Charax.38 Palmyrene traders also sailed to and from the northwest Indian coast—as the Apostle Thomas is said to have done, according to the “Hymn of the Pearl”—setting sail in the 1st century from Charax (Mesene), “the meeting-place of merchants of the East.”39

Based on such evidence, scholars believe that merchants traveled from Palmyra by camel caravan through the Syrian desert, reaching the Euphrates most probably near the Mesopotamian town of Hit. However, they did not continue overland to the east but rather rafted downstream to ports connecting with the Indian maritime network, using the same route for the return.40 The passage to and from India was facilitated by the discovery of the seasonal monsoon winds, allowing for easier navigation eastward from June to October and westward from November to May.41

Moving cargo, animals, and people along the Euphrates on wooden rafts supported by inflated animal skins (keleks) was a long-established practice, as illustrated on Assyrian palace reliefs from the 8th to the 7th century BCE. This means of transport continued into the 19th century, documented along with the palace reliefs in the drawings by Victor Place in his volume Nineveh et l’Assyrie (1867).42 The 5th-century BCE Greek historian Herodotos, in his discussion of Babylon, describes such rivercraft that could carry up to 5,000 talents (over 130,000 kilograms) of goods and pack animals, but he conflates elements of traditional animal-skin rafts and wood-framed coracles (guffa) covered in hides.43

Gulf and Indian Ocean trade brought luxuries to the Roman Empire through the Euphrates route and also via the Red Sea route, with Palmyrene merchants also active in Egypt. Palmyra’s involvement is highlighted by the discovery in its tombs of pearls from the Gulf as well as Chinese Han dynasty silk textile fragments and silk thread for local weaving, carried by middlemen from China to northwest Indian ports. Here, traders could also pick up such desirable exotica as ivory and beads made of agate and carnelian, as well as cotton, spices, and medicinal plants.44

Legacy: Palmyra in

the Local Imagination

Palmyra, with its majestic and monumental ruins and its legendary queen Zenobia, captured the popular imagination both in the Arab world and in the West. Aspects of the neoclassical interest and attitudes toward the site are expressed in the beautiful 18th-century folio volume The Ruins of Palmyra by British scholar Robert Wood. In his “notes to the reader,” the author expresses the aim to “rescue from oblivion the magnificence of Palmyra,” while acknowledging that he and his team “carried off the marbles wherever it was possible,” a practice that was followed into the mid to late 20th century, leading to the establishment of antiquities laws to protect cultural heritage.45

The magnificent drawings by the French architect Louis-François Cassas, published some decades later, are highlighted in The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra along with the first photographs of Palmyra, taken in 1864 by Louis Vignes. Other foreign travelers offered vivid accounts of the site. One of the most famous was the English writer, political officer, and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, who in 1900, upon her first glimpse of the ruins, where she set up camp among the locals, remarked:

I wonder if the wide world presents a more singular landscape. It is a mass of columns, ranged into long avenues, grouped into temples, lying broken on the sand or pointing one long solitary finger to Heaven. Beyond them is the immense Temple of Baal [Bel]; the modern town is built inside it and its rows of columns rise out of a mass of mud roofs. And beyond, all is the desert, sand and white stretches of salt and sand again, with the dust clouds whirling over it . . . It looks like the white skeleton of a town, standing knee deep in the blown sand . . . I walked out and down the Street of Columns into the Temple of the Sun—the town, I should say, for it is nearly all included within its enormous outer walls.46 (figs. 9, 10, 11)

Palmyra/Tadmor was indeed never forgotten in the Middle Eastern world, despite the views expressed by Wood and, earlier in 1682, the French consul Laurent d’Arvieux. After traveling in the region, the latter wrote that Palmyra was “deserted for many centuries,” repeating once more the notion that the site was “so ancient that it is said to have been in the state it is now seen since the time of Solomon.”47 Rather, for millennia after its glory days, Palmyra was home to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations.

Zenobia, “Illustrious Queen”

Palmyrenes continued to live within the ancient city until large-scale excavations began in the 1930s, led by the French archaeologist Henri Seyrig, who forcibly resettled them in a newly built village of Tadmor, later best known for the Syrian regime’s infamous prison. One displaced family was that of the Palmyrene archaeologist Khaled al-As’ad, whose childhood attachment to his home, located not far from the entrance to the Temple of Bel (fig. 12), lay at the root of his dedication to all aspects of Palmyrene culture, extending to his interest in tracing the familial associations of local tribesmen.48

Khaled al-As’ad was poignantly called “Queen Zenobia’s brave grandson” in one memorial tribute.49 His devotion to the Palmyrene warrior queen, the namesake of his daughter, followed centuries of fascination with Zenobia in the Arab world.50 Her fame in 6th-century Arabia is reflected in the names of two of Muhammad’s wives and one of his daughters, who were called Zaynab. However, she appears to have become a more mythical than historical figure as interpreted by later Arab storytellers in Syria and Iraq. In The History of Prophets and Kings, written by al-Tabari in the 10th century, Zenobia is transformed into al-Zabbā’, with a very different lineage and adversaries among local tribesmen rather than Romans, in the context of a chaotic pre-Islamic world.

A much later revival of interest in Zenobia occurs in Salim al-Bustani’s Zanubya (1871), an early attempt at a historical novel with a mix of real and fictional characters. Since that time Zenobia has captured the imagination of numerous Arab artists and writers, culminating in the Lebanese musical Zenobia, performed in 2007 and 2008, in which her fame as a force against imperialism is appropriated as she sings, “I am the first cry of freedom, the first cry from an Arab land.”51 Undeniably, Palmyra and its heroine Zenobia—renowned for their seminal roles in the development of Western civilization—hold claim to a prominent, but very different, destiny in their Middle Eastern homeland.

Palmyra, famous for the beauty of its ruins rising up in a desert setting and its importance as a caravan city and center of multicultural exchange—also, despite destructions and invasions—endured a nearly continuous history to the present day. The preservation of this history, as noted by Andreas Schmidt-Colinet, was not paramount to the early 20th-century excavators, who aimed to remove all traces of post-Roman occupation, particularly in the Temple of Bel. While this was not an unusual archaeological practice at the time, he stresses that “the resurrection of the ancient Temple of Bel in its pure form,” divorced from its later history as a church and a mosque, as well as “a living cultural center for the local population,” in this case created in effect a potent symbol of Western civilization, an easy target for ISIS extremists.52 This has led Schmidt-Colinet to question the future of the site and the controversial proposals for its reconstruction, with a plea to place emphasis on the true symbolism of the temple as one of tolerance, “a model for the successful coexistence and synthesis of different cultures.”53 Such a message could not be more important in today’s world.


Joan Aruz is Curator Emerita in charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2016 she organized the symposium Palmyra: Mirage in the Desert, dedicated to Khaled al-As’ad; in 2018 she was invited to Getty Villa as a Museum Guest Scholar.