Palmyra is an ancient city of central Syria, located in an oasis 130 miles (210 km) NE of Damascus.
Once dubbed the "Bride of the Desert," Palmyra was a vital stop for caravans crossing the Syrian desert. Palmyra was mentioned in the Old Testament as being fortified by Solomon and it flourished in Roman times.
There is much to see at the site today, including several temples dedicated to Aramean, Babylonian and Mesopotamian deities. The ancient ruins are a World Heritage Site and are one of the most popular tourist destinations in Syria.
History of Palmyra
Palmyra (Παλμυρα) is the Greek name for the city, a translation of its original Aramaic name, Tadmor, which means "palm tree." Today, Tadmor (in Arabic تدمر) is the name of a small city of about 36,000 next to the ruins, which is heavily dependent on tourism.
The city is mentioned in tablets dating from as early as the 19th century BC, when it was a trading city in the extensive trade network that linked Mesopotamia and northern Syria.
Palmyra appears in the Bible (II Chronicles 8.4) as a desert city fortified by Solomon. (There is a mention of a city of Tamar in I Kings 9.18, also fortified by Solomon, which may refer to Tadmor but could also be a place near the Dead Sea.) Tadmor is also mentioned by Josephus (Antiquities, Book VIII) along with the Greek name of Palmyra, as a city built by Solomon.
Tadmor began to attain prominence in the 3rd century BC, when a road through it became one of the main routes of east-west trade. It was built on an oasis lying approximately halfway between the Mediterranean Sea in the west and the Euphrates River east, and thus helped connect the western world with the Orient. When the Seleucids took Syria in 323 BC, Palmyra remained autonomous and continued to flourish as an important caravan stop.
In 41 BC, Mark Antony tried to occupy Palmyra but failed. The Palmyrans had advance warning and had escaped to the other side of the Euphrates by the time he arrived, which indicates that Palmyra was still a nomadic settlement whose valuables could be removed at short notice.
Palmyra was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37). It steadily grew in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman empire. In 129, Hadrian visited the city and was so impressed that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana. In 217, Emperor Caracalla made Palmyra a colonia, which meant exemption from paying taxes to the empire. The 2nd and 3rd centuries were the golden age of Palmyra, when it flourished through its extensive trading and favored status under the Romans.
The main god of the Aramaeans at Palmyra was Bol (probably an equivalent to Baal). Bol soon became known as Bel by assimilation to the Babylonian god Bel-Marduk; both gods presided over the movements of the stars. Ruins of the Temple of Bel can still be seen today.
The Palmyrenes associated Bel with the sun and moon gods, Yarhibol and Aglibol, and another heavenly triad formed around the Phoenician god Baal Shamen, the Lord of Heaven, who was more or less identical with Hadad. A monotheistic tendency emerged in the 2nd century AD with the worship of an unnamed god "whose name is blessed forever, the merciful and good."
The language of Palmyra was Aramaic. Its two systems of writing, a monumental script and a Mesopotamian cursive, reflect the city's position between East and West. The great bilingual inscription known as the Tariff of Palmyra and the inscriptions carved below the statues of the great caravan leaders reveal information on the organization and nature of Palmyra's trade. The Palmyrenes traded with India via the Persian Gulf route and also with Coptos on the Nile River, Dura-Europus in Syria, and Rome.
Palmyra's trade began to diminish in the early 3rd century, when the Persian Sassanids occupied the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates and closed the caravan road that passed through Palmyra (227). In 255, Septimus Odaenathus was appointed governor of Syria Phoenice, based in Palmyra. Five years later, he was made Governor of all the East.
In 266 Odaenathus and his eldest son were assassinated. Power fell to his infant son, but Odaenathus' wife, Zenobia, became the effective ruler. Some believe she was the one who hired the assassin.
The ambitious Zenobia was half-Greek and half-Arab (or possibly half-Jewish) and claimed to be descended from Cleopatra. She was exceptionally intelligent and an eloquent speaker of Palmyrian, Greek and Egyptian and attractive. In her court were philosophers, scholars and theologians.
Queen Zenobia was an effective ruler and her armies conquered most of Anatolia (Asia Minor) in 270, and the city declared its independence from Rome. Zenobia had her sights set on Antioch when she was captured in 272.
She was sent to Rome, where she was paraded in golden chains as Emperor Aurelian's trophy. There are two stories of Zenobia's last days: she either lived comfortably in Rome in a villa provided for by the emperor or she starved/poisoned herself to death. A year later, Palmyra was destroyed and the inhabitants slaughtered.
In the 6th century, Palmyra's defences are rebuilt by emperor Justinian and a few Byzantine churches were built, but most of the city remained in ruins. In 634, Palmyra was taken by the Muslim Arabs under Khalid ibn Walid in the name of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr. A castle was built on top of a mountain overlooking the oasis. Surrounded by a moat, the castle was accessible only through a drawbridge.
In 1089, a major earthquake destroyed what was left of Palmyra. In 1678, Palmyra was "rediscovered" by two English merchants living in Aleppo. Excavations began in 1924 and the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
What to See at Palmyra
The extensive ruins at Palmyra reveal the network plan of the ancient city. The Corinthian order marks almost all the monuments, but the influence of Mesopotamia and Iran is also clearly evident. The art found on monuments and tombs also reflects the influences of the surrounding Roman and Persian empires. As UNESCO puts it, "the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences."
Much of the principal east-west street, named the Grand Colonnade by archaeologists, still stands. It was originally almost one mile long and consisted of of some 1,500 Corinthian columns. The monumental arch at one end of the colonnade has been partially restored. Along the colonnade, a double portico is ornamented with three nymphaea. To the south are the agora, the Senate House, and the theater.
Other ruins include a vast complex called Diocletian's Camp and the chief Palmyrene temple sanctuary, dedicated to Bel, Yarhibol, and Aglibol. Palmyra's museum, between the ruins and the new town, contains statues and objects excavated from the site.
Quick Facts on Palmyra
|Names:||Palmyra · Tadmor ("Palm Tree")|
|Categories:||temples; city ruins; ruins; World Heritage Sites|
|Dates:||fl. 2nd-3rd C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||34.554259° N, 38.266175° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Palmyra|
- "Palmyra" - Encyclopædia Britannica (2006)
- "Palmyra" - Wikipedia (2006)
- "Palmyra, Syria" - Atlas Tours (2006)
- "Palmyra" - Encyclopedia of the Orient (2006) - beware of flashing banner ads and popups
- "Site of Palmyra" - UNESCO World Heritage List
Map of Palmyra
Below is a location map and aerial view of Palmyra. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.