Palmyra: 20 centuries of destruction and restoration

After several weeks of fighting, the glorious historical city of Palmyra is once again under the control of the Syrian government (27 March 2016), it is counting the wounds caused by ISIS terrorists. From the first days the city was recaptured, archaeologists and experts from the Russian Hermitage museum made their way to Syria in order to assess the damage inflicted to the ancient ruins, along with engineers and de-miners to remove hundreds of explosives planted by terrorists in the site.

Palmyra is located in Homs province, a little more than 200 km from Damascus and enjoys World Cultural Heritage status bestowed by UNESCO. In May 2015 the city came under the occupation of ISIS jihadists, who used to proudly upload their deeds on social media, such as the destruction of the 2,000 year old temple of Baal-Helios, the desecration of ancient tombs and pillaging at the museum. The terrorists even used the ancient roman theatre of Palmyra to perform and record public execution of their prisoners. It was there where they brutally decapitated the 83-year-old chief archaeologist and historian, Khalid al-Assad.

UNESCO has condemned the terrorists’ actions in Palmyra, calling them war crimes and noting that the retaking of the city is a step forward towards the future possible restoration of Palmyra as a cultural landmark for the people of Syria and the international community”.

An oasis in the middle of the desert

In the ancient times, Palmyra (the “city of palm trees”) was also known by the name Tadmor and references exist as far back as 3,800 years. Palmyrenes comprised of aramaic, semitic and arab tribes; they used Greek in commerce and diplomacy and worshipped deities such as Helios and Selene.

During the Hellenistic era, the city was part of the Seleucid kingdom (312-64 BC), enjoying development and prosperity. It reached its heyday in the first three centuries AD, maintaining its autonomy from the Romans and being a centre of commerce and goods transport. Palmyrene traders made their fortunes striking deals with the caravans that crossed the Syrian desert to the Euphrates, down to the Persian Gulf. They carried precious stones and spices to the Mediterranean, metals, glass and luxury goods to Asia, all along the once renowned Silk Road.

Inasmuch as the city’s rich culture was imbedded with Greek, Roman, Phoenician and Babylonian influences, the most remarkable epoch began after 267 BC, when the revered queen Zenobia inherited Palmyra’s throne. She defied Roman rule and annexed swathes of land from Egypt and the Middle East to the Palmyrene Empire.

The city’s following decay was sealed by its destruction, when the Roman emperor Aurelian marched against Zenobia, in 273 BC. Despite its restoration under the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was submitted to the occupation of the Mameluks, Timurids and Ottomans, being gradually reduced to a small village.

Modern Palmyra, Tadmor or Tadmur, as it’s called, was built in 1932, 500 meters from the ruins of the ancient city. It has more or less 50,000 residents.

Palmyra in ancient literature

Palmyra is often mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature. For instance, the Roman historian -of Greek origin- Appian of Alexandria (95-167 BC), describes Mark Antony’s raid on Palmyra. The capturing of the celebrated queen Zenobia by the Roman emperor Aurelian is cited by the Byzantine historian Zosimus (5th/6th c. BC), while Procopius of Caesarea mentions the bold fortifications of Palmyra built by emperor Justinian I.

“So swiftly was Antony transformed, and this passion was the beginning and the end of evils that befell him. When Cleopatra returned home Antony sent a cavalry force to Palmyra, situated not far from the Euphrates, to plunder it, bringing the trifling accusations against its inhabitants, that, being on the frontier between the Romans and the Parthians, they had avoided taking sides between them; for, being merchants, they bring the products of India and Arabia and dispose of them in the Roman territory. In fact, Antony’s intention was to enrich his horsemen, but the Palmyreans were forewarned and they transported their property across the river, and, stationing themselves on the bank, prepared to shoot anybody who should attack them, for they were expert bowmen. The cavalry found nothing in the city. They turned around and came back, having met no foe, and empty-handed.„

Appian, Civil Wars (Roman History), book 5, chapter 1, section 9 (2nd c. BC).

“…the emperor prepared to march against the Palmyrenians, who had subdued all Egypt, and the east, as far as Ancyra in Galatia, and would have acquired Bithynia even as far as Chalcedon, if the inhabitants of that country had not learned that Aurelianus was made emperor, and so shook off the Palmyrenian yoke. As soon as the emperor was on his march thither, Ancyra submitted to the Romans, and afterwards Tuana, and all the cities between that and Antioch. There finding Zenobia with a large army ready to engage, as he himself also was, he met and engaged her as honour obliged him. […]
After this defeat, the remains of the enemy fled into Antioch. […] hearing of the escape of Zenobia, he [the emperor] entered Antioch, where he was joyfully received by the citizens. Finding that many had left the city, under apprehensions that they should suffer for having espoused the party of Zenobia; he published edicts in every place to recall them, and told them, that such events had happened more through necessity than of his own inclination. When this was known to the fugitives, they returned in crowds, and were kindly received by the emperor; who having arranged affairs in that city proceeded to Emisa. […]

At the commencement of the engagement, the Roman cavalry receded, lest the Palmyrenes, who exceeded them in number, and were better horsemen, should by some stratagem surround the Roman army. But the Palmyrene cavalry pursued them so fiercely, though their ranks were broken, that the event was quite contrary to the expectation of the Roman cavalry. For they were pursued by an enemy much their superior in strength, and therefore most of them fell. The foot had to bear the brunt of the action.[…]
Aurelianus, upon hearing of the flight of Zenobia, entered Emisa, where he was cordially welcomed by the citizens, and found a treasure which Zenobia could not carry along with her. He then marched immediately to Palmyra, which he invested on every side, while his troops were supplied with provisions of every kind by the neighbouring country. […] The besieged however still held out, in hopes that the enemy would withdraw for want of provisions, and persisted in their resolution, until they were themselves without necessaries. They then called a council, in which it was determined to fly to the Euphrates, and request aid of the Persians against the Romans. Having thus determined, they set Zenobia on a female camel, which is the swiftest of that kind of animals, and much more swift than horses, and conveyed her out of the city.
Aurelianus was much displeased at the escape of Zenobia; and therefore exerted all his industry to send out horsemen in pursuit of her. They succeeded in taking her, as she was crossing the Euphrates in a boat, and brought her to Aurelianus. Though much pleased at this sight, yet being of an ambitious disposition, he became uneasy at the reflection that in future ages it would not redound to his honour to have conquered a woman.„

Zosimus, New History, book 1, chapters 50-55 (5th c. BC).

Thus did the Emperor Justinian assure the safety of Syria. And there is a city in Phoenicia by Lebanon,57 Palmyra by name, built in a neighbourless region by men of former times, but well situated across the track of the hostile Saracens. Indeed it was for this very reason that they had originally built this city, in order, namely, that these barbarians might not unobserved make sudden inroads into the Roman territory. 12 This city, which through lapse of time had come to be almost completely deserted, the Emperor Justinian strengthened with defences which defy description, and he also provided it with abundant water and a garrison of troops, and thus put a stop to the raids of the Saracens”.„

Procopius, Buildings, book II, chapter 11 (6th c. BC).

Published originally in Greek (The Funnel), 3 Apr 2016


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