Why Ancient Palmyra Is a Historical Treasure

March 30, 2016

In Palmyra, history is literally written on the walls: across temples and above doorways, encircling funerary monuments and snaking up the towering limestone columns that rise above the Syrian desert some 134 miles (215 km) northeast of Damascus.

These inscriptions were often written both in Greek and Palmyrene Aramaic, a bilingual phenomenon unique to Palmyra. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been a focus of international attention since May of last year, when the Islamic State (ISIS) seized the territory around the ancient ruins.

On Sunday, the Syrian Army retook the city. The military is currently removing explosives and booby traps placed around Palmyra, after which specialists will arrive to perform a damage assessment on its monuments.

The inscriptions provide unique insight into life in a distinctive frontier city where, for centuries, local merchants controlled trade between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

One example: An inscription from around 130 A.D., in which the Senate of Palmyra honored a citizen named Male Agrippa for building a temple dedicated to Baal Shamin, the Semitic god of the heavens, to commemorate an earlier visit by the Roman emperor Hadrian. The bilingual dedication was inscribed at the entrance to the temple, which featured a unique mix of Roman and Near Eastern architectural styles.

Male Agrippa’s gift to his city, the Temple of Baal Shamin, was destroyed by the Islamic State last year, along with the Temple of Bel, Palmyra’s largest and most important temple, and the city’s iconic Arch of Triumph.

Where East Met West

Palmyra (known until the Roman period as Tadmor) is mentioned in historical records as far back as 3,800 years. But it was in the first through third centuries A.D., that the desert oasis reached its height as a pivotal hub for trade between Rome and the Parthian and later Sasanian empires to the east.

Palmyrene merchants grew wealthy through taxing and protecting caravans that made their way across the Syrian desert to the Euphrates River and down to the Persian Gulf, ferrying gems and spices to the markets of the Mediterranean in return for precious metals, glass, and other luxury materials that have been found as far away as India.

Along with the caravans came a wealth of cultural influences, and among the thousands of inscriptions recorded at Palmyra are dedications to gods and goddesses from Phoenician, Babylonian, Arab and Canaanite traditions.

The Roman Empire controlled Palmyra to varying degrees over the centuries, and while the powerful merchants of this frontier town may have worshipped eastern gods, they also embraced the practices of the Roman elite, says Maura Heyn, an associate professor of classical studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and a specialist in the city’s funerary monuments.

“Palmyrenes were cowboys on the frontier, so to speak, but they were also participating in an empire-wide practice of embellishing their city with grand buildings,” she says, citing iconic monuments such as the Temple of Bel, dedicated in 32 A.D., and the 1200-yard (1.1 kilometer)-long Great Colonnade, built in the 2nd to 3rd century A.D.

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