Palmyra, also called the “Venice of the sands” is the last place anyone would expect to find a forest of stone columns and arches. Travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries were repeatedly astonished by what they saw : a vast field of ruins in the middle of the desert, roughly halfway between the Mediterranean coast and the Valley of the River Euphrates.
For anyone visiting, however, the key to the site’s prosperity is immediately apparent : Ancient PALMYRA sits at the edge of an “oasis of date palms ad gardens.” ——— It was like a “watering place” on a trade route from the east that PALMYRA’S story begins, and the very name PALMYRA refers to the date palms that still dominate the area (the origin of its Sematic name, TADMOR, is less certain ; a derivation from — TAMAR (date palm) — is favoured.
For such a remote city, PALMYRA occupies a prominent place in Middle Eastern History. From modest beginnings in the 1st century BC, it gradually rose to prominence under the aegis of Rome until, during the 3rd century AD, the city’s rulers challenged Roman power and created an Empire of their own that stretched from Turkey to Egypt. PALMYRA was once a thriving trade hub to rival any city in the Roman Empire. The story of its Queen Zenobia, who fought against the Roman Emperor Aurelian, is well-known, but it is less well-known that Palmyra also fought another Empire : that of SASANIAN PERSIANS. In the middle of the 3rd century, when the Sasanians invaded the Roman Empire and captured Emperor Valerian, it was the Palmyrenes who defeated them and drove them back across the Euphrates. For several decades, Rome had to rely on Palmyrene power to prop up its declining influence in the East.
Palmyra was a great Middle East achievement and was unlike any other city of the Roman Empire. It was quite unique culturally and artistically. In other cities, the landed elites normally controlled affairs, whereas in Palmyra, a “merchant class” dominated political life and the Palmyrenes specialised in protecting merchant caravans crossing the desert.
Like Venice, the city formed the hub of a vast trade network, only with the “desert” as its “sea” and “camels” as its “ships.” Thus it earned the name of “VENICE OF THE SANDS.” Even so, archaeology has revealed that they were no strangers to the sea itself. The people of Palmyra travelled down the Euphrates to the Gulf to engage in seaborne trade with India and even maintained a presence in the ports of Egypt. The wealth they derived from the Eastern trade in exotic goods, they invested in imposing architectural projects in their home city. The well-preserved remains of edifices, such as the Great Sanctuary of the Palmyrene Gods (generally known as the Temple of Bel), a grand colonnaded street and a theatre stand to this day.
What has been excavated, has revealed a vibrant Middle Eastern culture with its own distinct sense of identity. The Palmyrenes were proud to adorn their buildings with monumental writing in their Sematic script and language rather than relying exclusively on Greek or Latin (which was the norm elsewhere. —–Palmyra developed its own artistic style and its own take on Classical architecture. Decorating patterns on its buildings and its inhabitants’ styles of dress speak of widespread connections with East and the West. Chinese Silks have been found adorning “mummies” in the tombs in Palmyra. Theirs was a cosmopolitan culture with an international outlook. Yet, we still know comparatively little. Only small parts of the site have been excavated. Most of the archaeology lies just beneath the surface, rather than deeply buried, and thus, it is particularly vulnerable to looting.
Like other sites in Syria, Palmyra has undoubtedly plundered during the present conflict and there are reasons to fear systematic looting and destruction should Palmyra fall into the hands of IS. If that happens, a major chapter in the Middle Eastern History and Culture will be yet another casualty of this tragic conflict.
UNESCO describes PALMYRA as a heritage site of “OUTSTANDING UNIVERSAL VALUE.”