PALMYRA IN SYRIA – its history and its future

The magnificent ruins at Palmyra in Syria were severely damaged by IS in October of 2015 as was the museum that housed precious artifacts. The beautiful 1800 year old “Arch of Triumph”was reduced to rubble and the glorious Temple of Baalshamin is now just a pile of stones. These beautiful buildings were the remains of what was a very prosperous trade center during the early part of the first millennium C.E. but the site has a history much longer than that.

Temple of Baalshamin, before and after

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19707-004-1D422FDBIt was once just an oasis in the Syrian Desert 176 miles north-east of Damascus but its water and vegetation drew the caravans that traveled between east and west across the desert. It was called Tadmor (from Hebrew tamar “palm tree”) and is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (II Chron.8:4, I Kings 9:18, and Ezek. 47:19; 48:28) that claims King Solomon built it.  Tadmor is mentioned also in Assyrian literary records as an important trade route between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea during the time of Hammurabi (ca. 1800 B.C.E.).  The Romans called it Palmyra (city of palms) and Pliny the Elder described it as “a noble city situated in a vast expanse of sand and renowned for its rich soil and pleasant streams” (Natural History 5.88.1). Palmyra’s prosperity grew after Emperor Tiberius (14-37 C.E.) incorporated it into the Roman province of Syria.  Other Roman emperors sponsored the construction of temples and city streets.  The Near Eastern influence is evident in the traditional Greco-Roman architecture because of the multi-cultural community of the trade center.  Inscriptions are in Latin, Greek and Aramaic. The city’s prosperity and importance really blossomed after Trajan, in 106 C.E., re-routed the Silk Road taking its southern branch through Palmyra. In 129 C.E. Hadrian gave Palmyra autonomy and although it was still a part of the Roman Empire, the city became the capital of a Palmyrene Empire that had its own leaders.


In 270 C.E. Palmyra’s queen, Zenobia, challenged Rome’s authority until Roman Emperor Aurelian forced her to surrender, re-directed the Silk Road to by-pass the city destroying its economy, and ordered Palmyra to be razed to the ground except for the temples (those remained until 2015).

Palmyra was never rich again but the desert preserved the splendid temples.  In the 17th century, British merchants traveled through and published reports and drawings of the still magnificent remains.

Their reports inspired the Royal Society to study the history, architecture, and epigraphic remains of Palmyra and eventually Palmyra became a part of oriental studies at Oxford.  These studies attracted students and travelers from England and beyond.  Interest in the site grew and in 1980 UNESCO designated Palmyra a world heritage site, and in 1999 it was officially protected by the National Antiquities law 222.  But that was not able to keep IS from seizing the site in May of 2015. They began destruction in October because they regarded the temples as pagan and sacrilegious.  They sold some of the artifacts to secret collectors to support the IS campaign.  They executed the 82-year old minister of antiquities and hung his mutilated body outside the ravaged museum.

palmyra-arch-londonIn March of 2016, the Syrian Army took the city back.  The local Syrians vow to rebuild but it will be a long process that must begin with the removal of explosives hidden among the rubble.  The World Heritage Committee will meet in July to discuss emergency safeguarding measures (Bloomberg News, 4/28/16). A search has begun to recover artifacts that were sold. Other help came from the Institute of Digital Archaeology.  They were able to apply digital technology to photos of the “Arch of Triumph” and a scale model has already been built in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Also, although too late to help rebuild Palmyra, archaeologists have now developed an inexpensive 3-D camera that can record ancient sites in case of more destruction.  These cameras are being sent to thousands of sites in danger in the Middle East and elsewhere (Mairi Mackay, CNN, 8/31/150).

For more information see Kristin Romey, National Geographic, 3/28/16); Mike Duncan, Reuters 5/25/15); Palmyra, UNESCO World Heritage Site; and Jeffrey Becker, Art of the Mediterranean, Khan Academy.

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