Located northeast of Damascus, in an oasis surrounded by palms and two mountain ranges, the ancient city of Palmyra has the aura of myth. According to the Bible, the city was built by Solomon. Regardless of its actual origins, it was an influential city, serving for centuries as a caravan stop for those crossing the Syrian Desert. It became a Roman province under Tiberius and served as the most powerful commercial center in the Middle East between the first and the third centuries CE. But when the citizens of Palmyra tried to break away from Rome, they were defeated, marking the end of the city’s prosperity. The magnificent monuments from that earlier era of wealth, a resplendent blend of Greco-Roman architecture and local influences, stretched over miles and were among the most significant buildings of the ancient world—until the arrival of ISIS. In 2015, ISIS fought to gain control of the area because it was home to a prison where many members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood had been held, and ISIS went on to systematically destroy the city and murder many of its inhabitants, including the archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, the antiquities director of Palymra.
In this concise and elegiac book, Paul Veyne, one of Palymra’s most important experts, offers a beautiful and moving look at the history of this significant lost city and why it was—and still is—important. Today, we can appreciate the majesty of Palmyra only through its pictures and stories, and this book offers a beautifully illustrated memorial that also serves as a lasting guide to a cultural treasure.
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About the Author
Paul Veyne is a French archaeologist and historian and an honorary professor at the Collège de France. He is the author of several books in French as well as Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Teresa Lavender Fagan is a freelance translator living in Chicago; she has translated numerous books for the University of Chicago Press and other publishers.
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An Irreplaceable Treasure
By Paul Veyne, Teresa Lavender Fagan
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Riches in the Desert
A current victim of terrorist barbarism, the Greco-Roman archeological site of Palmyra was perhaps the most extraordinary that archeologists had ever uncovered, alongside Pompeii, near Naples, and, on the Turkish coast, the vast ruins of Ephesus. Around 200 CE the city was part of the vast Roman Empire, at the height of its power at that time, which extended from Andalusia to the Euphrates, and from Morocco to Syria. When a traveler arrived in the merchant republic of Palmyra, a Greek or Italian trader on horseback, an Egyptian, a Jew, a magistrate sent by Rome, a Roman publican or soldier — in short, a citizen or subject of the empire — the newcomer immediately realized that he had entered a new world. He heard an unknown language being spoken — a great language of the civilized world, Aramaic — and everywhere he saw inscriptions in mysterious writing.
Every rich person he encountered knew Greek, which was the English of that time, but the person's name had guttural consonances that were difficult to grasp or to pronounce. Many local residents weren't dressed like other inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Their clothing wasn't draped, but sewn like our modern clothing, and men wore wide trousers: outfits for hunting and fighting that looked a lot like those of the Persians, the legendary enemies of Rome. This was because, as an author of that time wrote, Rome and Persia "had divided up the world" on either side of the Euphrates River. Those noble Palmyrene horsemen, lords of import-export, wore daggers at their waists, defying the prohibition against carrying weapons on one's person that was imposed on all citizens. The women wore full-length tunics and cloaks that concealed only their hair; they wore embroidered bands around their heads, with twisted turbans on top. Others, however, wore voluminous pantaloons. Their faces weren't veiled, as was the custom in a few regions of the Hellenic world. And so much jewelry! Some even wore a ring on the middle part of their little finger! They may have been in the heart of the desert, but everything exuded wealth. There were statues everywhere, but they were made of bronze, not marble; in the great temple the columns had gilded bronze capitals.
To the south, and to the west as far as the eye could see, the desert, until quite recently, was scattered with a great number of ostentatious monuments, funerary temples, hypogea, or multistory rectangular towers (figures 2 and 3). These were the mausoleums where the great families, those who managed part of the trade between the Roman Empire and Persia, India, and China, buried their dead (whereas the Greco-Roman custom was cremation).
To the north, outside the city, the visitor might have noticed strange beasts: camel caravans were stationed around large warehouses; one sensed that nomadism was not far off. When the visitor's gaze turned back to the city and to the palm grove with its olive trees and vineyards, the massive sanctuary of the Temple of Bel, the patron god of this land, towered above the single-level houses — a sure sign, like the sight of a minaret for Westerners today, that one had indeed entered a new civilization. This Temple of Bel, recently destroyed in our own time, rose up at the end of a long colonnade, which for a moment reassured the visitor because it seemed to belong to the "true" civilization; and at first the shape of the temple itself was reassuring, as it resembled that of all temples in the empire. Its details were also familiar; it spoke the customary architectural vocabulary of columns. The newcomer was familiar with the shape of its Corinthian capitals, and its Ionic capitals, a bit old-fashioned in 200 CE, were thus nothing out of the ordinary.
But when studied more closely, the building was disconcerting: the visitor discovered that it was the bizarre temple of a foreign god. The monumental entrance was not at the front, as would have been logical: it was surprisingly placed on one of the long sides. The top of the building was heavily crenellated (figures 4 and 5), something seen only in the Orient. And it had windows; a temple with windows, just like those in the houses of humans, had never been seen before. Most surprising was that instead of having a roof with two sloping sides, as did all temples, it was covered with a terrace — again, just like a private dwelling. In this region people went up to the roof terrace to eat, feast, or pray to the divinity at the risk of falling off, as did a young man, according to the Acts of the Apostles.
Without doubt the visitor had seen a great deal, and his sense of normalcy was shaken: in the Roman Empire, or rather the Greco-Roman Empire, everything was uniform: architecture, houses, written language and writing, clothing, values, classical authors, and religion, from Scotland to the Rhine, the Danube, the Euphrates, and the Sahara, at least among the elite. Palmyra was indeed a city, a civilized and even cultured place, but it was dangerously close to nomadic noncivilization and a civilization of "the other," that of Persia or of an even more remote place. And the visitor would begin to make generalizations: "Syrians are a nasty breed, a kakon genos," as a Roman or Byzantine soldier in garrison had engraved on a rock in a very busy place. The visitor was mistaken: Palmyra was not a Syrian city like others, just as Venice, in contact with Byzantine and Turkish civilization, was not representative of all of Italy.CHAPTER 2
A Monumental Ancient City
I will now assume my former role as history professor; that is, as a time-traveling tourist guide.
Today, to get to Palmyra it takes four hours by plane from Paris to Damascus, then you have to travel two hundred kilometers on a paved road that noticeably follows the traces of an ancient route; at the end of those four hours traveling through a desert of dry and rocky land where sparse, short, and shriveled grass grows, the appearance of the green palm grove and the white colonnade, an immense vestige of a vanished world, is a surprise of which one never grows tired. Upon arriving, visitors do not discover the "lost jewels of ancient Palmyra" about which Baudelaire dreamed (almost no jewels have been found), but a modern town with hotels and restaurants in a range of prices.
When a visitor turns around, facing away from the town, the horizon is blocked by an astonishing array of half-crumbling constructions (figure 1) with cubes and columns made of white limestone (there is no marble in Syria) against the backdrop of the desert and palm groves. It seems a giant child had fun building 1.5 kilometers of monumental walls and colonnades that are lined up as if marching in a parade; all around one sees scattered pieces that have fallen from the constructions. The impression is not that of ruins, but of a city that has been taken apart: there are no shapeless masses of Roman concrete (as are often found in Rome itself); no arches, either; no curves, only horizontal and vertical lines. It is an architecture of massive stones whose transparent logic is intellectually satisfying: the visitor has the impression that he is seeing all the elements necessary to reconstruct in his mind that which once existed; the structure is the same as the visible shape, all elements creating a single piece.
On the archeological site, no modern construction can be seen; time has stopped here once and for all. What is most striking for the contemporary visitor is what already struck the ancient traveler: a huge sanctuary, today blasted apart, and a long colonnade, those "streets of Palmyra, those forests of columns in the desert plains" about which Hölderlin dreamed as a child. Trade with the outside world had transfigured this Aramean oasis, just as it would turn a few muddy islands on the Adriatic into Venice. The colonnade represented avant-garde urbanism and everyday life in Palmyra; the Temple of Bel was the San Marco of this desert port.
The temple was not a monumental reliquary or a shrine, as temples were in Greece and Rome; equipped with windows, it was the home where Bel lived and where his statue sat on a throne as the saint of all saints. The building rose up in the middle of a rectangular enclosure more than two hundred meters on each side; looking inward at the four sides, this enclosure was a quadrilateral with porticoes (let's call them overhangs) supported by columns; from the exterior, one saw almost windowless walls that protected the temple (just as the admirable mosques of Istanbul remain separated from the city in their large courtyards). Neither the enclosure nor its size was exceptional: wherever the available space allowed, Palmyrenes chose to surround their temples with walls of that type.
The overhangs were not just ornamental or used as shelters against the sun; they offered pilgrims an indispensable campground. Here, merchants sold religious objects that could be offered to the god as ex-votos, and also, I imagine, poultry, which those of lesser means could offer up as sacrifices. On the back wall, devout pilgrims engraved in the plaster the written proof of their visit to the temple, or their thanks to the god who had answered their prayers. And of course, the vast enclosure must have been full during the annual celebration of the god.
Who financed this monumental construction? We don't know. There are three possible answers: it might have been built from the commercial profits obtained on the Silk Road, built from the donations of the many pious pilgrims, or financed by the Roman imperial family. The rich faithful, for example, might have offered one or two columns, following a custom that was common at that time. An emperor or an imperial prince might have gifted a column to the city when it became part of the empire. Or perhaps the treasure of the temple itself was used; the gods received gifts and bequests, and priests were entitled to a portion of the sacrificed animals, which they later resold: temples were competitors of the local butcher shops. Or perhaps the temple was the goal of a regional pilgrimage that attracted a crowd of faithful from afar; if it was widely famous it might have received donations or bequests of real estate, from which it reaped the profits. (Perhaps miracles were not as great as they appeared.)
Just the temple was consecrated in 32 CE; the enclosure and its porticoes must have been constructed only gradually, over decades. Many other pagan or Christian sanctuaries were completed over centuries. The temple itself is not that big. Granted, Syria was quite fond of all things large (it was one of the wealthiest provinces of the empire, along with Tunisia and eastern Turkey), and the temple that crowds of tourists visit in Baalbek, Libya, is one of the largest of the ancient world. But the dimensions of Bel's temple in Palmyra were those of normal temples, of the Maison Carrée in Nimes or the temple in Magnesia on the Maeander, in Turkey, which also has eight columns in front and fifteen on the sides, and which was paid for by that small city.
As for the long colonnade (whose path was not paved in stone), today it crosses the entire site, from the Temple of Bel to the ruins of the "baths of Diocletian." This double line of columns that rise up to the heavens and no longer support anything was completed over two centuries (figures 12 and 13). The first section started at the great temple and was a sacred pathway; every year at the spring equinox a procession accompanied an image of Bel, enclosed in a case of red leather and carried by a camel, to a sanctuary in the countryside; women watched the procession go by with their faces and entire bodies wrapped in veils, either out of respect for the god or because they were in a public place. The later sections of the colonnade had a secondary function: they were lined with shops installed under the porticoes.
The colonnade was not a normal road. One mustn't imagine caravans traveling along it; they certainly did not enter the city. Along part of the great avenue was the souk of Palmyra, "the portico under which everything was sold," as it was called, and the place where people strolled. The souk had regular geometrical dimensions which conformed to the rational design of an advanced civilization, and which formed a contained space: a place where one went, rather than a passageway to somewhere else. Souks, and such use of public space, are unknown in the Western world.
Another example of this: in every ancient city, large or small, the circulation of private conveyances and horseback riders was forbidden. Only wagons carrying goods were allowed to enter the city; individuals left their mounts and their carriages outside the city walls. However, the streets were often encumbered by herds of livestock that passed through, to be slaughtered for the consumption of the city dwellers. Every morning many of those city dwellers left the city and, in the evening, hurried to return before the city gates were shut; they had spent the day working in the fields.
What was most amazing about the colonnade is that it was a civil monument; and so Palmyra was a true city-state, following the Greco-Roman concept. This was a new idea in Syria, which had known only royal, religious, or funerary edifices: surrounding walls and gates, temples, palaces, and tombs. Large-scale urbanism became widespread only in the Roman period. We should mention how popular colonnades truly were. It was probably Antioch, the capital of Syria, that was the first city to have these avenues with paved streets that were lined with "hundreds of columns, all of the same diameter, the ornaments of some insipid rue de Rivoli," wrote Renan, who liked neither that classical urbanism nor Bonaparte.
In Syria, those imperious colonnades formed the axis of a future space arranged on a geometric grid; in Palmyra, which was constructed gradually and without a guiding plan, the long line of columns ultimately went through the entire city; outside Syria, colonnaded streets do not normally occupy such a clearly imperative position. These avenues were called plateia, or "wide roads," from which French derived place [square] and Italian piazza. One of those "wide" roads was the via lata in Rome, the via del Corso; two kilometers long and lined with shops under porticoes, it went through the exclusive northern part of the city, leading to the Forum, and is still today the axis of Rome.
As in Rome and elsewhere, in Palmyra the columns or pillars of the avenue supported porticoes, and under those overhangs there were doors that each opened onto a shop; in Palmyra, the brick walls of the shops deteriorated over time, leaving only their backbone, the colonnade. Some of those shops were also used as dwellings; others were one-room commercial spaces, as could be seen not long ago in the souk of Damascus. There were curriers, cobblers, makers of inflated animal skins who sent their wares to the Euphrates, where they were used to create rafts loaded with merchandise (following an immemorial technique that had been adopted as far as the Rhone River).
From what we have learned, shopkeepers and tenants paid rent to the city or to a temple treasury, depending on who owned the building. If the shop was that of a cobbler who lived off his daily earnings, it also served as his lodgings for the night, I imagine, as in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and even, only fifty years ago, in old Naples. If it was that of a goldsmith — in Palmyra there was a goldsmith guild, and one for silversmiths as well — he probably had a house in the city.
In addition to a marketplace, a city worthy of the name had to have a public space, a forum, an agora; Palmyra had one (figure 7), and it appears to have followed a guiding architectural principle: its columns rise up perfectly straight, it boasts four porticoes, and it is decorated with two hundred official statues. It would be interesting to know whether the heart of the city beat in this public structure, as happened in other Greco-Roman cities, or whether the buzzing sounds of social life were heard around one of the gates in the city walls, as had been occurring in Oriental cities for three thousand years, and which tourists can still see in Marrakech today.
But where was the city itself? Where did the inhabitants live? So far we have only been talking about monuments. Excavations to the north of the city have revealed streets and homes that were more or less lined up between the great colonnade and the current town. The remains of a few houses can still be seen. Some appear to have been homes of wealthy proprietors, similar to the type of private home that was common throughout the empire, in Ephesus as well as in Vaison-la-Romaine in France or in Pompeii: a single-level dwelling, very long and wide, spreading out over hundreds of square meters, opening onto a central courtyard surrounded by porticoes; mosaics no doubt decorated the ground and the walls, as in the house of Cassiopeia (figure 11), with its beautiful, voluptuous nude with a sad gaze, reflecting the humanist tradition of Greek art.
Excerpted from Palmyra by Paul Veyne, Teresa Lavender Fagan. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Translator's Note ix
1 Riches in the Desert 3
2 A Monumental Ancient City 7
3 Being a Capitalist Back Then 18
4 Antiquity in Antiquity 28
5 Palmyra: A Subject of the Caesars 31
6 A Syrian Tribe and a Hellenized City 34
7 Saving the Empire 38
8 The Palmyrene Saga 43
9 A Hybrid Identity 57
10 Dining with the Gods 66
11 Religion in Palmyra 69
12 Palmyrene Portraits 78