Evidence of the earliest periods of settlement in Palmyra is fragmented. Archaeological finds have confirmed that the oasis and surrounding area was a focus for settlement as far back as the Palaeolithic and Neolithic eras, when the climate of the region would have been significantly wetter and milder.
The first written records concerning Palmyra date from the second millennium BC. Cuneiform texts found in the archives of Mari and Kultepe (in the Cappadocia region of present-day Turkey) dating from the beginning of the second millennium BC, as well as later Assyrian texts dating from the end of the second millennium BC, make reference to Aramaic-speaking nomads from around Palmyra. The Second Book of Chronicles, meanwhile, relates the legendary tale of the founding of Tadmor by King Solomon during the first millennium BC. This reference is now recognized as being an error, the chronicler having confused Tadmor (Palmyra) with Tamar in the desert near the Dead Sea in present-day Israel, but the mix-up in itself indicates that Palmyra was already a well-known town.
Having been controlled for a time first by the Assyrians and then the Persians, Palmyra later became part of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Greek Empire. Following Alexander’s death in 323 BC, the eastern part of the empire was divided between two of his generals, Ptolemy and Seleucus. Ptolemy controlled Egypt while Seleucus took control of Babylonia, soon extending his power to include Palmyra and most of Syria. Poor relations with Ptolemy’s Empire, which likewise grew from its base in Egypt to encompass parts of southern Syria, including Damascus, meant that the Seleucids tended to favour the more northern (and therefore safer) trade route from their main capital Seleucia, along the Euphrates then across via Aleppo to Antioch. In time, however, the Seleucid Empire came under simultaneous pressure from the Parthians to the east and the emerging Roman Empire to the west. First the Parthians (successors to the Persians) took control of Babylonia, thus confining the Seleucids to Syria, and then in 64 BC the Romans annexed Antioch, establishing themselves along the Levantine coast and effectively bringing an end to the Seleucid Empire.
Profits from Parthians
This new power balance left Palmyra in a no man’s land between the Parthians and Romans. As the two powers locked into a continuing but inconclusive cycle of invasion and counter-invasion, the Palmyrenes managed to establish a unique, if precarious, niche for themselves. Despite the conflict between the two powers, there was also a common interest to be had in the continuation of trade between east and west. The collapse of the Seleucid Empire had resulted in the decline of the northern trade route along the Euphrates, which became an area of uncertainty and instability, and this provided the opportunity for Palmyra to establish itself as the principal trading post on a more direct desert route between Dura Europos and Emesa (Homs). Thus the Palmyrene traders became middlemen in a mutually beneficial trade between two hostile powers. Pliny the Elder, writing in AD 77, even went so far as to suggest that Palmyra played a mediating role between the two: “Enjoying certain privileges with the two Great Empires, that of the Romans and that of the Parthians, Palmyra is sought out whenever disputes occur.”
The history of Palmyra up to this point provides the key to understanding its distinctive culture and style of art and architecture. First it came under Hellenistic influence, and then the competing influences of the Parthians and Romans, whilst all the time maintaining a certain degree of independence from all three. The exact balance of opposing influences and autonomy is difficult to determine, although it is clear that as time progressed, in practical terms it was the Roman influence that grew while Palmyra flourished as the most important caravan city of Syria. Thus when Mark Antony sent horsemen to loot Palmyra in 41 BC, the inhabitants fled with all their belongings to the safety of Parthian-controlled areas beyond the Euphrates. However, by AD 19 statues of Germanicus, Tiberius and Druses were erected in the Temple of Bel by Fretensis, the Roman legate of the 10th Legion, and by around AD 60 the Roman Senate was instituted as the sole governing body of Palmyra. Thus Palmyra in effect became a tributary buffer state of the Romans against the Parthians.
Even more important than the earlier collapse of the Seleucid Empire for Palmyra was the Roman annexation of the Nabatean Empire and its capital Petra in AD 106. Previously Petra had rivalled and probably surpassed Palmyra as a trading city, but now a significant portion of that trade passed through Palmyra, with the rest going via Egypt. When Hadrian visited Palmyra in AD 128, he awarded it the status of a ‘free city’, allowing it to set and collect its own taxes. This, now dominant, trading city flourished in the relative stability achieved under Hadrian and his successors, and it is this period, during the second and early third centuries AD, that is considered the height of Palmyra’s wealth and success.
The next series of events to influence Palmyra’s fate came with the marriage of Septimus Severus to Julia Domna, the daughter of the high priest of Emesa (Homs), an event which ensured greater direct Syrian influence in the affairs of Imperial Rome. Severus divided the administration of Syria in two, with Palmyra becoming part of Syria Phoenicia with its capital at Emesa. Under his successor Caracalla, Palmyra was raised in status to a colonia and granted ius italicum, or freedom from the burden of paying taxes to Rome. At the same time, Rome’s constant campaigns against the Parthians fully engaged its armies, forcing Palmyra to strengthen its own defensive capabilities.
Under Alexander Severus (AD 222-235) Palmyra and the Syrian provinces successfully held out against the Sassanids, who rose to replace the Parthians as the great power in the east. But after his death, both internal Imperial power struggles and rebellions, together with invasions from outside, led to a period of decline in the empire which became a jungle of intrigue, blood and uncertainty. For Palmyra, this provided an opportunity to exercise greater independence. Odainat (Septimius Odaenathus), a local noble, assumed the title of king. His position was enormously strengthened when in AD 260 he defeated the Sassanid king Shapur, who in the same year had himself defeated the Roman emperor Valerian. Odainat’s success in defeating this trouble-maker was a major relief for the struggling Roman Empire, and earned him the honorary title of corrector totius orientis. Ever ambitious, however, he went one step further in naming himself ‘king of kings’, a title borrowed from the Sassanids he had just defeated. In subsequent campaigns he succeeded in reaching their capital Ctesiphon (on the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq) thus effectively neutralizing the Sassanian threat. In AD 268 he was murdered during a campaign against the Goths in Cappadocia, according to some sources on the instructions of his wife Zenobia.
Odainat had set the stage for the last great episode of Palmyra’s history. Wahballat, his only surviving son was still a child, so his wife Zenobia took power as regent. An almost legendary figure even in her own time, Zenobia was certainly the most colourful and unusual personality to emerge from Palmyra, even if her over-reaching ambition was ultimately to lead to the decline of what had become a rich and powerful city-state . Her assumption of power alarmed Rome and a force was sent to subdue her. But she easily defeated this force, and, perhaps seeking to outdo her husband’s campaigning enthusiasm, she went on to seize control of the whole Province of Syria. Not content with this, she then besieged Bosra, the capital of the Province of Arabia, and shortly afterwards successfully invaded Egypt. Aurelian, the Roman emperor at the time, at first sought to appease her by ‘granting’ her son the various titles that Odainat had assumed, but when she declared Wahballat ‘Augustus’ (ie ‘Emperor’), he was forced to confront this direct challenge to Rome’s authority. After several clashes with the Palmyrene army, he took possession of Palmyra in AD 271. Zenobia was captured while trying to flee across the Euphrates and taken back to Rome as a captive of Aurelian.
Defeat and decline
Early in AD 272, Palmyra revolted against Roman occupation, but was once again taken by Aurelian and his troops who this time sacked the city, though they did not completely destroy it. Palmyra never recovered from this defeat, and although it continued to function as a city for a couple of centuries, it never regained its former wealth and importance. Roman garrisons were stationed there, and Diocletian (AD 284-305) built a defensive wall around the main monuments, turning it into a fortified garrison town. This wall, along with other building projects such as the complex now known as Diocletian’s Camp, fundamentally altered the appearance of the city from that of its original ‘classical’ period.
Christianity first became established around the late third to early fourth century and later, during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (AD 527-565), the churches and fortifications of Palmyra were partially restored. Shortly after, however, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire collapsed. The next mention of Palmyra comes in AD 634, when the Arab Muslim general Khalid Ibn al-Walid captured the city after laying siege to it. From then on, it continued as a small and relatively insignificant settlement, fortified once more as a strategic desert outpost by the Arab general Abdul Hassan Yussuf ibn Fairouz in 1132-1133.
The ‘rediscovery’ of Petra
Notwithstanding the Arab’s fortification of the temple of Bel in the 12th century, and possibly the building of the first castle on the hill overlooking the town at this time, Palmyra fell gradually from its former state of glory into disuse and then oblivion. Apart from the small village that established itself within the temenos of the temple of Bel, the monuments were left to the ravages of time and weather, becoming steadily more deeply buried in sand.
It was not until the second half of the 17th century that interest in the ruins began to be awakened amongst the European traders who had their headquarters in the khans of Aleppo’s souqs. Intrigued by tales of these fabulous ruins, an English expedition, led by Dr Huntington, a British trader based in Aleppo, set out to visit them in 1678. They fared badly, reaching the ruins only to be robbed, even of their clothes, before fleeing back to Aleppo. They returned again in 1691, this time led by a Dr Halifax, better prepared with a letter of introduction from a local tribal sheikh and a substantial armed escort. This second visit resulted in Relation of a Voyage to Tadmor, published in 1895, and the first descriptions and drawings of the ruins. Particularly interesting was the discovery of Greek inscriptions alongside the then unknown Palmyrene script, and through these, the identification of Odainat as king of Palmyra and husband of the, until then, purely legendary Queen Zenobia. Dr Halifax relates how their interest in the inscriptions was interpreted: “For this notion stickes in ye heads of all these people, that the Frankes goe to see old Ruines only because there they meet with Inscriptions which direct them to some hid treasure ...”
In 1710 the Swede Cornelius Loos visited Palmyra on behalf of Charles XII of Sweden, making further drawings, but it was not until the detailed work of English architects Messrs Wood and Dawkins in 1751 that any systematic examination of the ruins was undertaken, and widespread interest began to be shown abroad. Subsequent visitors from the early 19th century onwards, amongst them in 1813 the eccentric Lady Hester Stanhope, came more as tourists and did very little to further existing knowledge about the ruins.
Finally, before the First World War the Germans, who were by that time closely allied with the Ottoman Turks, carried out a detailed inventory of the city and its monuments, the first proper archaeological survey of the ruins. When it was finally published in 1932, it formed the basis of subsequent exploration which began in earnest after the War. In 1929 the French archaeologists H Seyrig and R Amy arrived at the site. They found the compound of the temple of Bel occupied by a small Arab village, which they set about removing, giving rise to the present town of Tadmor, before beginning excavations on the temple. In 1939-1940 Seyrig excavated the Agora. Archaeological work intensified after the Second World War with a series of foreign archaeological expeditions, taken over after independence by the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities, and continuing to this day. Indeed, part of the magic of Palmyra lies not only in what there is to see, but in imagining what treasures remain hidden under the sands.
Note Today Tadmor is a dusty town with a frontier feel and depends on tourism for much of its economy. As such, you’ll probably encounter more minor hassle here than anywhere else in Syria. Compared to much of Asia though, the hawkers/touts here are a friendly bunch and their pestering is only mildly annoying.