Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1384, (8 - 14 March 2018)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1384, (8 - 14 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Venice of the sands

A new book describes the glories of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, many of them now destroyed by the terrorist group the Islamic State, writes David Tresilian

#Palmyra # Paul Veyne, Palmyra, An Irreplaceable Treasure, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017, pp88
# #

The ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria hit the international headlines two years ago with the news that this remarkably beautiful and well-preserved archaeological site had been occupied by Islamic State (IS) terrorist group forces.

There were concerns that Palmyra might suffer the destruction already dealt out to multiple ancient sites in neighbouring Iraq. Tragically, the ancient temples of Bel and Baalshamin at Palmyra, built in the 1st century CE, were later blown up by IS forces. Ancient monuments that had been standing for thousands of years, including parts of the ancient city’s civic architecture and some of its unique funerary towers, were destroyed.

French archaeologists have long had a special role to play at Palmyra since it was during the French mandate in Syria in the 1920s that the site was first properly studied. It comes as little surprise, then, that French archaeologists have taken the lead in the international protests against its destruction.

Maurice Sartre, an authority on the Hellenistic world – the Middle East in the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE – wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde that “Islamic State in Palmyra is like Islamic State in the Louvre. To destroy Palmyra would be like destroying the Mont-St-Michel [in France] or the Cathedral of Notre Dame” in Paris.

Paul Veyne, formerly professor of Roman history at the Collège de France in Paris, has also drawn attention to the tragic destruction of ancient and other sites in the Middle East over recent years. His book on Palmyra, first published in French in 2015, has now been translated as Palmyra, An Irreplaceable Treasure for English-speaking readers.

The book does not seek to summarise what is known about Palmyra – impossible, in any case, in its slim 88 pages. Instead, Veyne has written a thought-provoking essay on the site that explicitly touches upon the recent destruction and moves lightly over the ancient city’s main features.

His book gives readers a sense of the irreplaceable character of the site for understanding the Hellenistic Middle East and particularly the early centuries of Roman rule. It turns out that the history of Palmyra can illuminate that of other Middle Eastern trade-based settlements, among them Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula, which may have shared characteristics with this “Venice of the sands.”

Veyne begins by imagining a journey to the ruins of Palmyra as they were before the IS occupation in 2015, taking on, he says, “my former role as a history professor,” or “time-traveling tourist guide.” Palmyra is 200 km from Damascus, and the only way to get to it is by a desert road that follows the ancient caravan routes. As the oasis in which the ancient site is located comes into view, now also housing the modern city of Tadmur, so does Palmyra’s familiar honey-coloured colonnade, according to Veyne a “magnificent vestige of a vanished world and a surprise that never tires.”

Palmyra flourished during particularly the 1st to 3rd centuries CE when it lay on trade routes connecting the Mediterranean world to Asia. It was at this time that many of the ancient city’s outstanding monuments were built, including its ancient theatre, temples, colonnade and monumental arches.

Owing to its position on the frontier between the Roman and Persian Empires, Palmyra’s population was mixed and came from various religious and ethnic backgrounds. Greek and Latin may have been official languages, but Aramaic was more widely spoken, and the city’s inhabitants followed a variety of religions.

Palmyra achieved wider fame in the 3rd century CE when Zenobia, the city’s queen under Roman suzerainty, rebelled against Roman rule and temporarily conquered the then Roman province of Egypt, killing the Roman prefect. She ruled Egypt and much of the Middle East until 271 CE when she was defeated by the Roman emperor Aurelian and taken to Rome in triumph.

The city had fallen into decay by the time it was taken by the Arabs in 634 CE during their conquests of the region. A fortress was built at the site in 1230, and this was extended and restored in 1630 by the local Ottoman-era ruler Fakhruddin. Its remains can still be seen above the classical site today.
A HYBRID SITE: Palmyra’s position as an ancient entrepôt or trading post meant that in addition to its small native population living off the always limited agricultural hinterland, it hosted a shifting population of merchants from east and west who would pass through the city with their caravans or take up camp temporarily to sell their wares.
    The city’s physical remains reflect its hybrid character, with the Temple of Bel, now destroyed by IS, initially appearing familiar at least in outline to Hellenistic and Roman visitors, but on a closer look revealing disconcerting features. The entrance was not at the front, as it should have been in a Greek or Roman temple, but on one of the sides. The top was crenellated in the Persian manner, despite the Greek vocabulary of columns and Ionic or Corinthian capitals. Instead of the tiled roof of a Greek temple, the building had a roof terrace.  
    Members of the city’s elite could speak Greek, as would have been expected throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, but “their clothing wasn’t draped in the Roman manner, but sewn… and the men wore outfits for hunting and fighting that looked a lot like those of the Persians, the traditional enemies of Rome.”
The women wore full-length tunics or baggy trousers and sported masses of extravagant jewellery. The surrounding desert was filled with “ostentatious monuments such as funerary temples, hypogea [underground tombs], and multi-storey rectangular towers” in which local families would place their dead in a manner quite foreign to the Graeco-Roman custom of cremation.
“Palmyra was not just a caravan city,” Veyne says. “It was a merchant republic.” It was located on the shortest path across the desert from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, and therefore it was an essential stopping-off point (and customs post under Roman rule) for goods imported along the land and maritime trading routes from India and China into the Roman and Mediterranean world.
The ancient Palmyrenes were a “trading people,” Veyne quotes the Roman historian Appian as saying, “bringing Indian and Arabian products from Persia and marketing them in Roman territory.”
There was clearly money to be made in this trade, evident in the still-impressive physical remains of the site. Veyne compares it to the remains of the ancient city of Petra, today in Jordan, which also grew rich from desert trade, or, more fancifully, to later cities built on trade such as Venice, Singapore, or Hong Kong. The difference was that the latter were all founded to take advantage of maritime trade routes, acting as entrepôts, marketplaces, and sources of capital and manpower, whereas Palmyra exploited the passing desert trade.
 In this respect the city can be compared to other desert trading centres such as Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula. “Palmyra resembled less a city of the Roman Empire than it did other merchant cities like Mecca or Medina in the time of the Prophet Mohammed,” Veyne says. “Like them, Palmyra was structured not around a civic body [in the manner of the classical Greek city state or polis], but around a group of tribes, and it was dominated by the families of merchant princes,” perhaps like Renaissance Florence.
“Palmyra resembled no other city in the Roman Empire,” he concludes. “With its art that was primitivistic, oriental, a hybrid, or Hellenised, with its temples with windows and roof terraces, with its notables who wore Greek or Arab clothing, and knowing that Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, or even on occasions Latin, were spoken there, we sense that a wind of freedom blew over Palmyra – one of non-conformity, of ‘multiculturalism’.”
Owing to the actions of the IS terrorist group, part of the wider tragedy overtaking Syria as a whole, large parts of what remains of Palmyra have been lost, meaning that essential research can no longer be carried out and areas of the archaeological record have been destroyed.
In addition to the destruction of the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, Veyne points to the loss of several of the city’s unique funerary towers and the looting at the site that has led to Palmyrene funerary busts being “dispersed from Damascus to Istanbul and Tokyo” as a result of “clandestine digs and the illicit antiquities trade.”
“Why does a terrorist group destroy monuments from the ancient past (or put up objects for sale)? Why did it destroy Palmyra, classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site,” he demands. “It is my duty as a former professor and as a human being to voice my stupefaction before this incomprehensible destruction and to sketch a portrait of the past splendour of Palmyra, which can now only be known and experienced through books.”

Paul Veyne, Palmyra, An Irreplaceable Treasure, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017, pp88



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