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From Ancient Palmyra - Zenobia Still Lures The Travellers

posted on: Aug 12, 2015

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

From atop Qalaat Ibn Maani (Ibn Maani’s castle), located on a hilltop overlooking the remains of Palmyra, known to the Arabs as Tadmur, I gazed in wonder at the majestic ruins of this city made famous by Zenobia – labelled in her time `Empress of the East’. The pillars and tumbled stones gave me a deep thrill, seemingly conveying a message from long ago. They told of riches, romance and courage produced by a brilliant Arab civilization, which flowered for a short period before being snuffed out by the legions of Rome.

These fantastic remnants of a once thriving desert metropolis, 220 km (134 mi) northeast of Damascus, have for centuries inspired romantic recollections by wayfarers and literary men. A leftover from a magnificent civilization in the heart of the Syrian Desert, they still, even in our times, astonish visitors. In the past, some believed that only a supernatural being could have conjured such a magnificent metropolis.

“Rise up and go into the world to release it from error and send word to the Jinn and I will give them leave to build Tadmur with hewn stones and columns.”

These were the words God is said to have told Solomon according to the pre- Islamic Arab poet Nabigha al-Dhubyain.

Yet, in spite of all the folklore and fantasy, the actual sheer size of today’s ruins takes one’s breath away.

These remnants of a mysterious desert urban centre, bordered by a half million palms, amid of which grow apricots, figs, olives and pomegranates, appear as if someone had magically planted a colossal wreck in the barren heart of Syria. It is wonderful to meander through this huge oasis overwhelmed by the fragrances of its fruit blossoms.

The high bleak hills on two sides provide a dramatic backdrop to the present day ruins, making them unmatched in their spectacular grandeur – the country’s most astonishing sight. They are one of the most majestic and wonderful relics in the world – a fabulous leftover from an extraordinary Arab civilization that reached its zenith some four centuries before the dawn of Islam.

The miracle of Palmyra’s existence in the middle of the desert is due to the hot spring called Afqa. Its sulphurous mineral waters, besides giving life to the oasis, is said to aid in the treatment of chest and liver ailments, anemia and skin diseases. It now forms a part of the Palmyra Cham Palace Hotel where guests can relax in its soothing waters, emitting a never-ceasing smell of sulphur..

The history of the city goes back at least 4000 years, but it was only after the Romans made Palmyra a protectorate in the 1st century A.D. that it flashed into brilliance for the next three hundred years. Its location astride the trade route between Duro-Europos on the banks of the Euphrates and ancient Emesa, today’s Homs, gave it the power to exact taxes on all caravans using the oasis as a stopover. Hence, it became very affluent and important – a frontier post guarding against the Persian peril beyond the Euphrates River.

The city flourished economically and its commercial attributes became well-known throughout the ancient world. For a number of years it was the centre of a spectacular Arab/Roman autonomous state, which extended from the Caucus Mountains to the Nile Valley. This large nation was built, then lost, under the remarkable Queen Zenobia – a proud descendant of a Aramaeo-Arab dynasty ruling Palmyra who took power in 267 A.D. under the auspices of Rome.

After the Roman Emperor Valerian, in 260 A. D., was defeated and captured by the Sassanians, the uncrowned king of Palmyra, Udhaynat II (`Little Ears’ in Arabic) [Roman form: Odenathus], soon thereafter avenged the defeat. After he crushed a series of Persian armies, in gratitude, the Emperor Gallienus made him ‘Corrector of all the East’. The Roman senate declared him Augustus and, in a haughty display of autonomy from Rome, Udhaynat took on the title ‘King of Kings’.

At the height of his victorious career his nephew murdered him in 267 A.D.. A man of great ability in his own right, Udhaynat has come down in history as the husband of Zenobia. Even his renowned victories are attributed, by some historians to the genius of his wife. After his death, his young son Wahb-Allat (the gift of the god allat) [Roman: Vaballathus], was installed on the throne, but real control remained in the hands of his mother Zenobia.

Also known by her Semitic name, Bath-Zebinab (Daughter of the Merchant), and called by the Bedouins, who trace her pedigree to the tribe of Bani Samayda, Sitt Zaynab, she was, even before assuming power, renowned for her pride, womanly graces, learning and achievements. A highly beautiful and intelligent woman, she is said to have had a divinely expressive countenance, a well-shaped and graceful body and a clear and strong voice.

The Roman historian, Cornelius Capitolinus, declared that Zenobia was the ‘handsomest of all Oriental women’. One of the most fascinating and interesting conquerors to stride across the deserts of the Middle East, she was to become, in myth and legend, ‘Queen and Empress of the East’.

Describing her and her court in its days of glory, Philip Hitti in his History of Syria, writes”

“Brunette in complexion, with pearly teeth and large flashing eyes, she conducted herself in regal dignity and pomp in a resplendent court modelled after that of the Chosroes… On state occasions she wore a purple robe fringed with gems and clasped with a buckle at the waist leaving one of her arms bare to the shoulder. She rode, helmet on head, in a carriage shining with precious stones.”


Of half-Greek/half-Arab ancestry, Zenobia became an eminent woman of the classical world. An accomplished and talented woman, she was influenced by her education in Alexandria. Claiming to be a descendent of Cleopatra, she was highly educated and was fluent in Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Latin, and had a perfect command of the Egyptian language.

Soon after Udhaynat’s death, resenting Roman encroachment on her territory and taking advantage of Rome’s troubles with the Germanic tribes, she declared herself Augusta and laid claim to the eastern half of the Roman Empire. In 269 A. D., she defeated the army of the Roman general Heraclianus, sent by the Emperor Gallienus against her, and took control of Syria, and most of Mesopotamia and Arabia. The following year her armies occupied Egypt then challenged Rome in Asia Minor, advancing as far as Ankara in present day Turkey.

Zenobia’s military conquests were the most spectacular the Middle East had seen since the days of Alexander the Great. In a few short years, she became Rome’s most serious threat since Hannibal. An ambitious, dignified and proud woman, strong-minded and energetic, she minted coins in her image and led her armies personally in battle, riding on horseback or walking at the head of her infantry for immense distances.

Under Zenobia’s rule of only five years, Palmyra expanded until it became an imperial city of some 200,000, noted for its golden pillars and stately mansions. It became one of the most important centres of power in that age – an exciting and adventurous place to live. The city attracted some of the best minds in the Hellenistic world like Cassius Longinus, who was to become Zenobia’s principle advisor.

Rome bided her time and built up its army in the east. In 272 A. D., the Roman Emperor Aurelian besieged Palmyra, but Zenobia slipped through the siege and fled by camel across the desert to seek Persian help. However, as she tried to cross the Euphrates the Roman forces captured her and in August of the same year, her city capitulated.

Aurelian put many of Palmyra’s leading citizens, including Cassius Longinus, to death. However, admiring the Queen’s courage and beauty, the Emperor spared her life. He brought her back to Rome and paraded her in gold chains through the city streets. In the ensuing years, she was given a pension and a villa in Tivoli, not far from Rome. It is said that she was too haughty to live in captivity and soon thereafter died.

A few years after Zenobia’s capture, the Palmyrans rebelled and were again defeated. Aurelian razed the city, but took back to Rome the Palmyran sun-god Shamash and built for him a lavish temple, establishing on December 25th, the winter solstice, an annual festival to the sun.

When the Roman Empire became Christian, this date became Christ’s birthday. The changeover was principally done to make the new religion more acceptable to the masses that had enjoyed the celebrations devoted to Shamash. Strange as it may seem, it was due to Zenobia’s defeat that Christmas is celebrated in December.

After Zenobia’s demise, Palmyra’s star began to wane. Subsequently, the city reverted back to its ancient Semitic name of Tadmur and faded into oblivion until rediscovered, in the 18th century, by the Europeans. Today there are very few ruins, which are more magnificent or romantic and a constant object of awe.

Visitors walking between the stones will feel they have stepped back into the history of a superb civilization. The ancient walls, arches, bas-­reliefs, columns, statues, temples and tombs speak in engraved stone, telling the never-ending visitors – about 70,000 a year – the story of Zenobia’s Palmyra and its once renowned glory.

At present, only about 40%, about 6 sq km (2.5 sq mi), of Zenobia’s city have been excavated. Some of the uncovered relics are in the Palmyra Museum, which is located at the entrance to the modern town opposite the city hall. Within its walls are most of the antiquities found in Palmyra, including many impressive masterpieces of art from Palmyra’s pre-historic finds, as well as, bas-reliefs, mosaics, religious and funerary art, mummies, pottery, and articles of glass and gold. There are also many statues of Palmyreans, which sheds light on how they looked and the clothes they used to wear.

Edging the oasis is the Temple of Bel – Palmyra’s most magnificent monument. It dominates the ruins and was dedicated in the first century of the Christian era to Bel, the chief of some 60 Palmyran gods and master of the universe, identified by the Greeks as Zeus and Jupiter by the Romans. He was often mentioned in a triad with the inferior Yarhibol, the sun and Aglibol, the moon god.

Walls surround the temple, 205 by 210 m (672 by 689 ft), in the middle of which is the cella (sanctuary) the most sacred part of the temple, the original place of worship and the home of the gods and their priests. Inside the cella are a sacred pool and altars where sacrifices were made. There are two chambers North and South, both have carved monolithic ceilings.

The Northern one is widely known for the seven planets surrounded by the carvings of the 12 signs of the Zodiac, a caravan of camels and veiled women, and the god of fertility Makkabel. In Byzantine times the cella, was transformed into a church and during the 12th century, it was converted into a mosque and continued as a Muslim house of worship until 1929.

Less impressive than the Temple of Bel is the renovated Temple of Bel Shamin. It was first built built in 17 AD, then rebuilt in 130 A. D., and dedicated to the Semitic deity Bel Shamin who was considered the lord of the heavens. Situated in front of the newly renovated Zenobia Hotel, it retains only the charming cella with its delicate golden brown and pink columns.

The Great Colonnade or the Decumanus, which is the main axis of the city, runs from northwest to southeast for 1,2 km. Lined on both sides with columns, it crosses the heart of Zenobia’s city and is the most impressive feature in Palmyra. After a monumental three portal very well preserved Arch of Triumph, almost always the historic relic with which Palmyra is associated, there are over 300 restored weathered columns, some with consoles which at one time held statues of Palmyra’s most famous citizens.

This grandiose 11 m (36 ft) wide street was once lined with shops interspersed with civil and religious public places, parts of which remain. Among these are: warehouses, the Temple of Nebo, often identified as the Greek God Apollo; an exquisite reconstructed 3,000 seat theatre; baths; the Senate House; the Agora with 11 porticos and 200 statues; the Hall of Banquets; and the Tetrapylon – a monumental gate, reconstructed in 1963, with four bays each supported by four Corinthian columns.

Today, even though here and there, parts of these structures have been renovated, the whole scene is one of fallen and broken columns intermixed with building stones. According to Mahmud Shweiti, Director of Tourism in Palmyra, besides Syrians, there are French, German and Japanese archaeologists who are gradually putting the heaps of rocks back into place.

To the west of the city, between the inner and outer walls in what is called ‘the Valley of Tombs’, the Palmyrans built various types of colourful family mausoleums. The oldest types were the tower-tombs, rising a number of stories above ground. Of the most interesting are the tower-tombs of Kithoth, Lamliku, Ellahbel, Atenatan, and the Hypogeum of Yarhai. Generations were placed in wall recesses with the front of each coffin showing has-reliefs of the occupants. Other types were house- tombs, built above ground in the same fashion as homes; underground tombs, similar to the Pharaohs’ burial places in Egypt, and a combination of the tower and underground mausoleums. Many of these ancient graves are rich in statues and beautiful bas-reliefs. A number have been restored and are open to visitors.

To me, the dominating 17th century Qalaat Ibn Maani , built in the 17th century by the rebellious Ottoman governor, Emir Fakhir el-Din al-Maani, and forming a splendid backdrop to the ruins, appeared to be a guardian watching over Zenobia’s city – majestic and haughty in its eternal isolation. As I watched the sun setting, throwing the castle’s shadows toward the ruins, I experienced a haunting dream of how Palmyra must have appeared in its days of glory when it was truly the ‘Queen of the Syrian Desert’.

In this magical atmosphere, it was easy to reminisce about the fabled Zenobia that through the centuries writers have called: ‘the pious and holy queen, ‘the fairest flower in the East’ and ‘the most lovely and heroic specimen of her sex’. For me, as for many others, she is without doubt what some historians have labelled ‘the eternal flower of Arab womanhood’.