More Than Meets the Eye – Palmyra After Zenobia

Even after damage and destruction when in the hands of ISIL, the site of Palmyra in Syria is made of famously recognisable ruins. But these monumental remains of the Roman period hide another story – that of Palmyra after Zenobia, the third-century queen of the Syria-based Palmyrene Empire. EMANUELE E. INTAGLIATA, author of Palmyra After Zenobia, AD 273-750: An Archaeological and Historical Reappraisal, comments.

Palmyra Zenobia
‘Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra’ by Herbert Gustave Schmalz

Amazement and bewilderment are probably two of the most commonly shared feelings among those who have had the opportunity to visit, before 2011, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, whose most exciting remains have recently been turned into rubble by ISIS. The temples of Bel and Baalshamin, and the 1.2km-long Great Colonnade are some of the monuments testifying the wealth of the settlement as a caravan city in the Roman period. For the archaeologist, however, there is more than meets the eye. In 2011, a still faintly visible painting on the inner wall of the temple of Bel depicting Mary among saints (and Jesus?) would be testimony of the conversion of the building into a church in Late Antiquity. A row of shafts and capitals of columns spoiled from a monumental civic building and reused into a more modest dwelling is proof of the occupation of the site in a period in which the urban aesthetic of Classical time had been transformed by the practical needs of a more pragmatic, and in many ways less pretentious, urban community. Such a transformation seems to have started after the attempt of the queen of the city, Zenobia, to extend the Palmyrene dominion to the detriment of the Roman Empire, and the consequent reaction of Emperor Aurelian, who besieged the settlement twice (AD 272 and 273) and put an end to any commercial and political ambition of the city.

Compared to the monumental remains of the Roman period, the modest ruins of Palmyra after Zenobia have attracted relatively little interest by the scholarly community. Something, however, can still be said on its history and archaeology thanks to the abundance of surviving evidence. Incidental mentions of ‘Byzantine’, ‘Islamic’ and sometimes even ‘Arab’ remains are often found in archaeological reports – after all, if you are interested in the classical period, you need to dig through later phases. A few scholars, such as the members of the Syro-Polish team, have praiseworthily published extensively on this regard. Archival resources containing unpublished documentation of past excavations and surveys, such as the Fonds d’Archives Paul Collart at the University of Lausanne or the Centro di Documentazione di Storia dell’Arte Bizantina at Sapienza, University of Rome, are also important veins of data. Then there are written sources. The writing of Late Antique authors has never been too much of a hassle for any scholar, but Medieval Arabic sources, which abound for Palmyra, have been more problematic. In 1886, Hubert Grimme was the first to advocate the potential of this type of source for research. After a scrutiny of the relevant texts, he concluded that Palmyra retained an important role as an urban centre in the early Islamic period until the collapse of the Umayyad dynasty in AD 750. However, until very recently, his conclusions have mostly been ignored.

All these sources channelled together allows for a new post-Roman history of the city to be written. In Late Antiquity and early Islamic period, Palmyra would never experience again the monumental building projects of earlier time with which it would later be remember by posterity, but, nonetheless, remained a significant urban centre. At least eight churches were constructed in the 5th and 6th centuries, one of which, Church IV, is one of the largest of its kind in early Christian Syria. More importantly, however, after the 3rd century and throughout Late Antiquity Palmyra maintained a significant military role as one of the most important fortresses along the eastern Roman frontier. It is this role that was behind the survival of the settlement after AD 272–273. In the Early Islamic period, the city was an important political hub for the powerful Kalb tribe, who was supporting the caliphate in Damascus. It is only after the collapse of the Umayyads, when the Kalbites lost their political support, that the city appears to have declined and shrunk in size.

Such a new storyline is not new in the panorama of Late Antique and early Islamic studies. It fits within a new trend of research advocating the necessity for a thorough restudy of archaeological and written sources to reassess periods previously considered of abandonment, decay and decline.

EMANUELE E. INTAGLIATA  is Teaching Fellow in Byzantine Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. He has been involved in several research projects relating to Palmyra, as well as taking part in the Caucasian Gate and Gorgan Wall projects in Iran.

Palmyra After ZenobiaPalmyra after Zenobia AD 273-750
An Archaeological and Historical Reappraisal
By Emanuele E. Intagliata

This book casts light on a much neglected phase of the UNESCO world heritage site of Palmyra, namely the period between the fall of the Palmyrene ‘Empire’ (AD 272) and the end of the Umayyad dominion (AD 750).

9781785709425 | Oxbow Books | Hardback | 168 pages | £50.00

until May 31st 2018

Cover Image: By Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons



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