The curse of Palmyra

A lot has been written lately about Palmyra, after its takeover by the ISIL, especially lately, when their forces started the methodical destruction of the city’s most important monuments. The temple of Baalshamin, the temple of Bel, as well as three of the burial towers at the edge of the ancient city have been destroyed. Using as a pretext the decrees of Islam to destroy idols, the fighters of ISIL have been destroying important monuments of world heritage since the beginning of the war. In fact, the practice is a means of concealing the systematic looting and trading of ancient artifacts which are sold to the west for huge sums of money which is then used to fund their military forays.

Short history

Palmyra (city of palms) is an oasis at a strategic spot for commerce, as it was in a vital spot in the Syrian Desert, right at the intersection of two vital merchant routes, connecting the Middle and Far East with the Mediterranean ports.

In the three centuries following the city’s conquest by the Romans, Palmyra evolved from little more than a caravan stop to a cosmopolitan commercial hub, with a mixed population of Arabs, Arameans, Greeks and Persians. Greek and Aramaic were the official languages, as evidenced by a multitude of inscriptions. The city’s architectural and sculptural monuments testify to a distinct and rich culture which was an eclectic mixture of local elements with Roman and Iranian ones.

Modern times

Surrounded by the Syrian Desert, Palmyra was wonderfully isolated, which contributed to its remarkable preservation. In 1753, explorers Robert Wood and James Dawkins published “The Ruins of Palmyra,” which made a strong impression in both the wider public and artistic circles. The city’s architecture influenced the European art and architecture of the time, while authors and painters drew inspiration from the city’s history, especially the legendary queen Zenobia, who created a short-lived Palmyrean empire, only to see her city destroyed and herself dragged to Rome in chains.

Access to the city was extremely difficult to the 19th century, when the existence of a large armed escort was necessary for travelers. This only served to increase Palmyra’s exotic appeal.

Samples of Palmyrene art, especially sculptures, were very sought after from collectors and museums. This caused widespread looting of the city’s monuments and cemeteries, which fed a growing demand in the West. Several collections of Palmyrene art sprang up in Europe and North America.

Palmyrene works in Greece

To my knowledge, there are only two works of Palmyrene provenance in Greece today. Both were donated to the Benaki museum by collectors.

The first is the head of a lost commemorative statue depicting an unknown upper-class citizen of Palmyra. His headwear (a diadem common to priests’ portraits from other parts of the Roman Empire) identifies him as a priest of the cult of the Roman Emperor of his day. Heavily influenced by Roman art, the work dates from the 2nd century CE, when Palmyra had already been granted the privilege of being a “free city” by Emperor Hadrian.

Palmyran portrait, Athens (2)

The second work is a part of a funerary relief, which dates from the 3rd century CE, a time when Palmyra was at its apogee. It shows a young man with curly hair, moustache, and well-trimmed goatee. Its style marks it as a typical Palmyrene work, of a kind used in the city’s burial monuments.

Palmyran portrait, Athens (1)

Burial monuments were of great importance to Palmyrenes, especially of the upper-classes. Sometimes they took the form of underground halls with lavish decoration, and others of burial towers or houses. These family monuments had burial chambers along the sides for several members of the family. Each chamber (loculus) was sealed with a stone bearing a portrait in relief of the dead interred within, or scenes of people enjoying their goods in the presence of family or servants.

Exiles or refugees

One could say that these two works, belonging to the extensive narrative of how Greek art evolved and how it influenced and was influenced by the various cultures around it, were exiles from Palmyra. The anonymous young man and priest, were far away from the temples, the streets, the colonnades and the burial monuments of the city they lived in. Perhaps their eyes show a longing for their distant homeland and its fabled riches.

Unfortunately, the two Palmyrenes are not exiles anymore; they are now refugees.

They are refugees of a city which whose curse was being a centre where the traditions of several cultures of the time converged and flourished in harmony, creating a unique fusion.

The two Palmyrene refugees in the Benaki Museum have a lot of amazing stories to tell us – if only we listen.


My only hope is that the millions of Syrian refugees trying to escape a country torn by civil war and the ravages of ISIL, will be as welcome as their ancient Palmyrene compatriots.


One comment on “The curse of Palmyra

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