The Significance of the Ancient Ruins of Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra is an ancient, ruined city about 135 miles northeast of the capital, Damascus

Nick Brundle Photography / Getty Images

Have you ever wondered why your home is so symmetrical? Why were those columns built, making your house look like a Roman temple? America's Greek revival house style was all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why the sudden interest in Classical Greek and Roman architecture?

In part, blame it on the ancient ruins of Palmyra, a city called "the Bride of the Desert," rediscovered by Westerners in the 17th and 18th centuries. Much like the discovery of King Tut influenced art deco designs, the "Caravan City" of Palmyra in central Syria created a worldwide excitement for classical architecture. The Middle East has affected the West throughout history, yesterday and today.

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Architecture Is History

Qala'at ibn Maan Overlooks the Great Colonnade of Palmyra, Syria

Tim Gerard Barker / Getty Images

West Meets East

Palmyra is the Latin name given by the Romans to the palm tree rich area they annexed onto their Eastern Empire in the first century. Before that, as written in The Holy Bible (2 Chronicles 8:4) and other ancient documents, Tadmor was its name, a desert city built by Solomon (990 B.C. to 931 B.C.).

The oasis began to flourish under the Roman reign of Tiberius, after about A.D. 15 until roughly A.D. 273. The ruins in Palmyra are from this Roman period—before the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, early Christian architecture, and Byzantine engineering. This is a time when Western civilization was influenced by Eastern traditions and methods—the introduction of al jabr (algebra) and, in architecture, the pointed arch, well-known as a feature in Western Gothic architecture but said to have originated in Syria.

The architecture of Palmyra exemplified the "Eastern" influence on "Western" art and architecture. Like the citadel atop a hill in Aleppo, Palmyra's reconstructed citadel—Qala'at ibn Maan—stood watch over the grand crossroads below. At least it did before the 2011 Syrian civil war began.

East Meets West:

Once a tourist destination, Palmyra is still an area of fascination—and horror. When the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) overtook the Syrian soldiers in 2015, the militant rebels chose the highest spot, Qala'at ibn Maan, to raise their victory flag of victory. Subsequently, the terrorists have systematically destroyed the iconic architecture considered blasphemous.

Again, the landscape has changed. Palmyra continues to be a story of East meets West. What has been lost?

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Great Colonnade

Great Colonnade of Palmyra, Syria

Graham Crouch / Getty Images

Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in part for being influential in the Neoclassical designs, including classical revival house styles, found in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th century. "Discovery of the ruined city by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in its subsequent influence on architectural styles," writes the World Heritage Centre. What did these modern explorers come across?

"A grand, colonnaded street of 1100 metres' length forms the monumental axis of the city, which together with secondary colonnaded cross streets links the major public monuments" are the ruins that Western explorers may have seen. "The grand colonnade constitutes a characteristic example of a type of structure which represents a major artistic development."

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Monumental Arch of the Cardo Maximus

Monumental Arch of the Cardo Maximus in the ruined city of Palmyra, Syria

Julian Love / Getty Images

The Cardo Maximus is the name given to the grand boulevards that run north and south in ancient Roman cities. The Monumental Arch would lead the caravan travelers and traders into the city of Palmyra. The ruins of this Syrian city give today's architects and city planners a good idea of past designs.

The grand monumental colonnaded street, open in the centre with covered side passages, and subsidiary cross streets of similar design together with the major public buildings, form an outstanding illustration of architecture and urban layout at the peak of Rome's expansion in and engagement with the East.

(UNESCO World Heritage Centre)

In the fall of 2015 many news organizations reported that militant groups had bombed and destroyed the famous arches of Palmyra.

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Tetrakionion on the Cardo Maximus

The Rebuilt Tetrapylon on the Cardo Maximus, Palmyra, Syria

Nick Laing / Getty Images

The great Neoclassical triumphal arches we see today, like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, can be traced back to a structure typically found at the crossroads of ancient Roman streets. The tetrapylon or quadrifron—tetra- and quad- mean "four" in Greek and Latin—had four pylons or faces within the four corners of the intersection. Symmetry and proportion are Classical design features that we continue to bring to our homes.

The tetrakionion (four-column) recreated in the 1930s in Palmyra is a type of tetrapylon, but of four unattached structures. The original columns were Egyptian granite imported from Aswan. In the Roman era, the tetrakionion would have been used as a great monumental landmark marking an important intersection—before stop signs, traffic lights, and Global Positioning Systems.

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Roman Theater of Palmyra

Restored Stone and Marble Roman Outdoor Theater in Palmyra, Syria

Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images

Like the Tetrakionion on the Cardo Maximus, the Roman Theatre at Palmyra has been recreated from the Roman ruins to approximate the original structures. Architecturally, Palmyra's theatre is not significant, but amphitheatres are historically successful tourist destinations for their similarities to our own open-air sports stadia.

In 2015, after the militant group ISIS took control of Palmyra, the reconstructed amphitheatre shown here was stage to mass shootings and public beheadings. In religious fundamental thinking, the pagan Roman architecture of Palmyra is neither Syrian nor Islamic, and the people who preserve and protect the ancient Roman ruins are false owners, perpetuating the myth of Western civilization. Who owns the architecture of the past?

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Temple of Baal

Temple of Baal (Temple of Bel) in the ancient Roman City of Palmyra in syria

David Forman / Getty Images

Dedicated in A.D. 32, the Temple of Baal (or Temple of Bel) was originally the center of a grand courtyard set off by colonnades that were completed at different times. The Temple is a good example of how Classical Roman architecture—the Ionic and Corinthian capitals, Classical cornices and pediments, the rectangular stone structure—was "tweaked" by local designs and building customs. Hidden behind the pediments, the triangular merlons are stepped behind the pediments to create rooftop terraces, said to be a Persian touch.

In 2015, The New York Times and other news agencies reported that the Temple of Baal was purposely destroyed by explosions of barrel bombs set by ISIS or ISIL. Militants of the Islamic State consider such pagan temples blasphemous.

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Temple of Baal Detail Carving

Carved detail from the Temple of Bel shows Greek-inspired egg-and-dart design

Russell Mountford / Getty Images

Before it was destroyed by radical terrorists, the Temple of Baal was the most complete structure of the Roman ruins in Palmyra, Syria. The Greek influence of egg-and-dart design was obvious and, perhaps, out of place in the deserts of Syria.

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Tower Tomb of Elahbel

Upper part of the Tower of Elahbel

Alper Çuğun / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Palmyra, Syria was a somewhat typical Roman city, except for the Tower Tombs. The Elahbel Tower from the year 103 is a good example of this locally influenced architecture. The slender design, several stories high, is ornamented inside and out. Constructed of sandstone block, the Elahbel Tower even had a balcony for the spirits of the dead. These tombs were commonly called "houses of eternity" built by and for the wealthy elite, beyond the walls of this caravan stopover.

In 2015 the radical group ISIL destroyed many of these ancient tombs, including Elahbel Tower. Satellites confirmed that at least seven tombs, including three of the best preserved, were destroyed in the heritage city.

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The Remains of Roman Civilization

The Remains of Roman Civilization in Palmyra, Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

De Agostini / C. Sappa / Getty Images

Palmyra has been called The Bride of the Desert, as it was the long-desired oasis on the dusty trade route to the Far East. Its history is one of war, pillaging, and rebuilding. Archaeologists and preservationists have warned that earthquakes could topple the Classical architecture. They did not expect the city would be ravaged and looted again, as it had been in the past. Today, what hasn't been destroyed by ISIS is in jeopardy of being unintentionally destroyed by warplanes and drones.

Simply put, the ruins are in ruins.

What have we learned from Palmyra?

  • Architecture is iterative and collaborative. Palmyra was built up over hundreds of years by Romans from the West and local laborers and engineers from the East. The joining of two cultures creates new forms and styles over time.
  • Architecture is derivative. Today's architectural styles, like Neoclassic or Classical Revival, is often a copy or derivation of past styles. Does your house have columns? So did Palmyra.
  • Architecture can be symbolic, and symbols (e.g., a flag or Greek architecture) can stir hatred and disdain while at the same time represent positive values.
  • Who owns the ancient ruins in Palmyra? Is architecture owned by whoever is the most powerful? If the Palmyra ruins are Roman, shouldn't Rome clean up the mess?
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Resources and Further Reading

A replica of The Triumphal Arch at Palmyra created in 2016 in London in defiance of ISIL

Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

Azakir, Mohamed. “Islamic State Raises Flag Over Citadel in Syria's Palmyra: Supporters.” Thomson Reuters, 23 May 2015.

Barnard, Anne, and Hwaida Saad. “Palmyra Temple Was Destroyed by ISIS, U.N. Confirms.” The New York Times, 31 Aug. 2015.

Curry, Andrew. “Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 27 July 2016.

Danti, Michael. "Palmyrene Funerary Sculptures at Penn." Expedition Magazine, vol. 43, no. 3, Nov. 2001, pp. 36-39.

Dien, Albert E. “Palmyra as a Caravan City.” Silk Road Seattle, University of Washington.

ISIL Blows up Ancient Tower Tombs in Syria's Palmyra.” Syria News, Al Jazeera Media Network, 4 Sept. 2015.

ISIS Beheads Prominent Syrian Archeologist in Palmyra.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 20 Aug. 2015.

Manning, Sturt. “Why ISIS Wants to Erase Palmyra's History.” Cable News Network, 1 Sept. 2015.

“Palmyra, Queen of the Desert.” Kulture Studios, 2013.

Russia Warplanes Bomb IS Positions in Palmyra.” BBC News, British Broadcasting Company, 2 Nov. 2015.

Shaheen, Kareem. “Isis Blows up Arch of Triumph in 2,000-Year-Old City of Palmyra.” The Guardian News and Media, 5 Oct. 2015.

Site of Palmyra.” World Heritage Centre, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2019.

Smith, Andrew M. Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation. Oxford University, 2013.

Stanton, Jenny. “ISIS Show off Their Destruction of 2,000-Year-Old Temple at Palmyra.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 10 Sept. 2015.

Hamlin, Talbot. Architecture through the Ages: the Story of Building in Relation to Man's Progress. New Revised ed., Putnam, 1953.

Volney, Constantin Francois. The Ruins, or Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires. Echo Library, 2010.

Ward-Perkins, John B. Roman Imperial Architecture. Penguin Books, 1981.

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Craven, Jackie. "The Significance of the Ancient Ruins of Palmyra, Syria." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). The Significance of the Ancient Ruins of Palmyra, Syria. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "The Significance of the Ancient Ruins of Palmyra, Syria." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).