Why You Should Care About Palmyra

The Importance of ISIS's Latest Conquest

As the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, a.k.a. ISIS, continues to wreak havoc in the Middle East. The most tragic aspect comes, first and foremost, in the form of the human lives it takes, but ISIS doesn't stop there, also destroying priceless pieces of history. After chiseling away at the treasures of Nineveh, Hatra, and Nimrud, ISIS now threatens to do the same to Palmyra in Syria. Here are four reasons why Palmyra is one special site that will hopefully survive the ravages of ISIS.

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It was a Major Trading Center in Greco-Roman Times

Camels in modern Palmyra. Other beasts of burden would have led caravans. Michael Reeve/Contributor/Getty Images

Palmyra – a.k.a. Tadmor in an ancient Semitic dialect – established its name as a trading outpost in the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire - although it had been around for centuries before. But Palmyra really came to international prominence when the Romans came to town centuries later.  

As a shortcut through the desert, Palmyra was ideally situated to be a stopping point on merchants’ routes between Rome to the west  and Parthia to the east. Caravans flocked to Palmyra, bringing luxurious goods with them; those commodities ranged from spices to slaves, incense to ivory. Taxes collected on these caravans and their precious goods – like silk - allowed Palmyrene merchants to become incredibly wealthy. 

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Its Most Famous Ruler was a Warrior Queen

A more modern Zenobia in a Roman triumph. Nicolas Colombel/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The best to ever do it in Palmyra was, in fact, a woman. Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, is the best known ruler of this Syrian city. Her claim to fame was rebelling against Rome - and attempting to expand her realm - in the third century A.D. Although her attempt at freedom was ultimately unsuccessful, her name has been sung throughout the ages ever since.

Even her chief opponent, the Roman Emperor Aurelian, acknowledges in the Historia Augusta that the Palmyrene queen was a worthy opponent: “The Romans are saying that I am merely waging a war with a woman, just as if Zenobia alone and with her own forces only were fighting against me, and yet, as a matter of fact, there is as great a force of the enemy as if I had to make war against a man…”

And when Aurelian demanded Zenobia’s surrender, her response was worthy of any of the other great queens of antiquity. She retorts, “You demand my surrender as though you were not aware that Cleopatra [whom Zenobia possibly claimed as an ancestor] preferred to die a Queen rather than remain alive, however high her rank.” Not a bad retort!

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The Palmyrenes Confounded Antony

Antony and Cleopatra have a party. Gerard Hoet I/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Ever clever, the people of Palmyra were well aware of the consequences of being located right between Rome and one of its greatest enemies, Parthia. Either power could decide to invade at any time, leading to a war of epic proportions.

In 41 B.C., when Mark Antony wanted to get some booty – monetary, not sexual, as he was with Cleopatra at the time – he turned to the richest land of them all – Palmyra. According to Appian in The Civil Wars, “…Antony sent a cavalry force to Palmyra, situated not far from the Euphrates, to plunder it, bringing the trifling accusation against its inhabitants, that being on the frontier between the Romans and the Parthians, they had avoided taking sides between them.” 

But Antony didn't really desire vengeance just because Palmyra was  neutral. Appian admits Antony wanted goodies for his friends, saying, “Antony's intention was to enrich his horsemen.” The clever Palmyrenes took action before he could get the upper hand, though, and protected their livelihood. Appian says, “They transported their property across the river, and, stationing themselves on the bank, prepared to shoot anybody who should attack them, for they are expert bowmen.” As a result, “the cavalry found nothing in the city. They turned round and came back, having met no foe, and empty-handed.” Not bad for a single city against the great Mark Antony!

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The Spectacular and Historically Important Ruins

A Roman theater in Palmyra. Andrea Jemolo/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Image

Sure, what’s left of Palmyra is pretty to look at, but they also tell us a lot about the lives of the ancient Palmyrenes and the newcomers to the area over the centuries. Palmyrene sculpture was stylistically different than Rome’s, but the two ended up merging to create a beautiful local style, particularly in funerary reliefs.

Its architectural marvels weren't too shabby, either. A Roman theater, under the auspices of Emperor Hadrian, rose in Palmyra right next to the temple of Nebu, a native Syrian god, and around the same tiem as the temple of a goddess named Allat. In Palmyra at least, the local and the “foreign,” as much as one can distinguish those two elements as separate strands, seem to have grown up side-by-side peaceably. Temples and military garrisons were built and renovated at the same time; the temple of Baal-Shamin at Palmyra was even built in a popular Roman style. 

The remnants of such buildings are historical footprints of the varied peoples that have gone before and left their marks on Palmyra.