Palmyre, l’irremplaçable trésor by Paul Veyne
Palmyra has an affect on people. Paul Veyne writes how the city has impacted on his long career as a scholar of Greco-Roman civilisation.
It also impacted on generations of travellers who were moved by its immense boulevards and stunning ruins. In Syria, the region’s impact was felt through the shadow the neighbouring Tadmor Prison used by the al-Assad regime to house prisoners. The prison was the site of a massacre of a thousand prisoners on 27th June 1980 by Rifaat al-Assad. Later the City of Palmyra impacted on many as they witnessed the mindless destruction of its ruins by the terrorist murder cult of Daesh.
But before this, its impact was felt in the Roman and Persian empires.
Palmyra: the Hong Kong of the ancient world
Palmyra was well placed to benefit from the trade routes, sometimes called the silk roads which crisscrossed across Central Asia. The city was strategically positioned to shorten the overland route. The city grew rich from trade between East and West and the associated protection money.
Palmyra was a cosmopolitan city. People from all over the world settled here. It was an Hellenistic City but with deep wells of Easternness. Several tombs contain Greek and Aramaic inscriptions. Although pagan elements predominated, Christians, Jews and Manichaeans were welcomed. This may be due to Real Politik but its tolerance must not be underestimated.
Zenobia: Queen of Plamyria, Empress of the Roman Empire
Palmyra’s elite were very rich and very powerful. They combined the roles of proto- capitalist and gangster. The camel routes were dangerous and to protect their wares, the Palmyrenes organised protective escorts. They were nominally vassals of the Roman Empire and lent their support in Eastern adventures against the Persian (Sassanian) Empire. As a result Palmyra had access to private armies of well accoutred and experienced soldiers.
In 260 CE, the Roman Emperor was captured in one of the many conflicts between Rome and Persia. This time, continuing on the war, Palmyra defeated the Persians. In 263 the Palmyrene ruler Odaenathus was crowned King of Kings. Palmyra became the regional power. Odaenathus died in 267 in murky circumstances. Following much court intrigue, Zenobia’s son Vaballathus was named king. Because he was a minor, Zenobia acted as regent.
In 270 Zenobia conquered the provinces of Syria and Arabia Petraea and then Egypt and Asia Minor (Turkey). At it’s height, the Palmyrene empire covered much of the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire and bits of the Persian empire.
In her early reign, Zenobia was keen to make sure that both she and her son were presented as co-regents alongside the Roman Emperor (Aurelian). It was only in 271 that she assumed imperial titles. During 272, Aurelian marched against her, defeating her army first near Antioch and then near (modern day) Homs.
Her fate is unknown. She may have appeared in a Roman triumph but whether she was executed afterwards or spared is unclear. The scriptores historiae augustae says she was given a house on the Tibur by Aurelian.
The reign of Zenobia has been presented as a golden age. As well as religious tolerance, the Queen patronised scholarship and culture. She also restored buildings in Egypt, including the colossus of Memnon. Her court was frequented by Hellenistic philosophers.
With the end of Zenobia, Palmyra was sacked and its power was at an end.
Why was Palmyra destroyed?
Veyne argues that Palmyra was not destroyed because the temples were used to venerate idols but because the temples were venerated by the west. The destruction was performed to separate Daesh from the Western culture.
The destructions happened towards the end of the Daesh regime as the murder cult lost geographical ground. To my mind the acts were performed as a form of memorial. Whenever the history of the area is written, we will also have to tell the story of Daesh simply because of the impact of their actions on earlier periods. In two hundred years al-Assad may be a very obscure name but Daesh is likely to be remembered with a shudder.
The real tragedy of the Syrian conflict is of course not the destruction of rocks but the destruction of human life, and of communities and their civic life. The situation in Syria is complex but it is imperative to act now. Just as Daesh will be remembered for their actions during this period, so will we.