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Ruins of a Roman temple in the middle of the ancient city of Palmyra
Overview of Palmyra and its Temple of Bel
Palmyra is located in Syria
Located in the heart of the Syrian Desert
Alternate nameTadmur
LocationHoms Governorate, Syria
RegionSyrian Desert
Coordinates34°33′36″N 38°16′02″E / 34.56°N 38.267222°E / 34.56; 38.267222
Satellite ofPalmyrene Empire
Associated withOdaenathus, Zenobia
Site notes
Public accessyes
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Ruins of a Roman temple in the middle of the ancient city of Palmyra
Overview of Palmyra and its Temple of Bel
Palmyra is located in Syria
Located in the heart of the Syrian Desert
Alternate nameTadmur
LocationHoms Governorate, Syria
RegionSyrian Desert
Coordinates34°33′36″N 38°16′02″E / 34.56°N 38.267222°E / 34.56; 38.267222
Satellite ofPalmyrene Empire
Associated withOdaenathus, Zenobia
Site notes
Public accessyes

Palmyra (Aramaic: ܬܕܡܘܪܬܐ‎;Hebrew: תדמור‎; tiḏmor, Greek: Παλμύρα, Arabic: تدمر‎; Tadmur, /ˌpælˈmaɪərə/) was an ancient city in central Syria. In antiquity, it was an important city located in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus[1] and 180 km southwest of the Euphrates at Deir ez-Zor. It had long been a vital caravan stop for travellers crossing the Syrian desert and was known as the Bride of the Desert. The earliest documented reference to the city by its Semitic name Tadmor, Tadmur or Tudmur (which means "the town that repels" in Amorite and "the indomitable town" in Aramaic)[2] is recorded in Babylonian tablets found in Mari.[3]

Though the ancient site fell into disuse after the 16th century, it is still known as Tadmor[4] in Arabic (aka Tedmor[5]), and there is a newer town of the same name next to the ruins.[6] The Palmyrenes constructed a series of large-scale monuments containing funerary art such as limestone slabs with human busts representing the deceased.



Palmyrans bore Aramaic names,[7][8] and worshipped a variety of deities from Mesopotamia (Marduk and Ruda),[9] Syria (Hadad, Baʿal, Astarte),[10] Arabia (Allāt) and Greece (Athena).[11] Palmyrans were originally speakers of Aramaic but later shifted to the Greek language. At the time of the Islamic conquests Palmyra was inhabited by several Arab tribes, primarily the Qada'ah and Kalb.[12]


A general view of the site


The exact etymology of the name "Palmyra" is unknown, although some scholars believe it was related to the palm trees in the area. Others, however, believe it may have come from an incorrect translation of the name "Tadmor" (cf. Colledge, Seyrig, Starcky, and others). The city was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the second millennium BC. It was a trading city in the extensive trade network that linked Mesopotamia and northern Syria. Tadmor is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Second Book of Chronicles 8:4) as a desert city built (or fortified) by the King Solomon of Judea:

There had been a temple at Palmyra for 2000 years before the Romans ever saw it. Its form, a large stone-walled chamber with columns outside, is much closer to the sort of thing attributed to Solomon than to anything Roman. It is mentioned in the Bible as part of Solomon's Kingdom. In fact, it says he built it.
Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Terry Jones' Barbarians, p. 183

Flavius Josephus also attributes the founding of Tadmor to Solomon in his Antiquities of the Jews (Book VIII), along with the Greek name of Palmyra, although this may be a confusion with biblical "Tamara". Several citations in the tractates of the Talmud and of the Midrash also refer to the city in the Syrian desert (sometimes interchanging the letters "d" and "t" - "Tatmor" instead of "Tadmor").

Greco-Roman periods

Detail of a Parthian cavalryman escorting a camel caravan. Rubbing of a relief at Palmyra
Inscription of Queen Zenobia at Palmyra

When the Seleucids took control of Syria in 323 BC, the city was left to itself and it became independent, flourishing as a caravan halt in the 1st century BC. In 41 BCE, Mark Antony sent a raiding party to Palmyra, but the Palmyrans had received intelligence of their approach and escaped to the other side of the Euphrates, demonstrating that at that time Palmyra was still a nomadic settlement and its valuables could be removed at short notice.[13]

In the mid 1st century AD, Palmyra, a wealthy and elegant city located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria and Phoenicia, came under Roman control. A period of great prosperity followed.

Jones and Erieira note that Palmyran merchants owned ships in Italian waters and controlled the Indian silk trade. "Palmyra became one of the richest cities of the Near East." "The Palmyrans had really pulled off a great trick, they were the only people who managed to live alongside Rome without being Romanized. They simply pretended to be Romans."

Palmyra was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37 AD). It steadily grew in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman Empire. In 129, Hadrian visited the city and was so enthralled by it that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana.

Beginning in 212, Palmyra's trade diminished as the Sassanids occupied the mouth of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Septimius Odaenathus, a Prince of Palmyra, was appointed by Valerian as the governor of the province of Syria. After Valerian was captured by the Sassanids and died in captivity in Bishapur, Odaenathus campaigned as far as Ctesiphon (near modern-day Baghdad) for revenge, invading the city twice. When Odaenathus was assassinated by his nephew Maconius, his wife Septimia Zenobia took power, ruling Palmyra on the behalf of her son, Vabalathus.

Zenobia rebelled against Roman authority with the help of Cassius Longinus and took over Bosra and lands as far to the west as Egypt, establishing the short-lived Palmyrene Empire. Next, she took Antioch and large sections of Asia Minor to the north. In 272, the Roman Emperor Aurelian finally restored Roman control and Palmyra was besieged and sacked, never to recover her former glory. Aurelian captured Zenobia, bringing her back to Rome. He paraded her in golden chains in the presence of the senator Marcellus Petrus Nutenus, but allowed her to retire to a villa in Tibur, where she took an active part in society for years. A legionary fortress was established in Palmyra and although no longer an important trade center, it nevertheless remained an important junction of Roman roads in the Syrian desert.[14]

Diocletian expanded the city to harbor even more legions and walled it in to try and save it from the Sassanid threat. The Byzantine period following the Roman Empire only resulted in the building of a few churches; much of the city went to ruin.

Islamic rule

The city was captured by Muslim Arabs under Khalid ibn al-Walid in 634 but left intact. After the year 800 and the civil wars that followed the fall of the Umayyad caliphs, people started abandoning the city. At the time of the Crusades, Palmyra was under the Burid emirs of Damascus, then under Toghtekin, Mohammed the son of Shirkuh, and finally under the emirs of Homs. In 1132 the Burids had the Temple of Ba'al turned into a fortress. In the 13th century the city was handed over to the Mamluk sultan Baybars. In 1401, it was sacked by Timur, but recovered quickly, so that in the 15th century it was described as boasting "vast gardens, flourishing trades and bizarre monuments" by Ibn Fadlallah al-Omari.

In the 16th century, Qala'at ibn Maan castle was built on top of a mountain overlooking the oasis by Fakhr ad-Din al-Maan II, a Lebanese prince who tried to control the Syrian Desert. The castle was surrounded by a moat, with access only available through a drawbridge. It is possible that earlier fortifications existed on the hill well before then.

The city declined under Ottoman rule, reduced to no more than an oasis village with a small garrison. In the 17th century its location was rediscovered by Western travellers, and was studied by European and American archaeologists starting in the 19th century. The villagers who had settled in the Temple of Ba'al were dislodged in 1929 by the French authority.

Main sights

Site of Palmyra *
The decumanus at Palmyra
Criteriai, ii, iv
Region **List of World Heritage Sites in the Arab States
Inscription history
Inscription1980 (4th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List
** Region as classified by UNESCO

City remains

The most striking building in Palmyra is the huge temple of Ba'al, considered "the most important religious building of the first century AD in the Middle East".[15] It originated as a Hellenistic temple, of which only fragments of stones survive. The central shrine (cella) was added in the early 1st century AD, followed by a large double colonnaded portico in Corinthian style. The west portico and the entrance (propylaeum) date from the 2nd century. The temple measures 205 x 210 m.

Starting from the temple, a colonnaded street, corresponding to the ancient decumanus, leads to the rest of the ancient city. It has a monumental arch (dating to the reign of Septimius Severus, early 3rd century AD) with rich decorations. Next were a temple of Nabu, of which little remains today apart from the podium, and the so-called baths of Diocletian.

The second most noteworthy remain in Palmyra is the theater, today with nine rows of seats, but most likely originally having up to twelve with the addition of wooden structures.[16] It has been dated to the early 1st century AD. Behind the theater were located a small Senate building, where the local nobility discussed laws and made political decisions, and the so-called "Tariff Court", with an inscription suggesting that it was a place for caravans to make payments. Nearby is the large agora (measuring 48 x 71 m), with remains of a banquet room (triclinium); the agora's entrance was decorated with statues of Septimius Severus and his family.

The first section of the excavations ends with a largely restored tetrapylon ("four columns"), a platform with four sets of four columns (only one of the originals in Egyptian granite is still visible). A transverse street leads to Diocletian's Camp, built by the Governor of Syria, Sosianus Hierocles,[17] with the remains of the large central principia (hall housing the legions' standards). Nearby are the temple of the Syrian goddess Allāt (2nd century AD), the Damascus Gate and the Temple of Ba'al-Shamin, erected in AD 17 and later expanded under the reign of Odenathus. Remains include a notable portico leading to the cella.

Funerary art

Funerary bust of a woman. Palmyra. Mid-late 2nd century. British Museum.

Outside the ancient walls, the Palmyrenes constructed a series of large-scale funerary monuments which now form the so-called Valley of the Tombs, a 1 km long necropolis, with a series of large, richly decorated structures. These tombs, some of which were below ground, had interior walls that were cut away or constructed to form burial compartments in which the deceased, extended at full length, were placed. Limestone slabs with human busts in high relief sealed the rectangular openings of the compartments.

These reliefs represented the "personality" or "soul" of the person interred and formed part of the wall decoration inside the tomb chamber. A banquet scene depicted on this relief suggests a family tomb rather than that of an individual.

Further excavations

Archaeological teams from various countries have worked on-and-off on different parts of the site. In May 2005, a Polish team excavating at the Lat temple discovered a highly-detailed stone statue of the winged goddess of victory.[18][19]

Recently, archaeologists in working in central Syria have unearthed the remnants of a 1,200-year-old church believed to be the largest ever discovered in Syria, at an excavation site in the ancient town of Palmyra. This church is the fourth to be discovered in Palmyra. Officials described it as the biggest of its kind to be found so far — its base measuring an impressive 47 meters by 27 meters. The church columns were estimated to be 6 meters tall, with the height of the wooden ceiling more than 15 meters. A small amphitheater was found in the church's courtyard where the experts believe some Christian rituals were practiced.[20] In November 2010 Austrian media manager Helmut Thoma admitted to looting a Palmyrian grave, where he has stolen architectural pieces, today presented in his private living room.[21] German and Austrian archaeologists protested against this crime.[22][23] In summer 2012 there is increasing concern of looting of the museum and the site, when a video was posted, which shows Syrian soldiers carrying funerary stones.[24]

Early morning panorama of Palmyra
Panorama of Palmyra
Temple of Bel
Panoramic view of the theater


Climate data for Palmyra
Average high °C (°F)12.1
Average low °C (°F)2.5
Precipitation mm (inches)20.8
Avg. precipitation days710642000035744
Source: World Meteorological Organization

See also

Ancient arches at Palmyra
Tower tomb at Palmyra


  1. ^ Syria uncovers 'largest church' BBC News Online, 14 November 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
  2. ^ Palmyra (Syria) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia Retrieved 2008-11-16.
  3. ^ Syria Gate - About Syria - Palmyra Retrieved 2008-11-16.
  4. ^ "Tadmor: Syria". Geographical Names. Retrieved 2011-09-24. 
  5. ^ "Tedmor: Syria (ancient site)". Geographical Names. Retrieved 2011-09-24. 
  6. ^ "Tedmor: Syria (populated place)". Geographical Names. Retrieved 2011-09-24. 
  7. ^ Hillers & Cussini, Delbert & Eleonora (2005). A journey to Palmyra: collected essays to remember Delbert R. Hillers. Brill. pp. 195–196. ISBN 978-90-04-12418-9. 
  8. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition, v.20, p.654
  9. ^ Teixidor, Javier (1979). The pantheon of Palmyra. Brill Archive. p. 34. ISBN 978-90-04-05987-0. 
  10. ^ Teixidor, Javier (1979). The pantheon of Palmyra. Brill Archive. p. 59. ISBN 978-90-04-05987-0. 
  11. ^ Teixidor, Javier (1979). The pantheon of Palmyra. Brill Archive. p. 62. ISBN 978-90-04-05987-0. 
  12. ^ Shahîd‏, Irfan. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2. p. 256. 
  13. ^ Isaac (2000), pp. 141-142
  14. ^ Isaac (2000), p. 165
  15. ^ Ross (1999), p. 165
  16. ^ Ross (1999), p. 169
  17. ^ Ross (1999), p. 171
  18. ^ "The Ruins of Palmyra…". 
  19. ^ "Palmyra". 
  20. ^ "1,200-year-old church uncovered in Syria". The Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  21. ^ Article on Helmut Thoma's looting of Palmyrian grave
  22. ^ Epoc - Interview with Austrian archaeologist working in Palmyra on the occasion of Helmut Thoma's looting
  23. ^ swr - "Grabraub ist kein Kavaliersdelikt". a comment on Helmut Thoma's looting
  24. ^ Archaeologik - Looting at Palmyra? - A video proof?


External links

Coordinates: 34°33′36″N 38°16′2″E / 34.56°N 38.26722°E / 34.56; 38.26722