Breakfast in the ruins

Ingrid D Rowland,
New York Review of Books.

In September 2015, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles acquired the first photographs ever taken of Palmyra, the great trading oasis in the heart of the Syrian desert. Louis Vignes was a young lieutenant in the French navy whose interest in photography earned him a place on a scientific expedition to the Dead Sea region in 1863. The twenty-nine photographs he made of Palmyra during his visit in 1864 (including two panoramic shots) were finally printed in Paris by the pioneering photographer Charles Nègre (who had taught Vignes) between 1865 and 1867.

With a history that extends back nearly four thousand years, Palmyra has risen and fallen many times. Its original name was Tadmor, which probably meant “palm tree,” an indication of the site’s renowned fertility. Both the Bible and local legend credit the city’s foundation to King Solomon in the tenth century BCE, but in fact it is already mentioned in Mesopotamian texts a millennium earlier. A spring and a wadi, or dry river bed, provided the settlement with water, making it a welcome stop for travelers and traders on the road between Central Asia and the Mediterranean Sea.

The population, almost from the outset, was a mixture of Semitic peoples from surrounding areas: Amorites, Aramaeans, Arabs, and Jews, who developed a distinctive Palmyrene language and a distinctive script expressive of their distinctive cosmopolitan culture, which drew from Persia, Greece, and Rome as well as local tradition. The city expanded greatly in the Hellenistic period, in the wake of Alexander the Great (fourth century BCE), and again during the Roman Empire. Its most impressive archaeological remains date from the first and second centuries CE, when the expansion of the Roman Empire streamlined the trading networks that gave Palmyra life. Some 200,000 people may have made their home in the oasis, which was granted a political independence unusual under Roman rule; Emperor Hadrian, who visited in 129 CE, declared it an independent city-state.

The weakening of Rome and the rise of Sasanian Persia in the third century CE cut into Palmyra’s share of trade between Asia and the Levant. For a brief moment, from 271 to 273, the local queen Zenobia managed to hold off both the Persians and Rome to claim an empire of her own, but in 273 the Roman emperor Aurelian conquered the city, looted its temples to decorate his own Temple of the Sun in Rome, and razed its residential quarters. In 303, Emperor Diocletian supplied Palmyra with its own Roman fortress, a walled camp to house a permanent garrison of soldiers.  Just two centuries later, in 527, the Byzantine emperor Justinian further reinforced the city walls.

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