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Palmyra: Mirage in the Desert

A book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thanks to the MET, readers can now experience the ancient site of Palmyra and learn more about its history and modern plight.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

Sitting in an oasis, amongst the palms, and towering over its surroundings, is Palmyra – Tadmor in its people’s language – one of the great global cities of the ancient world. Its position between the Mediterranean and the East, Rome and Parthia, and China and the West destined it for a great, though often turbulent, future. Violence returned to the timeless city when ISIS captured it in the wake of Syria’s ongoing civil war.

The terrorists who occupied the site quickly began to unleash their aggression upon its ruins. Many of the most spectacular standing structures were destroyed with explosives, and statuary defaced, all in an effort to erase the history of the region.

In response to this violence, a symposium was organized in 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York under the direction of Joan Aruz. The results of this conference have now been published as Palmyra: Mirage in the Desert (2018), the volume under review.

Melancholic memories

The volume opens with Aruz’s introduction (pp. 12-19), which provides an overview of the contents and situates them within current discussions of Palmyra. She also makes it very clear that the reason behind the original colloquium and subsequent publication of the book was to pay tribute to the life and work of Dr. Khaled al-Asa’ad, who was murdered by extremists when they took control of the site.

Following this introduction is a chapter in tribute to the late Khaled al-Asa’ad, master of antiquities at Palmyra, written by his son, Waleed Khaled al-Asa’ad (pp. 20-27). Never before have I been brought to tears when reading something within the remit of my profession, but by the end of this eulogy I had been. We learn of the life and legacy of this most honourable colleague in various forms: as an archaeologist, as a humanitarian, as a father and educator, and as a martyr.

There is no way to summarize in brief the value that can be found in these pages. Although I never had the chance to meet him, two lines of his own words from this chapter seem like they may encompass Khaled al-Asa’ad: “How could I ever get tired of telling people about Palmyra? I want to get information about this dear city to the widest possible audience” (p. 24). He believed “that culture is a right that belongs to all and that civilization consists of roots and identity,” a sentiment that I hope few, if any, readers will object to (p. 22).

As Waleed reminds us at the end of his chapter, although his father is gone from our earthly realm, “his spirit still hovers lovingly about the ancient treasures with which Palmyra enriched civilization, and he will remain Palmyra’s gift to humanity” (p. 27). His legacy will live on in fevered defiance of his murderers in his scholarship and the impact that he had on so many people.

Khaled al-Asa’ad’s death has been mourned across the globe, with Pisa dedicating the city’s restored naval armaments (a heritage site) to his honour, “with the intention of creating an ideological bridge to the other side of the Mediterranean, a bridge of peace and dialogue,” calling the martyr the “defender of Palmyra.”Show Apologies to Ancient World Magazine patrons who do not read Italian; I could not find an English article about this event.

Tadmor of antiquity

Finding the emotional fortitude to move further into this book, we come to the third chapter which looks at Palmyra and its hinterland (pp. 28-39). Jørgen Christian Meyer opens his chapter with a rather well-known quote from Pliny, in which the Roman describes Palmyra as being “surrounded on every side by a vast circuit of sand” (Natural History 5.21.88). We’re quickly told that this was “not correct.” Citing climatic data, this rejection is well-defended. Meyer goes on to discuss villages north of the city and the methods by which they were able to exist, noting especially the use of cisterns, saying that these were “a precondition for the expansion into the northern territory” (p. 33).

The chapter continues with a further discussion of agriculture in the hinterland. We hear about different ways to ensure crops are properly irrigated. Meyer moves on to the nomadic population which lived in the territory of Palmyra and the “complicated relationship” between them and the sedentary city- and village-dwellers. He concludes, in looking at the near abandonment of Palmyra in its later history, that the balance between settled centralized authority and nomad had been broken by post-Roman events and caused a collapse of the system which had earlier allowed the city to thrive and exploit its hinterland.

Chapter four discusses the earliest occupation of the site, especially in light of soundings from the area near the temple of Bel and Tell ez-Zor (pp. 40-55). Habitation in area A of Tell ez-Zor dates as far back as Prepottery Neolithic A, with a three-unit architectural complex dating to Prepottery Neolithic B (pp. 41-42). Area B at Tell ez-Zor shows evidence for habitation at the beginning of Neolithic pottery production, and soundings near the Temple of Bel contained Neolithic flints at their bottoms.

The site was also used throughout the Bronze Age, although the Late Bronze Age is not well-attested. Evidence for Iron Age habitation is also limited. Moving into the Hellenistic period, Michel Al-Maqdissi and Eva Ishaq provide readers with a translation of an erstwhile unpublished document relating to Mesnil du Buisson’s excavations in the 1960s. This discusses the various temple constructions on what would later be known as the Temple of Bel, in which are identified four phases. Modern soundings have shown six phases, ranging from the modern surface level to a layer of clay floors dating to Iron Age periods II-III (pp. 50-51). Helpfully, the authors provide a table comparing the more recent data with that from the 1960s missions. In this chapter, we are shown that a series of temples existed in what would later be the precinct of Bel, which was destroyed in 2015, causing the world to lose “one of its most important religious landmarks (p. 54).

It is impossible in a review to do justice to all chapters of an edited volume. This is the case with the fifth chapter of this book (pp. 56-65). In it, Michał Gawlikowski discusses the architectural and artistic qualities of two now utterly lost temples, those of Bel and Baalshamin. The first was a large structure, designed by an architect of “the highest standard.” Although built in some ways to a Hellenistic standard, its entrance was on one of the long sides, and contained many Palmyrene elements. The smaller Temple of Baalshamin originally consisted simply of several colonnaded courtyards, but in anticipation of the emperor Hadrian’s visit in AD 130, a “proper” Roman-style temple was built by Male Agrippa, which conformed to the precepts of Vitruvius (p. 64). Both of these were destroyed by the barbarians in 2015.

Chapter six again reminds us of the martyr of Palmyra, to whom the volume is dedicated, in its title: “Thirty Years of Syro-German/Austrian Archaeological Research at Palmyra in Memory of Khaled al-Asa’ad” (pp. 66-75). It summarizes this work across the four primary areas in which it was engaged: The Valley of the Tombs, textiles, the quarries, and the Hellenistic settlement and a caravan building. Avenues for future research conclude the chapter and give the reader a positive outlook for the study of Palmyra.

Ted Kaizer provides a clever title for the seventh chapter: ““Ich Bin Ein Palmyrener” or “Je Suis Tadmor”: On How To Be a Proper Citizen of the Queen of the Desert.” He discusses the complicated, multi-faceted, expressions of Palmyrene identity which can be found from South Shields in the UK to Dura Europos on the frontier between the Roman Empire and Parthia. Kaizer acknowledges that he surveys “a very selective overview” of how Palmyrene identity was expressed, but it is a very enlightening overview of how a multi-lingual, perhaps multi-ethnic, people told others who they were.

The next four chapters examine Palmyrene sculpture, primarily funerary portraiture. Eleonora Cussini looks at the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of art from Palmyra, fleshing out (amongst other things) a seven-generation family tree of a man named Zabdibol (pp. 90-99). Rubina Raja writes about the collection history of Palmyrene funerary portraits, noting the site’s “rediscovery” and the interest in it by European collectors beginning in the 19th century (pp. 100-109). Maura K. Heyn looks for identity in the funerary sculptures, noting interesting details, such as means to identify children when ages are not typically inscribed and highlighting the seeming “female passivity” represented across the corpus (pp. 110-119). Lucinda Dirven argues that Palmyrene art represented a diversity of styles, exploring different “visual codes” that were used throughout (pp. 120-129).

Judith Weingarten’s chapter concludes the volume with an examination of the renowned queen, Zenobia. Here, readers will find a concise history of Zenobia, her path to power, and what we know of her life and career. Weingarten acknowledges that we are left with less-than-ideal sources for these things, but we are still able to speak of an admirable reign and impressive accomplishments. She then traces the evolution of the story of Zenobia post-antiquity, beginning with Giovanni Boccaccio, the eminent Florentine, through to the twenty-first century Zenobia: A Historical Epic Musical Play, by Mansour Rahbani. Near the conclusion of the essay, we are left with a quote from a modern Zenobia, the daughter of Khaled al’Asa’ad, who reported her father’s final words. When ordered to kneel before his executioner, he replied “I kneel before no man, but only before God.”

Concluding thoughts

Palmyra: Mirage in the Desert is both an academic triumph and a moving tribute to the late Dr. Khaled al-Asa’ad. It is a reminder of how fragile the memory of humanity’s distant past truly is, and a powerful rebuke to those forces which would destroy it in service of their particular ideology.

Everyone interested in the ancient world, or cultural preservation, should purchase a copy of this book as a sign of support for the work that is done to preserve humanity’s heritage, even when that work costs those doing it their lives.

Reading this book, and spreading its message, is an act of resistance and defiance against the “creatures who had emerged from the womb of ignorance and the dark grottoes of hatred for the noble and the beautiful” and took the life of a great man and attempted to erase Tadmor/Palmyra and its culture from the face of the earth (p. 23).