Palmyra, also known as Tamur, is an ancient city in south-central Syria, about 215 km northeast of the capital city Damascus.
Tamur, the pre-Semitic name of the site, is mentioned on tablets dating from as early as the 19th century BC. During the 1st century AD, the Roman rulers renamed it Palmyra, meaning ‘city of palm trees’, though the old name is still very much in use. Palmyra was built on an Oasis, about halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River and the city became helpful to connect the Roman world with Mesopotamia and the East. The northern Palmyrene mountain belt guards the north of the city, while the southern Palmyrene Mountains overlook it from the southwest. The east and the south Palmyra are exposed to the Syrian Desert.
Before the arrival of the Arabs in the first millennium BC, Palmyra was a Mesopotamian settlement and was controlled by the Arameans, an ancient Northwest Aramaic speaking tribal confederation from the second millennium BC. The Romans conquered Syria, along with Palmyra, in 64 BC. From a small caravan Oasis, Palmyra steadily grew in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire. Before it was razed by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 273, Palmyra was attached to the Roman province of Syria, but enjoyed autonomy. During that period, it became a significant trading partner of Rome. However, Palmyra came fully under Roman rule in 14 AD, when the Roman Emperor Tiberius conquered the city.
Consequently, it became a Roman ‘colonia’ during the third century, leading to the incorporation of Roman governing institutions, before becoming a monarchy in 260. Palmyra reached the peak of its power in the 260s, when Palmyrene King Odaenathus defeated the Persian Emperor Shapur I. After the death of King Odaenathus, his wife Zenobia became the ruler as the regent Queen. She rebelled against Rome, declared independence and established the Palmyrene Empire. During her rule, the army of Palmyra conquered most of Anatolia. But, the situation changed in 273, when Roman Emperor Aurelien recaptured Anatolia and razed Palmyra. Following its destruction, Palmyra became a minor centre under the Byzantines and the later empires. In1400, it was again destroyed by the Timurids, a tribe of Turco-Mongol origin and was reduced to a small village.
Much later, during the French Mandatory rule, the inhabitants were moved into the new village of Tadmur in 1932 and the ancient site became available for excavations. Unfortunately, during the Syrian Civil War in 2015, the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) destroyed large parts of the ancient city, which was recaptured by the Syrian Army on 2 March 2017.
During its prime time, many monumental projects were carried out throughout the city of Palmyra. Greco-Roman culture deeply influenced the cultural development of Palmyra. But, it had a distinctive style unique to the middle-Euphrates region, as its architecture combines many elements of Greek, Roman, Aramean and Arab styles. Most of the colossal projects of Palmyra were built on the northern bank of the Wadi and they included the huge temple of Bel, which was built on a mound, the site of an earlier temple, known as the Hellenistic temple.
Also in the north of the Wadi, was the Great Colonnade, the nearly one km long main street of Palmyra, extended from the Temple of Bel in the east to the Funerary Temple (also known as the House Tomb) in the western part of the city. There was a gigantic arch in its eastern section, along with a Tetrapylon. A Tetrapylon is a type of ancient Roman monument of cubic shape, with a gate on each of the four sides. On the left side of the colonnade stood the temple of Diocletian, built on the ruins of an earlier building. The temple of Baalshamin and the Byzantine churches stood nearby.
The churches included Basilica IV, the largest church in Palmyra, whose columns are estimated to be 23 feet (7 m) tall. The temple of Nabu and the Roman Theatre were constructed on the southern side of the colonnade. Behind the theater, there was a comparatively small building of the Senate, a wide open space, known as Agora, along with the remains of a ‘Triclinium’, a small meeting or assembly hall, decorated with Greek drawings on the walls, a portion of which still stand. From the western end of the colonnade, a cross street leads to the camp of Diocletian, built by the Roman governor of Syria, which is near to the Temple of Al-lat (equated with Athena) and the Damascus Gate. The remains of a Roman aqueduct and the immense necropolises lie outside the walls of the city.
A dark cloud loomed over the sky of Palmyra, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) occupied the city in May 2015.The Jihadist group wreaked havoc on the city’s historic treasures and destroyed several invaluable statues at Palmyra, including the Lion of Al-lāt, which decorated the entrance of a temple of the same name that had been built in the first century AD. They also razed the Temple of Baalshamin and the Arch of Triumph, before blasting off the inner chamber of the Temple of Bel, though the building’s outer walls and entrance arch remained standing. Even the remains of multiple tombs were destroyed and the statues in the museum of Palmyra were toppled and mutilated. They brutally tortured and beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, the 83 year old reputed Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities, as he refused to divulge the exact location of the ancient artifacts that he had helped to hide. According to a photo circulated in social media by Islamic State supporters, his blood-soaked body was suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, while his head was resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on.
Palmyra was recaptured by Syria in March 2017 with the assistance of Russian airstrikes. Restoration work has also readily begun with the assistance from the experts at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Apart from Russia, Italy and Poland are among those who have been helping salvage relics from the site. UNESCO has also contributed to conservation efforts. In the mean time, some of the notable antiquities, such as the Lion of Al-lat, have already been repaired. The restoration of the Lion of Al-lāt took two months and the restored statue, displayed on 1 October 2017, will be kept in the National museum of Damascus.
The ruins of the once-glamorous city of Palmyra, with its UNESCO World Heritage status, were once the most visited tourist spots in Syria. Now, more than a year after ISIS was expelled from Palmyra, Syrian officials are preparing to reopen the site to visitors, as soon as possible.