Queen Zenobia & Palmyra, Syria


Most know that Hollywood made Cleopatra famous with movies of her romantic trysts with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony, but historians generally view Arab Queen Zenobia as having greater beauty, chastity and valor than her Egyptian ancestor. But who was Zenobia?

During the third century A.D., Rome was challenged by Persia (Iran). As Roman Palmyra, in Syria’s eastern desert, had twice defeated Persia, Rome permitted Palmyra to gradually change from a merchant republic, governed by a senate, to a kingdom.

In A.D. 267 Palmyra’s King Odenathus and his son were assassinated, and within three years the king’s second wife, Queen Zenobia, mother of another young son, had conquered all of Syria and Lower Egypt and sent armies into Asia Minor. Defying Rome, she then named her son August, as a rival of Rome’s Emperor Anatolia.

Emperor Anatolia immediately led an army, defeating Palmyra and taking Zenobia prisoner to Rome. Palmyra later failed to overthrow Roman rule in A.D. 273, never returning to the splendor and wealth it had when ambitious Zenobia was queen. Arab and Mongolian armies afterward sacked Palmyra before it disappeared in time, not being rediscovered until the 18th century.

Walking in Palmyra’s past

To appreciate Palmyra, we began our visit when the sun first highlighted these six square kilometers of fantastic ruins. We walked under the partially restored Monumental Arch and along the Great Colonnade with the Temple of Nebo and Baths of Diocletian on either side.

Off to the left there is a theater with an adjacent senate house and agora. At the oval plaza on the Great Colonnade, we admired the Temple of Bel (Temple of the Sun), a beautiful tetrapylon consisting of four pedestals each supporting four massive columns. Each of these columns is topped with an entablature.

Several blocks to the east of the tetra pylon, near the Old City walls, stands the Temple of Baal-Shamin (Master of the Heavens) with its mostly intact cella (main chamber). Nearby, Hotel Zenobia and several stores on the other side of the city walls gave us a choice to rest in the patio and purchase soft drinks before we continued discovering Palmyra.

The energetic can retrace their steps to the tetra pylon and then continue walking the 2-mile Great Colonnade. Others drove, as we did, to this funerary temple at the far end of the colonnaded axis. This funerary temple is actually a third-century-A.D. family tomb with a partially restored 6-columned Corinthian portico. Nearby there are scattered ruins of two Byzantine churches and also the Camp of Diocletian, built upon the ruins of Zenobia’s palace.

Valley of the Tombs

From the first century B.C. to the early second century A.D., 42 burial tombs were built in an area called the Valley of the Tombs, about a mile west of the main Palmyra ruins. Many of these tower tombs are several stories high; e.g., the Tomb of the Brothers, which has niches where 400 family members were stacked one above another in several columns. Later burials used either the more conventional underground tombs or a combination of both.

Those wishing to enter these locked tower tombs must make arrangements with the Palmyra museum keeper, providing him transportation and certainly a fee for his efforts. The museum is located near the rest stop discussed earlier.

The Temple of Bel

When viewed from the nearby Monumental Arch, the Temple of Bel appears to be a massive rectangular structure. The temple’s architectural beauty is hidden behind an Arab-built 12th-century protective wall replacing the original propylaeum. This temple, dedicated to Bel, master of the heavens and supreme god, is Palmyra’s equivalent to Greece’s Zeus and Rome’s Jupiter.

The front of the cella contains an altar where priests performed ablations on sacrificial animals. Surrounding this cella, limestone beams decorated with descriptive arrangements join the tops of rows of Corinthian columns. But what I consider most remarkable about the Temple of Bel and the Palmyra ruins is the wonderful condition they are in, considering the damage later inflicted by Rome, Arab conquests, Mongol assaults and, especially, time. Certainly our memories of this UNESCO World Heritage Site were further enhanced by our being fortunate to have been dined and entertained by local talent inside the Temple of Bel.

We ended our visit by driving at sunset high onto the hill above Palmyra to Qala’at ibn Maan, a 17th-century Arab castle. Here we watched deepening shadows highlight a fantastic relief of the Great Colonnade, the Temple of Bel and the structures in the eerie Valley of the Tombs — the scene recreating Palmyra’s beauty when it was ruled by Arab Queen Zenobia.

Minutiae

• There are several good websites with information and excellent photographs of Palmyra. Simply search for “Palmyra, Syria.”

• Those interested in Queen Zenobia may wish to read “Palmyra and Its Empire: Zenobia’s Revolt Against Rome” by Richard Stoneman (1995, University of Michigan Press, ISBN 0472083155).

• Cadogan Guides’ “Syria + Lebanon” by Michael Haag (2000, Cadogan Guides. ISBN 1860119255) provides an in-depth description of Palmyra.

• Several years ago we stayed in the Palmyra Cham Palace, located about a mile from the Temple of Bel. Syria designates this as a 5-star hotel, and Internet websites show its price to be about $100 single and $130 double. Due to ongoing problems in neighboring Iraq, tourism is likely sparse, hence room prices may be less.

• According to the Bible (1 Kings 9:18), Palmyra (City of Palms) was founded by Solomon and named Tadmor (City of Dates).

• As there is no airport in Palmyra, travelers must either join a tour or hire a taxi, etc., for the approximately 150-mile trip from Damascus. Plan on spending at least one night in Palmyra to enjoy a minimum of one full day viewing its ruins.

• Though there is no current travel advisory for Syria, readers should always use caution, especially in these times, when visiting countries discussed in this column.

Coming up

Let’s visit Cordoba, Spain.