Articles

Excavating the Forgotten History of Palmyra

Overview of the site from the medieval castle (Qal‘at Shirkuh), looking southeast: Temple of Bel middle left; Great Colonnade center (photo by Judith McKenzie/Manar al-Athar)
Overview of the Palmyra site from the medieval castle (Qal‘at Shirkuh), looking southeast: Temple of Bel middle left; Great Colonnade center (photo by Judith McKenzie/Manar al-Athar)

In all the news about the destruction in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra (called Tadmur in Arabic), there has been hardly any mention of the city’s post-classical history. Take as an example the Daily Mail’s obituary for archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, murdered by ISIS: It noted merely that after the 3rd century, “Palmyra slumped into provincial obscurity. Its monuments were swallowed up by the dunes.” Others ignore this history entirely. Palmyra is routinely presented as a city of ruins that had been left to decay naturally for 1700 years, until ISIS came. In fact, the ancient site was continuously inhabited until the early 1930s.

We see traces of that history in the Temple of Bel. This temple, built in the 1st century CE, consisted of a cella (inner chamber) within a large square walled enclosure measuring approximately 675 feet per side. The cella was mostly destroyed by ISIS, but the outer enclosure walls still stand.

Basilica IV (photo by Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar)
Basilica IV (photo by Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar)

This history was visible in paintings, which are badly preserved, on the east and west walls of the cella; one is a figural scene showing two saints possibly flanking (according to archaeologist Elżbieta Jastrzębowska) the Virgin and Child. Accompanying each are Greek inscriptions, one addressed to the “Holy Mother of God, full of Grace.” All of this attests to the building’s use as a church in the Byzantine period. Additionally, we know from a variety of texts that there was a large Christian community in Palmyra at this time. Historical sources give the names of several bishops of Palmyra, starting with Marinus, who was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Byzantine historians report that the emperor Justinian rebuilt the churches of the city along with the city walls in the 6th century. Meanwhile, archaeologists have identified at least seven other churches at the site: four basilicas and three smaller churches.

South chamber of Temple of Bel with mihrab (photo by Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Ahtar)
South chamber of Temple of Bel with mihrab (photo by Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Ahtar)

This history was visible in the mihrab (the niche marking the direction of prayer) on the south wall of the cella. At some point, the building was converted into a mosque — it’s unclear exactly when, thought it would have been after Palmyra was captured by the Muslim general Khālid ibn al-Walīd in 634. But the Christian community continued to flourish in the city; at least some of the churches were still in use, and bishops are known from historical sources until the 9th century. We also know that there was a mosque near the center of the city, dating to the Umayyad period (7th–8th centuries). Nearby was a large suq (marketplace) of more than 45 shops, built along the Great Colonnade during this period — one of Khaled al-Asaad’s important discoveries.

The eastern wall of the cella with inscriptions and painting
The eastern wall of the cella with inscriptions and painting
Detail of Arabic inscription from the 15th century concerning grazing rights at Jabal al-Buṭm. (photo by Manar al-Athar)
Detail of Arabic inscription from the 15th century concerning grazing rights at Jabal al-Buṭm. (photo by Manar al-Athar)

These traces of Palmyra’s past disappear from most of the site after the 9th century. But we can find them within the walls of the Temple of Bel compound, where the entire town was enclosed at that time. We see them especially in a series of Arabic inscriptions on the temple walls, dating from the 12th century onward. One inscription describes new fortifications in support of the enclosure walls, which are still standing today. Another commemorates the building of a mosque in the southwest corner of the enclosure; yet another, the renovation of the mosque in the cella in the 13th century.

Medieval fortifications of the enclosure alongside the Roman-era portico (photo by Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar)
Medieval fortifications of the enclosure alongside the Roman-era portico (photo by Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar)

We also see traces in the Qal‘at Shirkuh, the hilltop castle overlooking the town. This was probably built by the Ayyubid emir of Homs Al Mujāhid Shīrkūh in the 13th century.

Qal‘at Shirkuh overlooking the western edge of Palmyra (photo by Judith McKenzie/Manar al-Athar)
Qal‘at Shirkuh overlooking the western edge of Palmyra (photo by Judith McKenzie/Manar al-Athar)

Palmyra’s later history is visible in medieval Arabic sources and, from the 17th century, Western travelers’ accounts. As an oasis on the caravan routes, it continued to be a vital place — what the historian Abū’l-fidā‘ described in the 14th century as a small town with many palms, olives, and figs. It was still centered on the temple enclosure, though it included a few neighborhoods beyond. There were several mosques, shops, a butcher.

The early 20th-century village (photo courtesy of Matson Photograph Collection, via Library of Congress)
The early 20th-century village (photo courtesy of Matson Photograph Collection, via Library of Congress)

For the most recent period, we have the eyewitness testimony of Palmyrenes (and their descendants). Among them is Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian archaeologist now at the University of Pennsylvania:

My grandfather was a policeman serving in Palmyra and my grandmother wasn’t even 20 years old when she got married and moved to Palmyra. The Palmyrene women taught her how to make bread and cook. I hear many stories about the building, how people used the space, how children played around, including my mum.

And then it all came to a stop.

The buildings of the town were all demolished in the early 1930s, so that archaeologists could excavate the Temple of Bel. A new town was set up adjacent to the ancient site, and the residents were relocated. But the Temple of Bel still stood as a witness, with the full history of the city written on its walls.

comments (0)