Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Palmyra

The end was near, and she could smell it in the air. Most of her men – men who went into battle with her, who fought and won in the conquest against Rome and the capital of the Province of Arabia – now lay dead or dying. With the army of Roman emperor Aurelian now encircling the city, the once great city of Palmyra lay desolate. Most of its population have fled into the hills and desert, leaving only its defiant Queen, Zenobia and a few hundred men holding off the advancing Roman cavalry. In a last ditch act of willful defiance, Zenobia, refusing a generous surrender offer from the Romans, rides off in the dead of night on a camel, heading west towards Persia to seek military aid.

Palmyra, mentioned in ancient texts dating back to the 2nd millennium BC, grew in prominence and prosperity during the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD, during the time when the Romans were expanding their empire. Due in large part to its unique location set between two mighty empires, the Romans in the west and the Persians in the east, Palmyra grew to be a major stopping point in the old Silk Route, commandeering all trade between Europe, Mesopotamia and the Far East. By levying taxes on the traveling caravans, the city accumulated untold riches, and built bigger and grander temples, with a great colonnaded avenue running through the center of the city.

The city's colorful history reached a peak when its sitting ruler, Odainat was assassinated, and his second wife, Zenobia (who some believe killed her husband) ascended to the throne. When Rome refused to recognize her as the rightful ruler and sent an army to dethrone her, she met the Romans in battle and defeated them! She went on to lead her army against the capital of the Province of Arabia in Bosra, even going as far as Egypt, conquering and putting all of Syria, Palestine and large swaths of Egypt under her rule!

Unable to stand such outright defiance, the Roman Emperor Aurelian sent a battalion towards Palmyra, this time defeating Zenobia's troops and laying siege on the city. With Zenobia on the run, the once great city was torched to the ground. Zenobia was later captured by Roman forces along the Euphrates river, and carted off to Rome to be put on trial.
Arriving into Palmyra on a bus from Damascus, the final few kilometers from the bus station to the center of town required some creative hitchhiking. First, on the back of an ice truck to a small ice factory, where the friendly owner invited me into his home for a cup of tea, and then hanging off the back of a tomato truck for the journey to the edge of town. Walking the final kilometer or so to the hotel through several neighborhood blocks, friendly locals constantly waved 'hellos' and 'welcomes', as kids of all ages swarmed around me, eager and excited to have their picture taken.

The massive ruins in Palmyra, Syria stretches for over 2 square kilometers! 
Having been captivated by the history of Palmyra and in particular the story of Zenobia, I woke up early the next morning to catch the ruins at sunrise – a wonderful time of the day when the low hanging sun casts long shadows between the standing columns and bathe the crumbled buildings in a warm orange glow. Most striking about the ruins for me, was how large of an area they covered, consisting of an entire Roman city stretched out over several square kilometers. Anchored by a hilltop castle on one end, and the Temple of Bel on the other, the city in between hosts structures of everyday Roman life, including public squares, fountains, baths, residences, tombs and temples.

Walking down the grand colonnaded avenue, it wasn't hard to imagine how this once great city might have looked like during Zenobia's reign. In my opinion, with a little Hollywood magic, the story of the rebel queen with a remarkable plot line involving valor, action, drama, murder and love, will no doubt make a successful summer blockbuster, casting Angelina Jolie in the title role. In the end, as Palmyra falls and the city lay in smothering heaps, Zenobia is trialed and paraded down the streets of Rome, bound in gold chains. Later freed, she remarries a Roman Senator and lived out her days happily ever after.




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