Arabism, Islamic history, Political comment, pre-Islamic history, Syrian history

Tadmor, a history, metamorphosis into empire: Palmyra

see also:

 The Tadmor sahara at dusk and day, Palmyra ruins, Apamea ruins

Radio 4 acknowledges the death of Ba’ath party supporter Khaled al-Assad, curator and archeologist in the ancient Roman site Palmyra, situated in Tadmor, who buys the oil and antiquities from the mercenaries, those fleeing Syria simply want to live

The recapture of Tadmor

While the Syrian authorities focused on the liberation of Halab (Aleppo) a further assault on Tadmor (Palmyra) was  mounted by the British backed mercenaries; a tragedy of enormous proportions. The recapture of Tadmor was inevitable perhaps, as it is of such ideological importance to the Islamic invader and though it was somewhat of a sacrifice it is a terrible blow to the Syrian regime and its president Bashar al-Assad.

The media refer to Tadmor by the ancient Greek/Roman name Palmyra, said to relate to the palm trees that grew there, though as discussed below, this is a moot point. Tadmor is the preferred place name in modern Syria, though there is a new town and no-one lives among the ruins. The bedouin population continued to sell their wares there and at the castle, at least until the uprising and subsequent invasion.

Only a few months ago the ‘Friends of Syria’ site presented a film of a classical concert, featuring a Russian musician, in the well preserved but ancient ruins. Good news as, in previous years, there were reports of the mercenaries sacking the historical site, the subsequent theft of antiquities and of the murder of the curator Khaled al-Asaad, a staunch Syrian Ba’ath Party supporter and Arab nationalist.

It’s crucial to note how many times Syria fell within the domain of the surrounding regions even prior to the Islamic era, as this helps ascertain the intention and motivation of the mercenary forces and their western employers. In short the taking of the historical site that is Tadmor is both of strategic and psychological importance.

Following the old path

When researching the extent of the Assyrian empire for the last post I came across the city of Tadmor on a map, which showed how Assyria had diminished in size between 824 BC and 671 BC. The empire finally dissolved around 609 BC but Tadmor retained its primacy during the neo-Babylonian and Persian eras, which spanned the periods between 626 and 530 BC. and 539 and 330 BC. respectively.

The oasis at Tadmor would have, amost certainly, served as a watering hole for merchants traveling the region in the time of the ancient Greeks and the Hittites (Turkey, Anatolya) both of whom took control of parts of Syria for a time. As a source of spring water Tadmor probably predates empire.

Tadmor lies in the Hims or Homs (depending on dialect) directorate and is the only place I visited in Syria that was truly in the desert. According to the ‘Livius’ web site the word Tadmor is semitic and means something like watchtower, fitting, as according to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Times’, 30/5/2013,  it was the job of the population there to protect the caravans as they passed from one region to another. There are records of looting by nomads in the museum at Mari, an ancient Syrian site to the south east of Tadmor.

What’s in a name?

The Old testament (Book of Chronicles) refers to the city of Tamar and how it was viewed by King Solomon as both a defensive position and a centre for all routes including those to Palestine and Arabia (west and east). He is said to have rebuilt it as doing so addressed both his economic and political concerns. His political motive pertains to the rise of Aram-Damascus, the Aramaean state, which he viewed as a threat to the Israelites.

This is another area of history but information about the Israelites and the Aramaean people is easily accessible on-line. Suffice to say here that Tamar, is a semitic word for date that equates with the later name Palmyra as the word for (date) palm. This too is controversial as the Roman usage may well derive from the Sandskrit for open handed. For more linguistic theories see: Abarim Publications.

The controversy shows that, whether or not Tadmor and Tamar were one and the same, if Tadmor translates as watchtower or what motivated the Greeks and the Romans to change Tadmor’s name to Palmyra; is all open to interpretation.

Palmyra, Zenobia bat (bint) Zabbai queen & warrior

I’ll now present an account of the Palmyrian empire and of the reign of queen Zenobia. I’ve chosen two sources, the first is the aforementioned BBC’s ‘In our Time’ and the second is a site named ‘A Ancient History, Encyclopedia’.

By the time of Queen Zenobia’s reign in 300 AD. Palmyra’s sphere of influence had grown, though it’s difficult from the old maps to determine the extent of its reach. Palmyra splintered off from the Roman empire and queen Zenobia is said to have led a rebellion against the Roman emperor Aurelian. My sources do present conflicting opinions but both agree she was, if nothing else, a formidable character.

Rome was shrinking and Palmyra in its role as a Roman garrison town acted as a buffer state between east and west. This combined with its status as the guardian of the merchant classes and its ability to collect taxes, enabled it to achieve prominence and wealth. Of course Tadmor is no longer a rich town but when I was there it certainly had an air of autonomy about it.

Zenobia married the governor of Hims, Lucius Septimus Odaenthus who, like her, was both a Roman and Syrian citizen and following his death she became the ruler. If Zenobia did not rebel outright her power made the Roman emperor Aurelian wary. In Egypt she became embroiled with a Syrian/Egyptian man named Timagenes, who mounted a rebellion, which Zenobia may well have commissioned. She certainly revelled in the victory as she added some territories to her empire without consulting Rome and also entered into trade agreements with the Persian (Sassanids).

Aurelian eventually marched on Asia Minor where he attacked and ransacked the towns loyal to Zenobia forcing their surrender, until Zenobia’s army reached Syria. Zenobia escaped and blockaded herself between Palmyra’s city walls. Some accounts claim she expected to receive help from the Sassanids and that she eventually attempted to reach Persia but got no further than the River Euphrates before capture.

After her defeat by Aurelius, Zenobia may have been taken to Rome, some accounts say she killed herself beforehand, some that she was executed and yet others that she was tried and acquitted. There is no definitive answer unfortunately.




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