Nothing beside remains

Josephine Quinn

The Syrian oasis town of Tadmur is close to the middle of nowhere, 140 miles east of Damascus, 125 miles west of the Euphrates, and 20 miles from the nearest village. It’s famous for two institutions established under the French Mandate at the turn of the 1930s. One is the archaeological site now known by the Greek name of Palmyra, until recently one of the most extraordinary survivals from the ancient world. The remote settlement is first mentioned in Assyrian texts of the early second millennium bce. Two thousand years later, its entrepreneurial inhabitants began to draw trade between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia away from the northern route via Aleppo to their own faster but more dangerous desert crossing. By exploiting their longstanding connections with pastoral nomads in the desert, they were able to negotiate safe transit for camel trains under their protection.

The main annual caravan out of Palmyra headed south-east every autumn to the Euphrates, where goods were transferred to rafts that travelled down the river to the Persian Gulf, to be loaded onto ships bound for Indian Ocean ports. The camels would spend the winter in the pastures of southern Iraq, awaiting the return of the ships in the new year, when they would make the long journey back to their oasis. There were other routes south-west from Palmyra to the Red Sea and east to Mesopotamia, and evidence of Palmyrene merchants has been found from India to Rome. Foreign merchants also spent large sums in Palmyra itself.

The settlement became enormous, a desert city of unorthodox art and spectacular architecture, its rose-tinged limestone buildings rising from the grey sand in a shallow basin framed by low hills. It would have been an alien place to a visitor from Greece or Rome, full of strange temples to strange divinities such as the Mesopotamian god Bel, whose enormous sanctuary stood on the south-eastern edge of the city. A building resembling a rectangular Greek temple surrounded by a peristyle of columns stood in a vast Syro-Phoenician colonnaded courtyard. The square courtyard, 200 metres along each side, also contained a large water basin for ablutions to the right of the temple entrance, and the building itself would have looked more peculiar the closer the visitor got: unlike a Greco-Roman temple, its main entrance was in one of the long sides, it had windows in the walls, and was crowned with merlons, Mesopotamian-style step-sided triangles. Inside were still more surprises: shrines at both ends, not just one, for divine images of Bel and other local gods, and three staircases leading up to a roof terrace.

The vast complex marked the start of a colonnaded street more than a kilometre long that bisected the town, with two distinct bends along the way marked by elaborate monuments. The first, after about 200 metres, was an imposing, ornate three-part archway whose wedge-shaped design cleverly concealed a 30º change in direction. Then, 250 metres further on, past the baths, shops and theatre, was a more elegant tetrapylon that marked a minor change of direction and a major crossroads: four pedestals were arranged in a square in an oval piazza, each supporting four thin columns and probably surrounding a large statue.

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