Great oasis in the Syrian desert E of Homs, occupied since prehistoric times. Palmyra grew at the end of the Hellenistic period and flourished until the 3d c. A.D., enriched by the caravan traffic between the Roman and Parthian Empires. After Valerian was captured by the Sassanid Shapur, a prince of Palmyra, Septimius Odaenathus, organized the defense of the Roman East. His widow, Zenobia, extended his empire to Egypt. Palmyra was defeated by Aurelian in 272, sacked, and occupied by a Roman garrison. First Diocletian and then Justinian fortified the town against the Persians. It surrendered to the Moslems in A.D. 637 and declined under the Abbassids.
The monuments include the three great sanctuaries of Bêl, Nabo, and Baalshamin; a wide avenue with colonnades at the sides which is crossed by other porticoed streets, a theater, an agora and its annexes, marble fountains, public baths, a palace often called the Camp of Diocletian, ramparts, and numerous necropoleis.
The oasis has two springs: one, not very abundant, is in the center of the ancient city, the other, the Efqa spring, on the W edge of the town. It wells up in a deep cave, shaped artificially into a long tunnel bordered by benches and by small rock-cut chapels with incense altars (pyrat) dedicated to the Spirit of the Spring.
The temple of Bêl, to the E, is a vast sanctuary of traditional Syrian plan. A quadrangular area, more than 200 in on each side, is enclosed by a high wall bordered on the inside by porticos; in the middle of this court stood a cella. On the outside, to the W, propylaea dating from the second half of the 2d c. A.D. included a portico with eight Corinthian columns. A wide stairway led up to the portico. In the wall of the peribolus three gates gave access to the W portico of the courtyard, built in the middle of the 2d c. A.D. On the other three sides the porticos (built between A.D. 80 and 120) have a double row of columns, lower than those of the W portico. The brackets jutting out from the shafts, very common at Palmyra, carried honorific statues.
The cella (first half of the 1st c. A.D.) was in the middle of the court, with its long side facing the entry and the door in the center of this long W side. Its original foundations of Hellenistic type, a crepis with steps on all four sides, were transformed into a large podium when the level of the courtyard was lowered at the time the porticos were built. The peristyle consisted of fluted columns, 15 by 8, with capitals bearing acanthus leaves of gilded bronze. A frieze of winged spirits holding garlands of fruit adorns the entablature, which is topped by stepped merlons, and many pieces of the frieze are scattered on the ground. The ceiling of the peristyle consisted of decorated stone compartments. Several limestone beams, now on the ground, have reliefs with traces of painting on them: divinities in front of sacrificial altars, a procession with veiled women and a dromedary carrying the draped image under a canopy, and hunting scenes.
The plan of the cella is unique in Syria. On each of the short sides was a deep niche with a monolithic sculptured ceiling; the niches held the cult statues. The ceiling of the N niche depicts the great god, surrounded by the planets and the signs of the zodiac. In front of the S niche a gently sloping ramp allowed the image to be moved easily to a processional litter.
Near the SW corner of the courtyard is another ramp that passed under the W portico, allowing easy passage for processions and sacrificial animals. Between the cella and the high portico the foundations of the sacrificial altar are visible to the N, and the remains of a consecrated basin to the S. Pieces of sculpture in soft limestone have been found beneath the courtyard (now in the museum). They are remains of a temple of the Hellenistic period.
A wide colonnaded street runs NW from the temple of Bêl, connecting most of the monuments. The street has three parts with different orientations. A monumental arch with three bays and sumptuous decoration marks the first change of direction, a (restored) tetrapylon the second. The first section has been partly cleared. It is about 40 m wide and dates from the first half of the 3d c. A.D. Shops with cut stone facade and banquet hall open under the S portico. Jutting out from the alignment of the colonnade, four tall Corinthian columns form the portico of a nymphaeum with sculpture; its basin occupies an apse flanked by two niches.
The temple of Nabo, S of the monumental arch, was begun in the second half of the 1st c. A.D. and was still under construction in A.D. 146. Following the normal Syrian plan, the cella stood on a high podium in the middle of the enclosure. A wide stairway with an altar on the first step led to the podium from the S, and the peristyle consisted of 6 columns by 12. The temple succeeded a Hellenistic one, pieces of architecture and sculpture from which have been found. A sacred well stood in front of the cella, as well as a monument with small columns and a frieze depicting standing figures—a small chapel or monumental altar. The columns of the porticos had Doric capitals and the roof was supported directly by the architraves. On the back walls, highly colored frescos depicted religious scenes. The propylaea opened to the S. The sanctuary had faced away from the great avenue, which cut off its N portico.
The middle section of the avenue, more than 300 m long and 30 m wide, is the best preserved. It has shops under the porticos and brackets for honorific statues on the columns. On the N side are four columns of pink Egyptian granite from the portico of public baths, which an inscription identifies as Baths of Diocletian. To the S, the colonnade passes beside the theater.
The theater, dating from the 2d c. A.D., was built on flat ground. It has a cavea with 13 well-preserved tiers of seats, an orchestra paved with large rectangular slabs, a scaenae frons whose five doors open on exedras with finely carved frames, and graceful Corinthian columns adorning the middle of the facade. The theater is surrounded by a semicircular court, with a colonnade on the outside. A street with porticos leads S, almost on the axis of the theater, to a triumphal gate with three openings which was later incorporated into the ramparts. West of the theater, a small building with a peristyle courtyard and a room with tiers of seats arranged in a semicircle was probably the Senate. Immediately to the S is a vast rectangular enclosure, with walls over 10 m high and no trace of roofing, porticos, or paving: this was an annex to the agora, on which it opens to the W. To the E it opens on the street of the theater, and to the S was a huge gate, big enough to admit loaded camels. The famous fiscal law of Palmyra, a tariff for caravans, was found just in front of the S wall.
The large agora, which dates from the beginning of the 2d c. A.D., was a quadrangular, walled area, surrounded on the inside by porticos. More than 200 brackets in the columns or walls bore statues of emperors (Septimius Severus and his family), of Roman or Palmyrene officials, Roman soldiers, and caravan leaders. In the SW corner is a banquet hall.
The paved platform and basin of a marble fountain with an apse lie on the N side of the great avenue, facing the street which enters it W of the theater. Immediately to the W, between two columns, a lane with irregular paving-stones leads N to the Temple of Baalshamin. A column on the S portico of the avenue bears an inscription in honor of Zenobia. The monument to the S may be a Caesareum. The tetrapylon (restored) stands on a paved base with two steps. Its 16 granite columns on four massive bases have Corinthian capitals and a sculptured entablature. Around the tetrapylon is an elongated oval space, bordered to the N by a continuous portico.
The W and longest section of the great avenue has a magnificent semicircular exedra under its S portico. The colonnade ends in a funerary temple of the 3d c. A.D., with six columns on its facade, outside the city gate.
To the S an avenue bordered by two porticos ends in an oval space and a gate with a triple bay. This was built at the beginning of the 2d c. A.D. The group of buildings called the Camp of Diocletian lies above this street on the slopes of the mountain chain which bounds the site to the W. Past the triple gate is a large quadrilateral area divided into four quarters by two streets which intersect at right angles under a tetrapylon. The axial street then entered a vast courtyard and ended in a stairway leading to a wide gallery, onto the center of which opened a large apsidal chamber, flanked on each side by several rooms. The dominant position, arrangement, and sculptured decoration suggest that this was the palace of the princes of Palmyra, later rearranged by the Roman governors. A temple dedicated to Arab divinities lay to the N, at the end of the transverse street. In the district NW of the great avenue was a grid of streets, between houses with peristyles of the 3d c. A.D. Two Christian basilicas of the usual three-nave plan were built there in the 5th c.
The Temple of Baalshamin, farther E, was dedicated in 132, two years after Hadrian's visit to Palmyra. It consists of a cella, without a podium, set in the middle of a complex group of courtyards. The cella is decorated with pilasters on the outside and lighted by windows; its facade has a portico of four Corinthian columns. Much of the sculptured adornment is in the museum. The temple replaced a sanctuary of the previous century, the S courtyard of which had been dedicated in A.D. 33 and the N portico (with a banquet hall partly covered by the 2d c. temple) built in 67. A large courtyard to the N contained archaic sculptures and dedications of the beginning of the 1st c. A.D. In the SW corner of a courtyard to the S, built in the middle of the 2d c. A.D., lay the main entry to the sanctuary.
Houses of the 3d c., E of the temple of Bêl, have produced fine mosaics: Achilles discovered at Skyros, Asklepios (both in the Palmyra museum), and Cassiopeia (Damascus museum).
The ramparts, which can be followed for ca. 12 km, have an alternating sequence of three rectangular bastions and one semicircular one. Although commonly attributed to Zenobia, they date to Diocletian and were restored by Justinian. Along the S stretch (ca. 3 m thick) the rampart makes use of the N crest of the wadi and the S walls of the agora. An older fortification, of the 1st c. B.C. at the earliest, included the Efqa spring and ran SW. The Damascus gate has been identified there, on the edge of the necropoleis.
These necropoleis surround the town and have several types of tombs: tower tombs (more than 150), house tombs, and hypogaea. The Valley of the Tombs opens to the SW along the Emesa road. The oldest tower tombs (the most remarkable is that of Atenatan, dating from 9 B.C.) have a lower story with vaults opening to the exterior. The tower tomb of Jamblichus (A.D. 83) has four stories still standing; in it were found pieces of Chinese silk used to wrap the mummified corpses. The tower tomb of Elahbel, finished in A.D. 103, also with four stories, has a balcony like a sarcophagus on the third floor. In the same necropolis was the hypogaeum of Yarhai (partly reconstructed in the Damascus museum). Its plan is normal, an inverted ⊥, but the end of the W lateral branch there is a sarcophagus with a sculpture depicting the deceased lying in the banqueting position, and in the exedra of the central branch (to the S) three sarcophagi form a triclinium for a funerary banquet. Funerary compartments in the walls are sealed by slabs on which are carved busts of the deceased, priests with ceremonial head-dress, and women adorned with heavy jewelry.
In the SW necropolis along the Damascus road, several hypogaea have fresco and stucco decoration: the hypogaeum of the Three Brothers (ca. A.D. 140) has a group of fine sculptures and an exedra with paintings of the beginning of the 3d c. A.D.; that of Atenatan (A.D. 98) has an exedra with a triclinium dating from A.D. 229. Its sarcophagi with sculptures still show traces of painting. The deceased is depicted with his pages and wears Persian costume. Another necropolis, farther E, also has several fine hypogaea: in one of them the two stone leaves of the door at the bottom of the staircase down to the chamber have been preserved. The finest of the house tombs of Palmyra, built in A.D. 236, is in the N necropolis. Many of the sculptures from these necropoleis are now in the museums of Palmyra and Damascus, and in the Louvre.
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