I make my first tour of the ruins of Palmyra at night by the light of four torches. In the cella of a temple, we philosophise about the aesthetics of ancient architecture, which stands in such stark contrast to the ugly concrete of the modern city next door. This is how far our technology has brought us… The next day, I wander criss-cross through the colonnades, arches and temples that lie harmoniously on the fringe of an oasis in the middle of the desert.
Palmyra is unlike any other Roman city. Its location in the border region between Rome and Persia worked to the city’s advantage; even under Roman rule, it was able to maintain a certain independence. The result was a wonderful mixture of Orient and Rome. Local gods were worshipped alongside Roman ones and the Temple of Baal looks like a crossover between Forum Romanum and Persepolis. As can be seen from the statues, the fashion must also have seemed very exotic to a Roman. Many of the statues come from the necropolis. There was room for around 300 corpses in the multi-storey towers. The niches were closed with a portrait of the deceased.
The city became rich through trade between the Mediterranean and China and India. It is impressive how globalised the world already was at that time: huge granite columns were used, which came from the quarry in Aswan (Egypt), marble statues were imported from Greece and archaeologists have found two thousand year old fabrics made of Chinese silk in the tombs.
After the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians (Sassanids), a local prince began a campaign of revenge and stormed the Persian capital twice. However, he was soon murdered by his nephew and his wife Zenobia took over, declaring herself empress and Palmyra independent of Rome. She considered herself a descendant of Cleopatra and conquered everything between Syria and Egypt. In the end, the Emperor Aurelius reconquered the lost territories, caught Zenobia trying to flee to Persia on a camel and ultimately had her paraded through Rome in golden chains…