Tag Archives: Palmyra

What went on in Palmyra?

 

 

The camel trains that passed through Palmyra  were enormous, often numbering  2000 with a further 300 donkeys used to carry surplus baggage. The caravans carried oil, spices, grain, straw, salted fish, wax, dyed fleeces, wools,bronze and marble statuary, wine, skins, fresh and smoked meat, slave girls, almonds, pottery and much else..

Life in the desert was dangerous especially for those not familiar with the trade routes.  In winter, the camels could go for maybe three months without water but in summer the margin of safety shrank to two weeks.The caravans, therefore, were usually led by an experienced horseman whose job it was to locate water supplies and wells en route, making sure that water skins were adequately filled for the next stage of the journey. If not, there would be many bones left to whiten in the desert sun, vultures circling overhead marking the spot.

Guides too were needed for the sandstorms that blew up without warning brought the whole caravan to a halt, leaving everyone except the most experienced guides disorientated. Thus the traders, camel drivers, merchants and guides of Palmyra were considered the best of their kind and moreover, because they were used to travel and to dealing with foreigners, they were adept at adapting to Greco-Roman and Persian languages and customs.

Small wonder then that Palmyra was such a coveted if distant outpost of the Roman Empire, one that had to be watched in case its rulers should get ideas above their station and strive to extend their boundaries of power.

 

Palymyrans lived well. The main avenue  was lined with some 375 colonnaded pillars  built of porphyry, the capitals decorated with  acanthus leaves,  pomegranates and pine cones, the whole column  gilded with bronze. The theatre had special raised seats for senators and visiting dignitaries.  The Tariff court, with its huge rectangular doors was imposing and its baths and banqueting halls spoke of prosperity and power

Along the colonnaded streets, the pillars still have the brackets which once supported statues of local notables – judges, merchants and owners of khans. One such man had no less than fourteen statues erected in his honour and a look at the tax system reveals just how carefully life was monitored.  Slave owners were taxed according to the age of the slave  and whether or not they were to be exported. It cost 25 dinarii to bring a camel load of aromatic oil  into the city  and 13 dinarii for a donkey load. If the oil was transported in alabaster containers it cost more than if  it came in goatskins the latter being of inferior quality. Prostitutes were required to pay a  monthly tax which was based on the equivalent value of one night’s work.

Water rates were charged at 800 dinarii per month for, in the desert, water is a most precious commodity but  with up to 1000 animals in a camel train each carrying a profitable load this tax provided a regular income for Rome..

There was little doubt, therefore, that the people of Palmyra were seen as influential merchants with Syrians generally regarded as the leading bankers of the region to the point where an exasperated  Juvenal made the often quoted complaint that “the Orontes ( Atissi)  is encroaching on the Tiber.”

But Rome benefited greatly from Palmyra’s prosperity and it was the Emperor Hadrian during his visit to Palmyra in 129CE who recognised this by conferring on the city the title of  Hadriana thus granting it free status,  the ensuing and lavish celebrations paid for by a local entrepreneur.

And while the male citizens of the upper classes went about their business in the senate and the market place, their wives and daughters also conducted themselves as only highborn women can. Slaves were employed in abundance with the clear distinction between freeborn and slaves underlined by the varied use of the veil – as important in pre-Islamic society as now.

Highborn women as well as women given the status of official concubines were expected always to veil themselves while  slaves were forbidden to do so.  There was even a code – the Ashur Code – which laid down strict rules about the veil in which, as usual,  women of lower status  came out worst: “ A harlot must not veil herself…he who has seen a harlot veiled must arrest  her, produce witnesses and bring her to the palace tribunal; they shall not take her jewellery away but the one who arrested her may take her clothing; they shall flog her fifty times with staves and pour pitch  on her head….”

This is from my book on Syria. Have a look at it by clicking here:

http://www.maryrussell.info

 

 

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Did you hear Simon Schama on BBC Radio 4 talking about the Temple of Bel? Here’s what I saw

The Temple of Bel is an electrifying 200 metre square rectangle of towering pillars, altars and divine mystery. At its centre is the sublime Propylaea, the huge vestibule fronting the inner sanctum with a majestic stairway, 35 metres wide, leading up to its eight-pillared entrance. To the left of the Propylaea is the altar on which the animals were slaughtered and to the right the pool where the priests washed the blood from their hands and cleansed their death-dealing axes.
Though much of the Temple is in ruins – it is, after all, over two thousand years old – it is still possible to sense the noise and feel the thronging presence of the huge crowd of people gathered to enjoy the spectacle of the sacrifice and of the priests in their ceremonial robes and head coverings going about their sacred tasks. With blood regarded as the essence of life, the practice of sacrificing animals, camels, bulls and rams – though rarely pigs – was an important activity since, during the ritual, the priests spilled the animals’ blood on the altar thereby returning it to the gods to whom all life belonged.
Naturally, brought up in a religious culture which daily re-enacts the death, 2000 years ago, of a political activist in Roman Jerusalem whose followers believe they are drinking the blood and eating the flesh of the sacrificed man, I was intrigued to see what the people in this Roman outpost got up to at the same time.
As I make my way to the Temple entrance I notice, in the main outer wall, just by the little wooden ticket hut, a tunnel which disappears under the wall and reappears on the inside. Through this tunnel were driven the sacrificial animals already washed and decked out in coloured ribbons in preparation for the killing ceremony. If the animal to be sacrificed was a bull, his horns were painted gold. Once through the tunnel, he was then driven up a ramp to the waiting priests.
But for the ceremony to be performed in an official manner, more was required than ribbons and gilded horns. Care had to be taken that the animal displayed no fear as it was led to the slaughter. If it did, then the sacrifice was considered to be polluted and had to be repeated with a different animal. To avoid this, someone had the job of bending the beast’s head downwards in a visible display of humble acceptance of its fate. If this proved to be a problem, the beasts were first stunned with a blow from a heavy stick.
Once the animals were killed, they were cut open and their entrails examined. If no abnormalities were found, the sacrifice was deemed to have been accepted by the gods. Occasionally, the priests were given the liver of the animal to “read” for portents of good or evil. At that point, the carcass was cut up and the heart and lungs set aside as offerings to the gods while the rest was given to the people to be consumed later at a festival banquet. The heart and lungs were then carried up the wide steps to the Propylaea and into the inner sanctum where, to the right, there is still a stairs leading to the roof where the actual offering to Bel was made.
I sit on a warm stone to gather my thoughts and make a few notes and within minutes, one of the ticket men approaches to stand watching me as I write. His artless curiosity is at first disconcerting and then annoying.
“I can’t write while you stand there,” I whinge.
“I’m sorry,” he says immediately and moves away leaving me to feel, as always, regretful for my surly attitude.
I return to my notes and, book in hand, mount the steps that lead into the inner sanctum where, in recognition of the fact that Palmyra was both a major trading city and a powerful military outpost of the Roman Empire, its walls – those that are still standing – reach 18 metres high. (The average height of room in a house these days is about 2.5 metres.)
The inner sanctum is a wide hall with what looks like a large ingle nook fireplace at each end but which turn out to be altars to other, lesser deities. Though Bel was the leader of the pack, the Palmyrenes had a few local gods as well: Yarhibol, god of the sun and Aglibol, god of the moon. There were caravan deities too: Samas was one, his symbol a camel.
Going up to the south altar is a set of shallow steps which lead to a niche where a small statue of Bel was usually displayed. During ritual processions, it was taken from here and paraded round the Temple.

The ceiling of this altar alcove puzzles me. The guide book speaks of a burst of acanthus and lotus leaves, of a zodiac circle with Jupiter/ Bel in the guise of an eagle in a starlit sky presiding over the celestial movement of the planets and thus regulating the destiny of humans. But the ceiling is black with age and smoke for, as often happened in Syria, local people moved into these sacred places and made them their own. In his book “Palmyra”, Iain Browning has an aerial photo of the Temple showing it crammed with flat-roofed, mud-brick houses packed tight as commuters on a Tokyo train and crowding right up against the inner sanctum. This happened because people intermittently made their homes here until, in 1929, the French occupying powers developed the neglected town of Tadmor half a mile away so that the Temple area coucld be cleared of the raggel taggle bunch of local Arabs.

As the Roman Empire declined, so too did Palmyra’s importance until, in 634 CE, it was taken by the Muslim army whose leaders overlaid a mosque upon the existing stones, steps and pillars. Allah is said to be the god of all gods but the attempt to superimpose one religious building on another was in vain for Islam was dwarfed by the Temple of Bel who still reigns supreme in his awesome building while all that remains of Islam is a mihrab and a Sufic inscription dating back to 728 CE.

I rest for a while on a fluted fragment of a fallen pillar, ornate with carved grapes and twisting vine, and shield my eyes which are blinded not only by the brightness of the mid-winter sun but also by the grandeur of the Temple. The silence, thick as heat, is broken by a sudden flap of pigeons’ wings and a small, white feather drifts down onto my notebook. By my foot is a rusty soft drink can and beside it a piece of wire snaking upwards from the sand. I follow the wire with my eyes but it ends a few feet away with no apparent reason for its existence.

The driving heat of the sun nails the day to the buff-coloured earth and the encroaching desert smothers the ghosts of the people who once came here to worship their gods. Solitude lies like a shroud across the sand.
A flock of pigeons wheels across the sky before settling on top of the temple wall. Halfway up the wall, a homely tuft of grass grows out of a niche. Higher up, much higher up, a series of large romanesque windows, empty and blind, frame a neat section of blue sky across which, Chirico-like, a puff of white cloud floats.
Much of the temple is built of huge squares of granite brought from Egypt though the pillars that loom over me are made of local grey sandstone. I get a sudden flash of a Holywood film I once saw in which the blind Samson – played by Victor Mature – pushing against the huge pillars of the Temple, brings it crashing around him. The Palmyran pillars, as enduring as as the Great Wall of China, have stood here for two thousand years but what if they suddenly toppled down upon me? This could be the year they fall, disturbed by a distant earthquake, a shifting of the sands. By a movement of the gods. Nervously, I stand up. After all, who could have foreseen the toppling of the Berlin Wall?

 

If you liked this, please read more extracts from my book about travelling round Syria:

http://www.maryrussell.info

http://wp.me//p1Frlu-2k

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Palmyra – were you there?

It’s 08.30 and the day is warming up. A few young boys in blue overalls collect the bits of paper and soft-drink cans that litter the side of the road. Their hearts aren’t in it but they carry on, bending, picking up, bending again. This is the road to the other part of Tadmor – Roman Palmyra – and the authorities want it to look good, to show that they care about what is undoubtedly the greatest first century place of worship in the Middle East.

The Temple of Bel is an electrifying 200 metre square rectangle of towering pillars, altars – and divine mystery. At its centre is the sublime Propylaea, the huge vestibule fronting the inner sanctum with a majestic stairway, 35 metres wide, leading up to its eight-pillared entrance. To the left of the Propylaea is the altar on which the animals were slaughtered and to the right the pool where the priests washed the blood from their hands and from cleansed their death-dealing axes.

Though much of the Temple is in ruins – it is, after all, over two thousand years old – it is still possible to sense the noise and feel the thronging presence of the huge crowd of people gathered to enjoy the spectacle of the sacrifice and of the priests in their ceremonial robes and head coverings going about their sacred tasks. With blood regarded as the essence of life, the practice of sacrificing animals, camels, bulls and rams – though rarely pigs – was an important activity since, during the ritual, the priests spilled the animals’ blood on the altar thereby returning it to the gods to whom all life belonged.

Naturally, brought up in a religious culture which daily re-enacts the death, 2000 years ago, of a political activist in Roman Jerusalem whose followers believe they are drinking the blood and eating the flesh of the sacrificed man, I was intrigued to see what the people in this Roman outpost got up to at the same time.

As I make my way to the Temple entrance I notice, in the main outer wall, just by the little wooden ticket hut, a tunnel which disappears under the wall and reappears on the inside. Through this tunnel were driven the sacrificial animals already washed and decked out in coloured ribbons in preparation for the killing ceremony. If the animal to be sacrificed was a bull, his horns were painted gold. Once through the tunnel, he was then were driven up a ramp to the waiting priests.

But for the ceremony to be performed in an official manner, more was required than ribbons and gilded horns. Care had to be taken that the animal displayed no fear as it was led to the slaughter. If it did, then the sacrifice was considered to be polluted and had to be repeated with a different animal. To avoid this, someone had the job of bending the beast’s head downwards in a visible display of humble acceptance of its fate. If this proved to be a problem, the beasts were first stunned with a blow from a heavy stick.

Once the animals were killed, they were cut open and their entrails examined. If no abnormalities were found, the sacrifice was deemed to have been accepted by the gods. Occasionally, the priests were given the liver of the animal to “read” for portents of good or evil. At that point, the carcass was cut up and the heart and lungs set aside as offerings to the gods while the rest was given to the people to be consumed later at a festival banquet. The heart and lungs were then carried up the wide steps to the Propylaea and into the inner sanctum where, to the right there is still a stairs leading to the roof where the actual offering to Bel was made.

I sit on a warm stone to gather my thoughts and make a few notes and within minutes, one of the ticket men approaches to stand watching me as I write. His artless curiosity is at first disconcerting and then annoying.

“ I can’t write while you stand there, ” I whinge.

“ I’m sorry,” he says immediately and moves away leaving me to feel, as always, regretful for my surly attitude.

I return to my notes and, book in hand, mount the steps that lead into the inner sanctum where, in recognition of the fact that Palmyra was both a major trading city and a powerful military outpost of the Roman Empire, its walls – those that are still standing – reach 18 metres high. ( The average height of room in a house these days is about 2.5 metres.)
The inner sanctum is a wide hall with what looks like a large ingle nook fireplace at each end but which turn out to be altars to other, lesser deities. Though Bel was the leader of the pack, the Palmyrenes had a few local ones as well: Yarhibol, god of the sun and Aglibol, god of the moon. There were caravan deities too: Samas was one, his symbol a camel.
Going up to the south altar is a set of shallow steps which lead to a niche where a small statue of Bel was usually displayed. During ritual processions, it was taken from here and paraded round the Temple.

The ceiling of this altar alcove puzzles me. The guide book speaks of a burst of acanthus and lotus leaves, of a zodiac circle with Jupiter/ Bel in the guise of an eagle in a starlit sky presiding over the celestial movement of the planets and thus regulating the destiny of humans. But the ceiling is black with age and smoke for, as often happened in Syria, local people moved into these sacred places and made them their own. In his book “Palmyra”, Iain Browning has an aerial photo of the Temple showing it crammed with flat-roofed, mud-brick houses packed tight as commuters on a Tokyo train and crowding right up against the inner sanctum. This was because people intermittently made their homes here until, in 1929, the French occupying powers developed the neglected town of Tadmor half a mile away so that the Temple area coucld be cleared of the raggel taggle bunch of local Arabs.

As the Roman Empire declined, so too did Palmyra’s importance until, in 634 CE, it was taken by the Muslim army whose leaders overlaid a mosque upon the existing stones, steps and pillars. Allah is said to be the god of all gods but the attempt to superimpose one religious building on another was in vain for Islam was dwarfed by the Temple of Bel who still reigns supreme in his awesome building while all that remains of Islam is a mihrab and a Sufic inscription dating back to 728 CE.

I rest for a while on a fluted fragment of a fallen pillar, ornate with carved grapes and twisting vine, and shield my eyes which are blinded not only by the brightness of the mid-winter sun but also by the grandeur of the Temple. The silence, thick as heat, is broken by a sudden flap of pigeons’ wings and a small, white feather drifts down onto my notebook. By my foot is a rusty soft drink can and beside it a piece of wire snaking upwards from the sand. I follow the wire with my eyes but it ends a few feet away with no apparent reason for its existence.

The driving heat of the sun nails the day to the buff-coloured earth and the encroaching desert smothers the ghosts of the people who once came here to worship their gods. Solitude lies like a shroud across the sand.

A flock of pigeons wheels across the sky before settling on top of the temple wall. Halfway up the wall, a homely tuft of grass grows out of a niche. Higher up, much higher up, a series of large romanesque windows, empty and blind, frame a neat section of blue sky across which, Chirico-like, a puff of white cloud floats.

Much of the temple is built of huge squares of granite brought from Egypt though the pillars that loom over me are made of local grey sandstone. I get a sudden flash of a Holywood film I once saw in which the blind Samson – played by Victor Mature – pushing against the huge pillars of the Temple, brings it crashing around him. The Palmyran pillars, as enduring as as the Great Wall of China, have stood here for two thousand years but what if they suddenly toppled down upon me? This could be the year they fall, disturbed by a distant earthquake, a shifting of the sands. By a movement of the gods. Nervously, I stand up. After all, who could have foreseen the toppling of the Berlin Wall?

From my book My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria.

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Love in the desert. Coming?

Midnight at the oasis? Sent your camel to bed?

I’m giving an illustrated talk about  three women who fell in love with the romance of the desert. (The fourth was nearly me).

Hint: Damascus figures big in this marvellous story of three women who found what they were looking for, more or less.

At Dublin’s Rathmines Library. Monday May 13. 18:30.

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