Renowned in modern times for its impressive stretch of towering, classical ruins set against a yawning expanse of empty desert, the site of Palmyra has been inhabited to some degree since as early as the third millennium BCE. Over thousands of years, its strategic location has rendered Palmyra alternately the key to functional relations between disparate dynasties and the backdrop to many a dynamic power struggle.
Locally, Palmyra is also known by its ancient name, Tadmor. Greeks and Romans who arrived in the region assumed this name came from the Semitic word tamar, meaning date palm, due to the fertile oasis nearby where dates and various other fruits were grown; Palmyra is the hellenized version of this name, coming from the word palma, or palm. Recent research suggests, though, that the original name came not from tamar but from a different Semitic root meaning guard.
The height of activity in Palmyra occurred during the time of the Roman Empire. The city lay along an important trade route connecting the western parts of the Roman Empire to the east. Inhabitants of the city were familiar with Roman civilization but culturally and traditionally more similar to native populations surrounding them; this mixture of cultural influence and familiarity made Palmyra the perfect middle ground for regulating trade between Rome and its official enemies in the east – the Parthians. High Roman society at the time demanded a steady supply of “exotic” imports from India, China, and other distant locales. In 106 CE, when the Nabataean capital at Petra fell, even more trade routes opened up; and Palmyra’s power grew even more.
By the third century, Palmyra had become a Roman colony, functioning under the rule of the Roman Empire. As that empire began to weaken due to internal conflicts, however, Palmyra began to grasp at greater independence. For many years, Palmyrene ruler Odenathus fought to expand Roman territory; when he was assassinated in nearby Emesa, though, some speculated that the murder plot was initiated by his wife Zenobia. Zenobia went on to to rule in place of her young son Vabalathus, styling herself an empress of military conquest. In the years following her rise to power, Zenobia commanded forces that took lands as far as Egypt and Antioch. She began calling herself Augusta, empress of the eastern stretch of the Roman Empire, and had coins minted in Alexandria that featured her face and her son’s.
Aurelius, emperor at the time, found in Zenobia a formidable opponent, and he is quoted as often chastising those who underestimated her. When Aurelius finally set out to attack Palmyra and to capture Zenobia, she attempted to escape to the east on a camel; she was caught, however, and brought to Rome in captivity. Many ancient historians record that, upon her arrival, she was paraded through the city in fantastic quantities of gold and precious jewels. One legend reports that, during her reign, Zenobia had managed to cut Rome off from many of its major sources of grain; at the procession following her capture, the Romans passed out bread in the streets in celebration.
A number of major histories and tales from the region mention Zenobia, including Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Legends differ regarding Zenobia’s eventual fate: some say she was beheaded, some say she committed suicide, some say she died in prison as the result of a hunger strike. Others report that she was married to a Roman governor and lived out the remainder of her days in relative luxury.
Following the days of Zenobia, Palmyra began to fade from the international trade scene; major caravan routes shifted, and Mongol attacks on the city left it devastated. The city was abandoned by Ottoman times, an impressive set of ruins testifying to Palmyra’s one-time grandeur.