Remembering Palmyra’s Lost Treasure

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Colonnaded street in Palmyra, with monumental arch and Temple of Bel

The Lost Treasures of Palmyra: The Monumental Gateway at the end of the Colonnaded Street, with the Temple of Bel Beyond. Copyright Image Natasha Sheldon. All rights reserved.

In early October 2015, ISIS blew up the Monumental Gateway at Palmyra– the extremest group’s latest casualty in the city.

The loss of architecture, no matter how ancient, cannot compare to the human tragedy that is Syria today. But the calculated and gradual obliteration of Palmyra is a tragic loss to the heritage of the Syrian people and the world in general.

I was lucky enough to visit Palmyra in 2008 and photograph my memories of the city. What follows is my memorial to Palmyra’s lost treasures – all good reasons why lovers of the ancient world will feel their loss so keenly.

Bel and Baal Shamin

Both Baal and Bel were Semitic deities who retained an importance throughout Palmyra’s history. Both had temples in the city, now sadly destroyed by ISIS– apparently because of their apparently ‘idolatrous’ nature– a fact which does not seem not to have bothered earlier Islamic invaders.

Baal Shamin was lord of the heavens, rain and fertility, while Bel translates as ‘Lord.’ The temples of both gods show how the beliefs of the indigenous people of Palmyra combined with those of Greco-Roman incomers to produce a unique architectural style.

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The Temple of Baal Shamin

The temple of Baal Shamin was small and set in the northeast area of the city. Its construction began in 17 AD and builders expanded the temple just after the visit of the Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD.

It was at this time that the builders erected the now-destroyed temple cella. Ostensibly, it was a typical classical design. But close examination of the Corinthian columns of the temple show a unique feature not found anywhere else. The acanthus leaf decoration on the capitals of the columns were actually Egyptian rather than classical in style, hinting at a combination of classical and eastern art forms.

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The Temple of Bel

This unique hybrid format is more clearly expressed by the Temple of Bel. The site was in use sacred use from at least 2200 BC, making it one of the oldest religious sanctuaries in Palmyra.

A high wall that obscured all but the now-destroyed cella from outside view surrounded the sanctuary, lined on the inside perimeter by an 18 metre high colonnaded peristyle– a typically classical feature.

But other elements of the sanctuary deviated from the classical norm. To the left of the grand Antonine propylaeum, which allowed the access to worshippers allowed access to the sanctuary, was a ramped causeway that ran under the interior colonnade before sloping upwards into the main courtyard. This was a separate processional way for animals who would be used as sacrifices at the altar, which was set to one side of the cella in a pit used to collect blood. Flanked on another side was another unusual feature for a classical sanctuary: a ritual bathing pool.

The Augustan cella— blown up by ISIS in August 2012– seemed at first glance typically classical. It in fact encapsulated the best of the hybrid nature of the site. The architects covered its exterior with finely wrought Parthian style depictions of the gods. Along the top of its capitals ran a series of features resembling stepped pyramids or ziggurats –the symbols of high places sacred to Semitic cultures. This also explains the use of the temple roof as a sacred platform, accessible from stairs within the cella.

Inside, two niches or adytons housed the statues of local deities. In the northern adyton, the sun god Yranibol joined Bel and the moon god, Aglibol, while the gradually sloping steps of the southern niche suggested it contained the processional statue of Bel, used on sacred occasions.

The faint remains of original frescos survived on the walls of the cella. But the most unique works of art survived in the ceilings of the niches. The artists made each of a single piece of carved stone and again combined east with west. The northern adyton portrayed the seven classical planetary divinities, circled by the zodiac with Bel in the centre, portrayed as an eagle-a symbol often employed to denote the Greek god Zeus.

In the southern adyton, the ceiling, stained from the soot of Bedouin campers, was carved with a central fleuron surrounded by meandering bands and rosettes. This design so entranced early European explorers in the eighteenth century that they carried the pattern home to inspire the ceilings of the great houses of the enlightenment.

The Tower Tombs

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The tower tombs of Palmyra skirt the edge of the city for 1km like watchtowers. Consisting of several floors and one entrance, the dead were interred on shelves or loculi, each burial marked with an image of the deceased.

The tombs, unique in the ancient world, represent Palmyra’s prosperity between the Hellenistic period and the third century AD, when an emerging elite, made wealthy through the oasis town’s trade, invested in the afterlife.

Once again, the tower tombs show a combination of the cultures of east and west. The tomb of Kithoth in particular, was notable for its carving of a burial feast on the eastern façade, which showed the influence of Rome on the earlier Parthian art forms.

This tomb is one of the handful of tower tombs, which also included best-preserved tombs of Iamliku and Elahbel, which ISIS also destroyed on the basis of idolatry.

The Monumental Gateway

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But idolatry is no explanation for the destruction of ISIS’s latest victim in the city: the Monumental Gateway. The gateway, was a unique triumphal arch that marked the beginning of Palmyra’s main colonnaded street and tied the temple of Bel into the rest of the city.

Erected under Septimius Severus at the height of Palmyra’s prosperity, like many other monuments in Palmyra, this traditional Roman feature showed decoration in rich Syrian style. But the uniqueness of the monumental gateway went beyond art.

At first glance, it is a standard triumphal arch with a large central arch and two smaller ones for pedestrians. But its design was unique and specific to its purpose: wedge shaped, with the gate facing in two directions, to disguise a 30-degree change in direction between the colonnaded street and the temple.

The Curse of Palmyra?

It’s as though there is a curse that has befallen this city,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syrian Director General of Antiquities and Museums to Reuters News in response to the destruction of the gateway. “It is now wanton destruction….their acts of vengeance are no longer ideologically driven because they are now blowing up buildings with no religious meaning.”

No religious meaning perhaps. But certainly the one feature all of Palmyra’s destroyed treasures shared was a unique cultural heritage, which demonstrated that at one time at least, eastern and western cultures coexisted and conspired in the city.

Perhaps it is this that offends ISIS the most and is the reason why they have robbed Syria – and the world – of some of antiquities’ most inspirational architecture.

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© Copyright 2015 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. John Marin says

    Awful people whose only claim to legitimacy are mass murder and destruction of valuable cultural legacies all in the name of a desert spook devised by a desert psychopath in the distant 7th century A.D.

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