You will almost certainly have heard of Palmyra. This ancient oasis and caravan city lies in the middle of the Syrian Desert, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. Sadly, over the last decade most of the news from the site has concerned heart-breaking loss, of both people and archaeology, during the devastating civil war in Syria. But even if you have never had a chance to visit Syria, you may well have become acquainted with one or more of the Palmyrenes of the past. This is because thousands of limestone portraits of Palmyra’s ancient inhabitants are scattered across museums and collections all over the world.
Since 2012, a team of researchers based at Aarhus University, Denmark, has been studying these funerary portraits. Not only do they allow us to put a face to thousands of Palmyrenes, but they also reveal a great deal about their lives and culture, which were shaped by strong traditions and very particular local circumstances. The Palmyrenes lived in an oasis surrounded by many miles of steppe desert, with hours of arduous travel necessary to reach any other large – or even small – city, such as Damascus to the west and Dura-Europos to the east. An additional factor adding flavour to local life is that the Palmyrenes lived in what became a border region between the Roman and the Parthian empires: two major powers who often entered into direct competition with each other. Despite lying on the fringes of these empires – or perhaps precisely because of that – the Palmyrenes retained a distinctive identity during more than 300 years of Roman rule, while their city flourished as a trading hub between East and West. Unsurprisingly for an oasis city, Palmyra was a major player in the camel caravan trade, but it also had a hand in maritime exchange via the Euphrates, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean.
Inevitably, exposure to outside influences helped shape such a proud trading city, but the Palmyrenes also remained true to their own local customs and particular ways of life. Even so, focusing on the first three centuries AD reveals that the Palmyrene respect for tradition was balanced by a talent for agility. Long-term climate change, economic fluctuations, and new ruling empires, as well as unforeseen crises such as epidemics or political and military upheavals, required an ability to adapt in order to stay on top of business. At the same time, the city’s distance from other urban centres required a willingness to use and reuse certain resources in creative ways.
The people of Palmyra lived in a city that became embellished with splendid monuments, including magnificent temple complexes, broad colonnaded avenues, a large theatre, bath complexes, an agora, and a triumphal arch. Just beyond the urban area, large plots were set aside as burial places, with four extensive necropolises forming the final resting place for ancient Palmyrenes. As these cemeteries lay along the main access routes to the city, their tombs would be the first thing that locals and foreigners alike were confronted with when approaching the settlement.
During its heyday, caravans would have been a regular sight in Palmyra – or more likely just outside its urban area. There, we can imagine a miasma of perfume, spices, wine, and salted fish, mixed with the smell of damp camels and donkeys – along with their faeces – wafting over the caravan station. Donkeys and camels would have arrived and departed frequently, carrying slaves, prostitutes, wool, different types of dry goods such as nuts and dried fish, or alabaster jars and goat skins filled with perfumed oil and olive oil. The leading lights of this enterprising trade were the socialite Palmyrene male population, who were also exactly the kind of high-status individuals portrayed in the ancient funerary sculptures.
It was during the first three centuries AD that urban Palmyra took on its familiar form, as the prosperous settlement grew rapidly. The city had been annexed by the Roman Republic in the 60s BC, after Pompey the Great swept through the region with his army. Palmyra was destined to remain under Roman control for most of the next seven centuries, until the Arab invasion in AD 634 brought a new political regime. The long years of Roman rule did not pass unbroken, though, as Palmyra rebelled against its overlords in the late 3rd century and succeeded – for a short while – in casting them off. For a few years, the city ran its own affairs, but when the reckoning came it cost Palmyra everything.
Zenobia, a Palmyrene ruler, led the rebellion against Rome. The origins of this affair lie in the assassination of her husband, Odaenath, in AD 267 or 268, while he was campaigning against the Sassanians. Odaenath had been an important Roman ally and successful military leader, but when Zenobia took power to rule on behalf of their son, Vallabath, who had not yet come of age, she established an independent Palmyrene Empire. Under Zenobia, Palmyra’s territory expanded dramatically and ultimately included parts of Asia Minor and Egypt. This placed Palmyra in control of infrastructure that was key to Rome’s regional interests, setting the city on a collision course with its former rulers. In the end, Zenobia’s disruption of the geopolitical situation lasted for just a few years, with the Roman emperor Aurelian besieging Palmyra and capturing Zenobia in AD 272. The Palmyrenes attempted a second uprising in AD 273, but it was swiftly suppressed, and this time the city was sacked, and many members of its rebellious forces were executed. Although the city still existed in the aftermath, it lost both its political clout and influence over regional trade networks. The city retracted immensely, probably because its population dwindled after many erstwhile inhabitants turned to a life in the rural hinterland of Palmyra.
Although Palmyra ultimately became a much smaller settlement, it was never truly forgotten. Both ancient Palmyra and its limestone sculptural reliefs have received attention from archaeologists and art historians for over a century. But even before the first excavations commenced during the early 20th century, it was a well-known site. Written sources, mostly dating from late antiquity onwards, told the tale of this oasis city and its rebel queen, drawing in western travellers on 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century grand tours. In turn, the romantic ruins became a focal point for literature, music, and the painted arts. It was also in the late 19th century that Palmyrene relief sculptures began being shipped overseas, destined for museums and private collections. Among the former, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and the Musée du Louvre in Paris were the first European museums to acquire large collections of Palmyrene funerary portrait sculptures.
A key moment for their study came in the 1920s and ’30s, when the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt investigated numerous tomb complexes outside Palmyra. He was working in collaboration with a French team, under a concession granted through the French Mandate in Syria, and was inspired to undertake the first comprehensive study of the iconography and chronology of the portrait reliefs. This was published in Danish as his higher doctoral dissertation in 1928. So it was that upper-class Palmyrenes came to play an important role again – this time in the study of Roman-period portraiture.
Over the last decade, around 4,000 portraits of upper-class Palmyrenes have been extensively studied by the Palmyra Portrait Project, based at Aarhus University. It is absolutely exceptional to have such a large surviving corpus of sculptural material from a single location in the ancient world. These portraits were created over a period of around 300 years, and all of them were commissioned to commemorate the dead. A database with photographs and descriptions of every single portrait has been compiled and will soon be published. This corpus brings us face to face with thousands of wealthy Palmyrenes, while the research it generated has also provided fresh insights into economic fluctuations, fashion trends, production patterns, and shifting population sizes, to mention just a few of the research avenues that have been explored so far.
Dying in Palmyra
The realm of the dead in Palmyra was a spectacular display of polychrome, ornate reliefs, and elaborate wall-paintings, as well as – less frequently – free-standing sculptures. Carved faces decorated hundreds of tomb complexes outside the city. Men, women, and children were all displayed, so long as they belonged to the segment of society that could afford such portraits and secure a spot in one of the lavish family-owned tomb complexes. Those ranking lower in the social pecking order were laid to rest in less ostentatious style and usually occupied simple pit or shaft graves.
Elite tombs could lie either above or below ground. Prominent among the former are tower tombs, which were constructed out of local limestone and held hundreds of burials. These edifices could soar several storeys into the air, creating an eye-catching reminder for approaching visitors of the important Palmyrene families who controlled the city’s wealth. Later, so-called house tombs embellished with temple-style façades were also built. Meanwhile, below ground, large tomb complexes (hypogea) that could hold up to 400 burials were constructed from the 2nd century AD.
Inside these tomb types, both above and below ground, the deceased were laid to rest on shelves known as loculi. These were arranged in multiple stacked rows, with each individual slot accessed via a small opening that faced a hall or aisle inside the tomb. Once the body was in place, the opening was sealed using mortar and then decorated with a limestone relief (a so-called loculus relief) of the deceased. Hundreds of portraits would have gazed out at those visiting the tomb complex.
Most of the loculi reliefs portray the deceased from roughly the navel area upwards. The figures often protrude a fair way from the background and would have looked rather dramatic in the flickering, artificial light needed to illuminate these dark funerary spaces. Some tomb stelae show full-figure representations, while larger reliefs featuring banqueting scenes were also commissioned. Later, in the 2nd century AD, lavish sarcophagi were introduced. These limestone caskets usually carried banqueting scenes showing husbands, wives, children, grandparents, and sometimes extended family.
Rather than attempting to capture a true likeness, the sculptors portrayed their subjects with idealised features. Even so, that does not mean we are seeing uniform stock images. Some Palmyrenes were shown alongside family members, while others chose to include inscriptions name-dropping relatives, with additional optional elements including elaborate headgear, jewellery, pets or riding animals, and objects that signalled values and wealth. For example, priests show off their priestly hats, while some men were represented with writing utensils to highlight their educated status, and women could evoke domestic virtues with a spindle and distaff – a few, however, are also shown with writing tablets indicating that women could receive an education. In this sense, the portraits became highly individualised through the use of attributes and also – in many cases – inscriptions disclosing the name of the deceased and family genealogy. So the commissioner of a sculptural work had a wide range of options to pick from when deciding on the details that would set their portrait apart from others. Once the selections had been made, the finished sculpture would have been painted in vivid colours. Some Palmyrenes also chose to immortalise themselves in wall-paintings within the tombs.
We do not know much about the rituals performed at burial ceremonies or later commemorations when relatives visited the grave, as the written sources are silent on this matter. Archaeology can provide some clues, though. Pottery and glass vessels sometimes found at graves suggest that banquets – or at least ritual meals of some kind – were taking place. Basins associated with some graves also indicate that rituals involving liquids might have played a part in the funerary rites.
Living in Palmyra
Just as the portraits offer insights into the funerary traditions of Palmyra, so too they are key for understanding the realities of urban life. Combining the iconography and accompanying inscriptions helps us understand how elements of everyday life were structured, such as which positions were held by the male elite, how religious offices were organised, and the pivotal importance familial relations played in Palmyrene society and therefore how individuals represented themselves. Given this last factor, it is unsurprising that some portraits took care to express a group identity as well as personal accomplishments.
The family is especially visible in Palmyrene art. Adults and children shown on some loculus reliefs, families represented on sarcophagi, and inscriptions listing several generations of relatives all highlight that such genealogies were a matter of pride and importance to elite Palmyrenes. This reminds us that Palmyra was home to a tribal society, where the family stood at the absolute centre of every aspect of life. One example of this comes from the several hundred representations of Palmyrene priests present among the sculptures. A close study of these has shown that such figures belonged to the uppermost crust of elite society, and that priesthood seems to have been passed down within families – from fathers to sons, or from uncles to nephews.
The thousands of Palmyrene portraits also show how local values and outside influences developed over time. Luckily for classical archaeologists and art historians, changes in artistic style and production techniques over time can be used alongside the information provided in inscriptions to make the portraits relatively easy to pin down chronologically. Thanks to this it is possible to see, on one hand, changes to Palmyrene traditions, such as the lavish headgear sometimes worn by women or the local Palmyrene-Aramaic dialect used in the inscriptions. On the other hand, we can also track influences arriving from more distant regions of the ancient world. Some shifts in jewellery, hairstyle, and clothing fashions, for instance, can be traced with great precision to particular time periods. Imperial trends were sometimes in vogue among the Palmyrene women, for instance, with the hairstyle of empress Faustina the Younger proving popular. Likewise, male haircuts could also evoke those of the Roman emperors. The appearance of bilingual inscriptions (Greek and, in a few instances, Latin alongside Palmyrene-Aramaic text) in funerary monuments, starting in the later 2nd century AD, also tell us about outside influences.
Another benefit of the quantity of Palmyrene portraits available is that it allows us to approach one of the great long-standing questions about ancient life in an entirely new way. At present, the Circular Economy and Urban Sustainability in Antiquity research team is developing methods to explore the demography of ancient Palmyra – and the portraits form the core of this new research. Among other factors, this brings us to the issue of ancient population sizes. It is fair to observe that using archaeological evidence to produce estimates of these has something of a chequered history. The reliability of such estimates has frequently been challenged, while competing figures based on different evidence sometimes produce strikingly different population sizes for the same city. Using the well-dated funerary portraits as a proxy for changes in demography and then relating this to the known history of the site presents a new way to think about how we can reconstruct ancient population numbers.
Naturally, because only the elite were portrayed in the funerary sculptures, this has implications for how the data are analysed. Even so, thanks to the sheer number of portraits, it is possible to detect peaks and troughs in production. Analysing these trends in light of the known historical events that played out in the vicinity of Palmyra provides us with a basis for detecting and understanding changes in demography. Our latest research indicates that these insights can then be refined using information about burials more widely, tomb construction, public monuments, and details from inscriptions.
Bringing all of these data together threw up a few surprises, but some events can now be highlighted as especially disruptive for the people of Palmyra. A marked drop in the production of funerary sculpture during the AD 160s and 170s can be linked to the Antonine Plague, which ravaged the Roman Empire during this period. As well as bringing a terrible loss of life, this virulent disease paralysed trade networks, and here Palmyra was especially vulnerable. Thanks to the sculpture, we can see that the economic network that sustained Palmyra was essentially suspended, and for longer than has been assumed until now. Palmyra begins to recover around AD 175. Another drop in sculptural production occurs around the mid 3rd century, when political and military instability was rife. This suggests that financial resources and the labour force were draining away from the city during this period, presumably because they were urgently needed to address problems elsewhere – such as securing frontiers to the east. As a result, the everyday life of the Palmyrene elite fell out of balance, and their wealth could no longer be directed towards lavish commemorations of deceased family members.
Facing life through the portraits of the dead
Given how much we can learn from Palmyra’s corpus of funerary portraits, it clearly represents a unique resource for studying ancient societies, teasing out new knowledge, and testing hypotheses. Facing these deceased upper-class Palmyrenes can bring us closer to both the realm of the dead and the world of the living. The sculptures offer insights into the culture, structure, and development of this fascinating desert society.
What is more, the portraits allow us to reconstruct how influences from beyond Palmyra could reshape the ways in which this local society saw their world, and, indeed, the ways that individuals wanted their learning to be acknowledged in funerary memorials.
All told, the corpus project has shown that shifting focus from the portraits as individual pieces of art to the patterns apparent from studying the group as a whole can provide powerful new insights into an ancient society.
Research on Palmyrene portraiture at Aarhus University has been conducted within the framework of three different projects, headed by Rubina Raja.
• The Palmyra Portrait Project (2012-2020) has compiled a corpus of all known relief portraits from Palmyra. The work has been funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. https://projects.au.dk/palmyraportrait
• The archive archaeology project Preserving and Sharing Palmyra’s Cultural Heritage Through Harald Ingholt’s Digital Archives (2020-) delves into the records of the Danish 1920s and ’30s excavations in Palmyra. Financial support comes from the ALIPH Foundation. https://projects.au.dk/archivearcheology
• Circular Economy and Urban Sustainability in Antiquity (2020-) focuses on Palmyra as a case study and investigates economic patterns and demographic changes in the city’s population. The project is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation and the Augustinus Foundation. https://projects.au.dk/circulareconomy
All three projects interact closely with the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet), a Danish National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence (grant DNRF119) based at Aarhus University and focusing on urban societies of the past, from the Hellenistic to the medieval period.
FURTHER READING R Raja, Y-B Yon, and J Steding (2021) Excavating Palmyra. Harald Ingholt’s Excavation Diaries: a transcript, translation, and commentary, Studies in Palmyrene Archaeology and History 4. Turnhout: Brepols. R Raja and J Steding (eds.) (2021) Production Economy in Greater Roman Syria: trade networks and production processes, Studies in Palmyrene Archaeology and History 2. Turnhout: Brepols. R Raja, O Bobou, and I Romanowska (2021) ‘Three hundred years of Palmyrene history. Unlocking archaeological data for studying past societal transformations’, PLoS ONE 16.11: e0256081. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0256081.