Pearl of the Desert: A History of Palmyra

Review by Jennifer A Baird.

Palmyra has long been considered the jewel of Syria. In recent years, the site – which is internationally well-known for its monumental remains – has become infamous after those remains were targeted for destruction, casualties of the ongoing Syrian conflict, which has taken many lives and displaced many people. In Pearl of the Desert, Rubina Raja, Professor of Classical Archaeology at Aarhus University, tells the story of the site from its earliest known remains to the present day, with a focus on the period that is best preserved and celebrated: the first three centuries AD.

From those centuries come the distinctive inscribed funerary portraits of individuals from Palmyra, whose recognisable faces are now globally dispersed in collections, and on whose study much of what we know of the city’s culture is based. Raja’s Palmyra Portrait Project has spent the past decade cataloguing more than 2,000 of those sculptures, providing her with a perspective on the site previously inaccessible due to their dispersal far and wide. Raja’s deep immersion in the material is clear throughout the volume, and it is primarily through the lens of funerary sculpture that she writes about Palmyrene society and culture. In doing so the book serves as a wonderful entry point to the site, delivering an overview of its history and archaeology. This is a welcome change from other recent overviews of Palmyra, which take their orientation from Roman historical sources, so invariably do not see the Palmyrene material on its own terms but rather tend to characterise Palmyra as a player on a Roman stage.

Raja gives an insight not to Palmyra the ruin but Palmyra the living place: a place where deep local traditionalism sat alongside a globally connected trading network. It is those different scales of networks – and their eventual ruptures – that organise the book, from examining social and religious ties within the city, to long-distance trade networks, to the changing nature of Palmyra after its Roman-era zenith. Perhaps the best of these is the chapter on family networks, which looks at the world of the dead at Palmyra largely through the preserved portraits from their tombs (and the accompanying inscriptions in Palmyrene Aramaic), unique in the ancient world not only in their distinctive form but their great quantity. The most numerous of those portraits are square limestone bust reliefs, which were used in tombs to close the niches in which human remains were sealed. As Raja convincingly demonstrates, while those portraits might portray individuals or groups, the story they tell is about the importance of family, a perspective that makes their dispersal far from home all the more poignant.

Raja is so deep in the material that she sometimes does not pick up all the threads she could – readers new to Palmyra might feel tantalised, for instance, by mentions of the ‘cult of the Anonymous god’ who is not further explained (many inscriptions from Palmyra are dedicated to an unnamed deity, who is described by phrases such as ‘he whose name is blessed forever’ and who scholars have referred to as the Anonymous god). But such quibbles are minor, and interested readers can easily follow up such matters using the book’s useful bibliographical references (including recent work by Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider on the identity of the Anonymous god). One might also quibble that the publisher has reproduced the site plans at a frustratingly small scale in the print edition. Despite such minor issues, Raja’s book offers a highly readable account of Palmyra from its earliest phases to the troubled present.

Pearl of the Desert: A History of Palmyra, Rubina Raja, Oxford University Press, Hardback, £19.99, ISBN 978-0190852221.