Halfway between the Mediterranean and the River Euphrates, the Efqu spring offered refreshing respite for ancient traders crossing the dusty Syrian desert. The city of Palmyra flourished at the oasis, its merchants amassing their wealth through trade networks that brought silk from China, spices from India, pearls from Arabia, ivory from Africa, and wine from the Mediterranean. While there is evidence from the archives at Mari that the site was occupied as early as the 2nd millennium BC, it was between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, when the city was under Roman rule, that business boomed and Palmyra reached its zenith.
One way the city and its inhabitants showcased their wealth during this period was in their funerary monuments. In addition to simple pit-graves, Palmyrenes buried their dead in loculi or shafts inside underground tombs, temple tombs with elaborate façades, and tall tower tombs that are rarely seen elsewhere in the Roman world. With around 180 tower tombs known today, some of which were originally more than 20m in height and vied in stature with the large temples inside the city, the sepulchral surroundings presented an impressive sight for visitors approaching Palmyra. They could hold up to 300 burials in their loculi, which were sealed with slabs featuring the likeness of the person who wasburied within.
These funerary portraits, largely sculpted from local limestone, make up a remarkable body of evidence for the people who lived in the upper echelons of the cosmopolitan city. Despite being part of the Roman world, Palmyra kept close contact with the Parthian Empire in the east and traders from elsewhere, leading to a wonderful blend of styles and local traditions in the unique portraits. It is these funerary sculptures that are the focus of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek’s latest exhibition, The Road to Palmyra. Fittingly set with a view of the tall palm trees of the Glyptotek’s own oasis-like Winter Garden, the exhibition is a joint venture between the museum and the Aarhus University-based Palmyra Portrait Project, whose researchers are compiling a corpus of all Palmyrene portraits, not just those from burials.
As the exhibition explores, the funerary portraits offer glimpses of the people behind them, reminding us that they are real individuals who were memorialised and mourned by those they left behind. A double funerary portrait shows a woman with her mother, who has torn at her exposed breasts in a potent outpouring of grief. The sealing slabs were normally inscribed in Aramaic, and, of those sculptures that still have their inscriptions intact, most start or end with the word ‘Alas!’ as an expression of woe, albeit somewhat formulaic, while some give details such as the name of the person, their parents, and the year of their death.
From the sculpted images themselves, we can glean further details. The inclusion of a camel on the portrait of one unknown Palmyrene man hints that he was involved in trade. Other men are shown wearing a distinctive hat (seen elsewhere in public sculpture from Palmyra) indicating that they held the role of a priest. Some people are dressed in a Roman fashion, while others sport ornate trousers, a style that stems further from the east, reflecting the diversity and connections of Palmyra’s inhabitants. Further different tastes and cultural links can be glimpsed in the portraits. One of Bathha[nna], c.AD 140, portrays the deceased woman wearing jewellery of a type that has been found in sites all over Syria. Another, dating from AD 181, shows ʿAtta, whose eyes are not incised as is the norm in Palmyrene portraiture, but depicted in paint (of which only traces survive), raising questions about where the sculptor got this new technique from.
The beauty of Palmyra
The star of the show, the celebrated c.AD 200 portrait of an unknown woman now dubbed ‘the Beauty of Palmyra’, amply illustrates the wealth and cosmopolitan nature of the wealthy city. The curls of hair on her cheek are a Roman feature, while her eyes, which were probably once inlaid with glass, are depicted in a Parthian style. The Beauty, like almost all women in Palmyrene tomb sculptures, covers her hair with a veil, which she touches with one hand. It is a common gesture among the portraits, though one whose exact significance remains unknown. Laden with an abundance of jewellery, she makes a conscious show of her affluence. Holes show where brightly coloured jewels would have once embellished the sculpted stone jewellery.
Not only was the Beauty of Palmyra exquisitely carved, but the lifelike flesh, like other ancient sculpture, was brightly painted over very thin white slip. Visible traces of paint can still be clearly seen on her cheeks, lips, and much of her jewellery. A team from the Glyptotek have analysed these traces and produced a digital reconstruction of how the sculpture may have originally appeared, full of rich pinks, gold, and black. Similar work on ancient polychrome can be seen elsewhere in the museum. There is, for example, a temporary display of four recently unearthed Roman heads from the University of Salento’s excavations at Aquinum, south of Rome, which are now being examined at the museum.
While we don’t know the name of the Beauty of Palmyra, the name and legacy of another woman from the ancient city have lived on. Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, rebelled against the Romans and expanded the Palmyrene territory, provoking a vicious attack on the city in AD 274. She has been hailed as a symbol for freedom fighters and immortalised in 19th-century opera and 1950s film. More recently, the Syrian regime erected a large statue of Zenobia in Damascus, in 2015, the same year that saw ISIL take Palmyra and start a fresh wave of destruction at the queen’s former city, with the Temple of Bel, the monumental arch, and a number of the tower tombs reduced to rubble. Against this backdrop of recent conflict, the exhibition offers a timely and poignant exploration of such tombs and the former inhabitants of the ruined city.
The Road to Palmyra
Address: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Dantes Plads 7, 1556 Copenhagen, Denmark
Open: until 1 March 2020, 11am-6pm Tue, Wed, Fri-Sun (10am-5pm Tue, Wed, Fri-Sun from 1 Jan), 11am-9pm Thur (10am-9pm Thur from 1 Jan); closed Mon.
Admission: 115 DKK (concessions available)