This week: Palmyra

Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers, as imagined by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770).

Halfway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, the Syrian desert city of Palmyra was once known as the ‘Venice of the sands’ – a name which reflected not only the magnificence of its architecture but also its importance as a trading centre for the camel caravans which for many centuries carried the riches of East and West along this stretch of the Silk Road.

More recently, the systematic destruction of many of this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s best-known buildings and monuments – carried out during two periods of occupation by forces of the so-called Islamic State between May 2015 and March 2017 – has turned Palmyra into a byword for cultural vandalism.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, some of Palmyra’s greatest treasures – including thousands of remarkable limestone sculptures produced as funerary portraits of the city’s wealthiest and most eminent inhabitants – escaped desecration simply because they had previously been shipped overseas, and were scattered across museums and collections around the world.

In the new issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, Eva Mortensen and Rubina Raja explain what a new study of this extraordinary and far-flung collection of Palmyran objects can reveal about life and death in this ancient cultural crossroads. Rubina is also the special guest on this week’s edition of The PastCast, out brilliant podcast.

Elsewhere this week, we’ve also been digging in the archives for more clues about Palmyra’s rich and troubled past: we came face to face with the city’s ancient inhabitants at an exhibition in Copenhagen; we studied the earliest known photographs of the site, taken by a French naval lieutenant in 1864; and we learned how the Curious Travellers Project is using more modern photographic data to preserve endangered heritage in Syria and elsewhere.

And finally, if all that just whets your appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed quiz, which this week also focuses on Palmyra. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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