Palmyra: Lost Treasure Recaptured in Words

The destruction of Palmyra robbed us of one of antiquity’s great trading cities.

The Temple of Bel, 2001

The fierce battles and acts of deliberate destruction in many ancient Syrian cities have robbed the country of much of its irreplaceable historical and archaeological heritage. However, one somewhat more positive consequence has been the number of excellent new publications seeking to help the interested understand the value of what has been lost and what is still in danger.

Palmyra: An Irreplaceable Treasure by Paul Veyne was originally published in French, soon after the news of the city’s systematic destruction by ISIS had reached the world’s press.

Palmyra, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was an important trade city on the western branch of the Silk Road from the first century AD until the second half of the third century, when its queen, Zenobia, revolted against Roman authority and was punished. The city never recovered and its hitherto carefully curated ruins were all that remain of its glorious past. For more than three centuries Palmyra was the gateway to the West, where caravans laden with Asiatic goods entered the Roman state. The Palmyrenes were unequalled in providing traders with all the support and services the merchant expeditions across the desert needed. Through their agents and trading stations, they managed to establish solid contacts on both sides of the frontier between the major superpowers of Rome and Parthia. That was the key to their success and wealth.

Palmyra’s history and society are admirably explained by Veyne, who brings wonderful clarity to the most fundamental and complex problems of the ancient world and specifically as they applied to Palmyra. This gem of a book is a valuable guide to the lost treasures of the ancient city, to what the city was and what it is now. Veyne draws extensively on his vast knowledge, filling the text with references to Roman history, to the better-known monuments of Rome and Pompeii, but also to Baudelaire, Max Weber and André Gide.

The work originated from the urge, Veyne maintains, to express his dismay at the terrible events that occurred in Syria, including the brutal assassination of archaeologist Dr Khaled al-Assad, the head of antiquities at Palmyra, beheaded by ISIS in 2015. It is a book written with passion; the same passion that motivates the author to stress the importance of multiculturalism, both for Palmyra’s success and for the contemporary world. Despite the damage and losses, the ancient inhabitants of Palmyra still have a lesson to teach the modern world: the coexistence of different cultural elements from East and West was a resource and the secret of their success. This lesson from the past, in the final words of the book, is a vivid accusation of those responsible for the barbarity and at the same time useful advice for us all: ‘Knowing, wanting to know, only one culture – one’s own – is to be condemned to a life of suffocating sameness.’

Palmyra: An Irreplaceable Treasure
Paul Veyne
(Translated by T. Lavender Fagan)
University of Chicago Press  
128pp £17

Leonardo Gregoratti is an ancient historian with research interests on Palmyra and the Parthian Kingdom.