oasis 245 km (152 mi.) east of the Mediterranean Sea and 210 km (30 mi.) west of the Euphrates River, in the center of the Syrian steppe, which is generally known as the Syrian desert (Badiat ash-Sham). Palmyra lies at the northeastern slope of Jebel al-Muntar of the Palmyrene mountain chain at an altitude of about 600 m. Palmyra is 235 km (146 mi.) from Damascus, 155 km (96 mi.) from Homs, and 210 km (130 mi.) from Deiz ez-Zor. It was always a rest stop, and for at least four thousand years a caravan station between Syria and Mesopotamia. The etymology of its ancient, and also actual, name in all Semitic languages, Tadmor, is unexplained in all known dialects. It may be derived from the West Semitic dh-m-r, which means “protect.” It is called Palmyra in Greco-Latin sources, probably because of the extensive palm groves there.

The field of ruins of Palmyra and a part of the oasis are encircled by a rampart of about 6 km (4 mi.) long. A larger enclosure, known as the custom's rampart, rises up toward the mountain; its traces are still visible south of the Afqa Spring.

The city's “Grand Colonnade,” a main street more than one km long, has been the city's axis since about the end of the second century CE. (Another axis belonged to the Late Hellenistic city; it was related to the Temple of Bel. The temple was later connected to the new axis through a triangular monumental arch misnamed the Arch of Triumph.)

The Temple of Bel, called the Temple of the Sun in ancient texts, is the largest and the most imposing building at Palmyra: it consists of a large, square courtyard more than 200 × 200 m in area, surrounded by four porticoes, a huge central sanctuary, a propylon, and vestiges of a large banquet hall, a basin, and an altar. The columns of the left portico and four tall columns of a nymphaeum led from the temple to a monumental arch decorated in the Severan-period style (beginning of the third century). Across from the arch, on the left portico, stand the ruins of the Temple of Nabu, which was refounded, with a beautiful propylon, in about the fourth quarter of the first century CE and completed in the second. Its monumental altar was constructed in the third century. On the right portico stands the monumental entrance added to the baths during the reign of Diocletian, at about the end of the third century. Also on the left is an arched path leading to the semicircular colonnaded square around the theater. To the right, near the tetrapylon, is another nymphaeum and two stepped column bases that point the way to a narrow road leading to the Temple of Ba῾al Shamin, which was rebuilt In 131. Another street to the left is flanked by a banquet hall and a caesareum. This street leads to the theater, senate, and agora with its annex. Beyond the tetrapylon an Umayyad market was built inside the main street. To the left there is an exedra. At the end of the street, on the hill inside the enclosure of Diocletian's camp, is the Temple of Allat. From it there is a panoramic view of the ruins, the necropolis surrounding the city, and particularly the Valley of the Tombs. The valley was the site of the tower tombs belonging to the city's richest families in the first century CE, with some dating to the first century BCE.


PALMYRA. The gate of the central building in the Temple of Bel. (Courtesy Department of Antiquities and Museums, Syria)

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In the Upper Paleolithic, the area to the southeast of the site was filled with a large lake whose remains are the present salt flats. It was an excellent place for hunting, which explains the existence of the Levalloiso-Mousterian flint industry from about 75,000 bp in the caves and shelters in the surrounding mountains (Jarf al-῾Ajla, thaniyat al-Baidah, Ad-Dawarah). Neolithic materials are encountered at different mounds in the vicinity of the oasis. Traces of scattered seventh-millennium settlements probably belong to the first sedentarization there, principally encouraged by the abundant sulfuric spring that gave birth to the oasis and subsequently to the city. Recent discoveries at el-Kowm, in the Palmyrene oasis region, confirm that the Uruk culture (end of the fourth millennium) extended to this region.

Bronze and Iron Ages.

Excavation on the mound, underneath the courtyard of the Temple of Bel, uncovered primarily Early Bronze Age pottery (c. 2200–2100 BCE) especially that in the calciform Syrian tradition.

The oldest written texts known relating to Palmyra (Tadmor) and the Palmyrenes (Tadmorim) were found at the Assyrian colony of Kaneš (Kültepe) in Cappadocia and date to the nineteenth century BCE. The texts from Mari (Tell Hariri) also mention Palmyra and the Palmyrenes. At Emar (Meskene), texts dealing with Palmyrene citizens have been found. The eleventh-century BCE annals of Tiglath-Pileser refer to Tadmor as being in the country of Amurru. [See Kültepe Texts; Cappadocia; Mari Texts; Emar Texts; Amorites.]


PALMYRA. The main gate of the Temple of Nabu. (Photograph by Adnan Bounni)

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Seleucid and Roman Periods.

Like Emesa/Homs, Petra, and Iturea at that time, Palmyra was independent, keeping its status as an Arab principality. It is known from Polybius (5.79) that at the battle of Raphia (217 BCE), between the Lagid Ptolemy IV and the Seleucid Antiochus III, a certain Zabdibel with ten thousand Arabs supported the Seleucids. These were certainly Palmyrenes because the name of their chieftain is known only in Palmyrene onomastica and means “the gift of (the god) Bel.”

While Syria became a Roman province In 63–64 BCE, Palmyra maintained its independence and enjoyed—according to Pliny the Elder (Nat. Hist. 5.88)—a privileged position between Rome and Parthia. Both, it seems, were interested in Palmyra. In 41 BCE, Marcus Antonius undertook a futile push toward the city. The Palmyrenes had, as Appian reports (5.9), gained a key trade and political position. They procured exotic goods from India, Arabia, and Persia and then traded them to the Romans. When, precisely, Palmyra was incorporated into the Roman state is a contested issue, but it may have occurred under Tiberius (14–37 CE).

In the second half of the first century CE, Palmyra was occupied by a Roman garrison. Beginning in the reign of Trajan (98–117 CE) the city's own archers, cavalry, and cameleers participated in the defense of the empire's borders on the Danube River, in England, and in Africa. In 106, following the fall of Petra, Palmyra became the most important trading center in the East. Its great prosperity was expressed in the restoration of old monumental buildings and the reconstruction of temples. [See Petra.]

Under Hadrian (117–138) Palmyra achieved the status of a free city, as Hadriana Palmyra and, in the name of its senate and people's council, defined its own taxes and proclaimed its own decisions. Under Septimius Severus and the Syrian dynasty (first half of the third century), Palmyra was at its largest (12 km, or 7 mi., in diameter). Emperor Caracalla raised the city to the rank of a Roman colony In 212.

The foundation of the Sasanian Empire In 228 resulted in the loss of Palmyra's control over trade routes. The Palmyrenes then sought new economic opportunities under the leadership of a well-known Arabian family headed by Odainat, who held the title of governor of the Syrian province. In 262 and 267 he led two campaigns against the Sasanian capital. Odainat became dux romanorum, “chief general,” of the armies of the East, corrector of the Orient, and king of the kings and imperator. The hope simultaneously of Palmyra and Rome was murdered along with his older son under mysterious circumstances. [See Sasanians.]

Because his second son was too young to succeed him, his wife Zenobia took the post of regent. Highly intelligent, knowledgable, and ambitious, Zenobia knew the political situation of the Orient and the weakness of Rome. She did not hesitate to proclaim her independence and took with her son the title of the Augusti. She soon conquered all of Syria, and her armies also occupied Egypt and Anatolia. The emperor Aurelian, forced to react quickly, defeated the Palmyrene army at Antioch and Emesa/Homs. Zenobia retreated to Palmyra, where Aurelian laid siege to her heavy defenses. Zenobia attempted to flee to the Sasanians but was caught and imprisoned In 272. In this critical situation the Palmyrenes rose up and massacred the occupying Roman garrison. Aurelian's retaliation was devastating. The ancient authors offer different versions of Zenobia's end.

In 297, the emperor Diocletian made peace with the Persians in the treaty of Nisibis, which moved the Syrian border to the Khabur River. Palmyra became a center of a network of roads where the principal road was the Strata Diocletiana linking Damascus to the Euphrates River. Inside the city a Roman camp was established and the ramparts were modified to protect the camp.

Byzantine and Islamic Periods.

Christianity was well established in Palmyra in the fourth century. During the Byzantine period, the cellas of the temples of Bel and Ba῾al Shamin and some other buildings were transformed into churches. At the end of the fifth century and at the beginning of the sixth, Palmyra was one of the residences of the Ghassanid ally of the Byzantines. According to Procopius (De aedificiis 2.11), Justinian (527–565) fortified Palmyra's rampart and reestablished its irrigation system.

In 634 Khaled ibn al-Walid, the general of the Muslim armies, occupied Palmyra peacefully. During the Umayyad period Palmyra regained some of its importance but during the ῾Abbasid period was neglected by the caliphs of Baghdad. It became important under the Burids of Damascus (twelfth century), the Ayyubids (twelfth-thirteenth centuries), and the Mamluks (thirteenth-fifteenth centuries). The Temple of Bel was transformed into a fortress, the cella becoming a mosque. The castle overlooking the city is attributed to the emir Ibn Ma῾an Fakhr al-Din (1595–1634). The historian and high functionary Ibn Fadl Allah (1301–1349) refers to the splendid homes and gardens of Palmyra and to its prosperous commerce. In 1401 Timur (Tamerlane) sent a detachment against Palmyra that pillaged it. The city's decline accelerated during the Ottoman period (1516–1919). It was soon reduced to a village, at the mercy of nomadic tribes. In the last half of the twentieth century it experienced a renaissance.


The story of Palmyra and Zenobia, its beautiful and noble queen, have fascinated the Western world since the Renaissance. They have inspired literary masterpieces by D'Aubignac, Labruyère, and Molière and paintings and tapestries. Many travelers were drawn to Palmyra: the Neapolitan Pietra della Valle (1616–1625); the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1638); English merchants from Aleppo (1678, 1691), the Frenchmen Girod and Sautet (1705); and the Swede Cornelius Loos (1710). They returned to Europe with copies of inscriptions, drawings of ruins, and sometimes incredible travel stories. The visit of two Englishmen, Robert Wood and H. Dawkins In 1751 had far-reaching effects. Their work, The Ruins of Palmyra, which appeared in English and French In 1753, signaled the beginning of systematic exploration at Palmyra. A year later, the Frenchman Jean Jacques Barthelemy and the Englishman John Swinton deciphered the Palmyrene alphabet. An ever-larger number of travelers and researchers then followed: Louis François Cassas (1785), C. F. Volney (c. 1785), Melchior de Vogüé (1853), and J. L. Porter (1851). In 1861 William Henry Waddington copied a number of inscriptions. In 1870 the German A. D. Mordtmann edited several new texts and E. Sachau, who visited the city In 1879, devoted many articles to it.

In 1881 a Russian, S. A. Lazarew, discovered a text of the city's fiscal law, the longest economic text from the ancient world. This important document is now in the Hermitage museum. In 1889 D. Simonsen published the Palmyrene sculptures and texts of the Glyptotheque Ny Carlsberg. The collection is the result principally of the activity of M. J. Loytved, the Danish consul in Beirut.

In 1899 M. Sobernhein discovered a house tomb in the Valley of the Tombs and took the first photographs of Palmyra. Research on the entire city began In 1902 and continued In 1917 under the direction of Theodor Wiegand (1932). In 1908, 1912, and 1915 Alois Musil undertook explorations of the more distant reaches of the city.

In 1914 the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres initiated a project under the direction of Antonin Jaussen and Raphael Savignac to copy all hitherto known texts, which were subsequently published by Jean-Baptiste Chabot (1922).

In 1924 and 1928 Harald Ingolt opened an excavation on Palmyra's western necropolis area, on behalf of the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and the University of Copenhagen. Again In 1928, with the architect Charles Christensen, he excavated many hypogea in the same area on behalf of the Rask Orsted Foundation. Once again he dug a new hypogeum In 1937 whose excavation was completed by Obeid Taha.

In 1929 A. Gabriel achieved the first precise topographic plan of the city. New epigraphic research was undertaken by Jean Cantineau (1930–1936) that was continued by Jean Starcky In 1949, Javier Teixidor In 1965, and Adnan Bounni and Teixidor In 1975. The large Temple of Bel was cleared In 1929–1930 by Henri Seyrig, who was then director of the Antiquities Service of Syria and Lebanon, with Ja῾far al-Hasani, director of the National Museum in Damascus (Seyrig, Amy, and Will, 1968–1975). Between 1934 and 1940 Seyrig and al-Hasani were the strongest proponents of carrying out archaeological research at Palmyra. [See the biographies of Starcky and Seyrig.]

Robert Amy, Ernest Will, Michel Ecochard, Raymond Duru, and others participated in the excavations or the study of the Temple of Bel, the tomb of Yarhai (now exhibited in the National Museum of Damascus), the agora, the Villa Cassiopeia, and the Valley of the Tombs. Daniel Schlumberger (1951) investigated the environs of Palmyra and Starcky published the first comprehensive summary of Palmyrene research results. [See the biography of Schlumberger.]

With independence In 1946, national research at Palmyra expanded considerably. In 1952 Selim Abdul-Hak excavated the Hypogeum of Ta῾i in the southeast necropolis. Beginning In 1957 Bounni initiated what is now some twenty years of research at Palmyra. Nassib Saliby, Taha, and Khaled As῾ad have been his principal collaborators. This research has focused on three hypogea in the Valley of the Tombs, the main street, the Temple of Nabu, the annex of the agora, nymphea A and B, and the street of Ba῾al Shamin. As῾ad excavated the ramparts, the Temple of Arsu, and the Hypogeum of Amarisha, continued the excavation of the main street, and restored many buildings in collaboration with Ali Taha and Saleh Taha.

Foreign missions have been authorized by the Syrian authorities to participate in the excavations of several monuments: Paul Collart and his Swiss team worked on the temple of Ba῾al Shamin In 1954–1956; since 1959 Polish excavations in the area of Diocletian's camp have been led by Kazmierz Michalowski, Anna Sadurska, and Michal Gawlikowski. In 1966–1967 Robert Du Mesnil du Buisson led excavations in the courtyard of the Bel Temple and also excavated the Temple of Belhamon, while Manot worked on the peak of Jebel al Muntar. Joint expeditions—Japanese, Swiss, and Polish—are also working with Syrian teams at Palmyra.

Language and Writing.

Palmyrene onomastica, cults, rituals, and several deities represent definitive evidence of the Arab origin of the majority of the inhabitants of the city and its principality. They kept their tribal social organization and were attributed to four main tribes. Palmyrene texts are written mostly in Aramaic, which was the lingua franca in western Asia from the Achaemenid period onward. The Aramaic of Palmyra reflects western and eastern characteristics and has some Arabic expressions.

An essential source on Palmyra is certainly the Palmyrene texts found in different countries, from the Euphrates to northern England. In Palmyra itself about three thousands texts have been recovered. Hundreds of these inscriptions are bilingual (Palmyrene and Greek). Latin texts are very few. The oldest known Palmyrene text is dated to 44 BCE and the latest to 272 CE. In 1754 the Frenchman Barthelemy and the Englishman Swinton deciphered some Palmyrene texts independently. Palmyrenes used the Seleucid era (which began in October 312 BCE) for candendrical dates.


Palmyra's prosperity made it an important metropolis in the ancient world. An oligarchic class of merchants and caravaneers amassed considerable fortunes from the caravan trade. The luxurious life-style of the Palmyrene aristocracy was displayed in its fondness for temples, colonnaded streets, and monumental tombs. Entertainment was provided by theater, thermal baths, and banquets. Michael Rostovtzeff has correctly identified Palmyra as “the caravan city.” The caravans were the hub of Palmyra's economic life. Indeed, Palmyra's social order, religious beliefs, and architecture were all products of its caravan economy. The Palmyrene fiscal law found In 1881 (see above) reflects this clearly and gives an accurate image of daily life.


PALMYRA. A relief depicting the great Palmyrene goddess and Tyche. (Courtesy Department of Antiquities and Museums, Syria)

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Palmyrene cults were characterized by eclecticism and syncretism. The city's pantheon constituted more than sixty deities headed by the Babylonian god Bel/Zeus, often represented with Yarhibol (sun) and ῾Aglibol (moon). Nabu/Apollo, son of Bel, also had great popularity in the city, as in the rest of the region. The Canaanite Ba῾al Shamin was the chief of another triad. Allat/Athena, the Arab goddess, and Arsu (the Arab Radu) had also their temples in the city. Many Gods were dressed in military costumes and some rode horses and camels.

The main practice in Palmyrene religion was the ritual of procession around the main temple, following the Arab tradition. Attendance at ritual banquets (thiases) was widespread. The priesthood was well organized; its highest authority was the symposiarch of the Temple of Bel.

Art and Architecture.

All through the three centuries of its history (first–third centuries), Palmyrene art followed the Oriental and Greco-Oriental traditions of Syria and Mesopotamia, with a strong Central Asian influence—particularly Indian and Persian. The Greco-Roman impact on its aesthetics was very strong beginning in the second century.

Palmyrene arts produced mostly sculpture, particularly for religious and funerary purposes. Bas-reliefs predominated, while statuary was rare. In general, Palmyrene art is static, idealized, and stylized, giving little care to dramatic representation and portraiture. Special care was given to details of dress and jewelry, which on many stelae were colored.

Frescoes have been discovered in Palmyrene underground tombs. [See Wall Paintings.] They follow the traditional Oriental use of linear technique, frontality, and detailed accessories. In the mosaic pavements, themes are usually related to Greco-Roman mythology. [See Mosaics.]


PALMYRA. Limestone portrait on a funerary monument. Dated first-second century CE. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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According to Harald Ingholt there were three phases of Palmyrene art, following an Archaic period, from about the first century BCE to the first century CE, that produced more original and naturalistic work whose originality is unanimously recognized (Ingholt, 1928; Ingholt et al., 1955). The Palmyrenes excelled in many aspects of architecture, but their unique achievement was the tomb—and especially tower tomb, such as the Elabel tower tomb built In 103. In the field of religious architecture they built or refounded many temples. From 32 CE through the following two centuries they completed the monumental Temple of Bel, one of the most collossal and beautiful temples in the Orient. The rich decoration on Palmyrene religious architecture developed at about the end of the first century CE from Oriental and Greco-Oriental traditions, while maintaining Syrian traditions, such as vast courtyards adytons, monumental altars, windows in the cella, and merlons. Local limestone was used in the construction of public buildings and streets, but private houses were only partly constructed in stone.


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Adnan Bounni