The Semitic language spoken in the oasis of Palmyra in Syria developed from a dialect of the official (“Imperial”) Aramaic used in the Achaemenid Empire. After the settlement of Amorites and Arameans in the oasis, the arrival of the Arabs in the area by the middle of the first millennium BCE made Palmyra the center of major Semitic groups for whom Aramaic, by then an international language, must have served as a common link. Spoken and written all over Western Asia, Aramaic outlasted the end of the empire; distinct dialects appeared once the politically and religiously fragmented region restabilized under the Macedonians and the Romans. It seems, however, that when used by people whose native language was not Aramaic the language developed divergences in syntax and vocabulary that were more conspicuous than in the language of native speakers. This would explain the idiosyncrasies of Palmyrene related in some points to Eastern Aramaic—the plural in aleph, the adverbial ending -âîth, and the infinitive ending -û—but with some features closer to Western Aramaic—the plural in -yod aleph, the imperfect with the prefix y- instead of n- or l-, and the relative dy. Other noteworthy features are the diacritic point often used, as in Syriac, to distinguish d from r, ligatures binding some letters to the letter that precedes or follows, and the final form of n. Palmyrene is known through some twelve hundred honorary, official, votive, and sepulcral inscriptions dating from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE. No literary text or document on leather has yet been discovered. Palmyrene was the first of the Semitic inscriptional languages to be deciphered (see Daniels, 1988) and new inscriptions appear regularly, both in official excavations and on the antiquities market.

The epigraphic material from Palmyra constitutes a remarkable legacy of an exuberant assemblage of traditions. The substratum of the Aramean tribes who populated the area of Palmyra in the second millennium BCE is perceivable in the names borne by gods and individuals alike. The Babylonian pantheon is present in some liturgical inscriptions discovered in the Temple of Bel. The pervasiveness of Phoenician influence is a less well-known phenomenon, but it cannot be depreciated. The rituals reflect the presence of both Syro-Palestinian traditions and Arabian cults. A statistical survey of the personal names appearing in the inscriptions has revealed that the bulk of the population was of Arab origin—and therefore more than half of the names can be best explained through Arabic; several Arabic words occur, too, in the vocabulary. On the other hand, the technical terms of municipal and administrative life are mostly Greek, and under the Romans the use of Latin words was frequent.

The inscriptions are occasionally given in a Greek version after the Palmyrene. This is particularly the case in the honorary inscriptions written on Corinthian columns that were ranged along the principal streets, or stood in the porticos of the temples and of the agora. On the column there is a bracket for the statue to which the text refers. Two examples of this kind of inscription are “The council and people have made these two statues of Bariki son of Amrisa son of Yarhibola, and of Moqimu his son, lovers of the city and fearers of the gods: to their honor. In the month Nisan, the year 450” (139 CE), and “This statue is that of Taimarṣu son of Taima son of Moqimu Garba, chief of the caravan, which has been made for him by the members of the caravan who came up with him from Charax, because he saved them (their) expenses, three hundred denarii of gold, ancient currency, and was well pleasing to them: to his honor, and to the honor of Yaddai and Abdibol his sons. In the month Nisan, the year 504” (193 CE).

Tombs at Palmyra showed formal variation according to period and resources. The inscriptions outside the hypogea and in the tower tombs are often bilingual, whereas within they are only in Palmyrene. Votive inscriptions are rarely bilingual. The following text is an example of a Palmyrene votive text, commemorating the gift of a column to a deity: “In the month Tebet, the year 363, Amtallat daughter of Bara a son of Attenatan, from the tribe of the Bene Mitha, wife of Taima son of Belhazai son of Zabdibel, from the tribe of the Bene Maazin, dedicated this column to Baal Shamen, the good and bountiful god, for her and the lives of her sons and brothers” (52 CE).

The Palmyrene script is a modified form of the elegant cursive used in the Persian chancelleries, and in many respects it approximates Hebrew square characters. The scribes carved their texts on the local limestone, using either the lapidary or the cursive technique, the former being close to the model of Greek epigraphic letters. No major changes are noticeable in either of the script types during the four centuries they were in use.

[See also Palmyra.]

Bibliography

  • Bounni, Adnan, and Javier Teixidor, eds. Inventaire des inscriptions de Palmyre. Vol. 12. Damascus, 1975.
  • Cantineau, Jean, ed. Inventaire des inscriptions de Palmyre. Vols. 1–9. Beirut, 1930–1936.
  • Cantineau, Jean. Grammaire du palmyrénien épigraphique. Cairo, 1935.
  • Chabot, Jean-Baptiste. Corpus inscriptionum semiticarum, part 2.3, Inscriptiones Aramaicas continens. 2 vols. Paris, 1926–1947.
  • Daniels, Peter T. “‘Shewing of Hard Sentences and Dissolving of Doubts’: The First Decipherment.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 108 (1988): 419–436.
  • Gawlikowski, Michal. Recueil d'inscriptions palmyréniennes provenant de fouilles syriennes et polonaises récentes à Palmyre. Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, vol. 16. Paris, 1974.
  • Rosenthal, Franz. Die Sprache der palmyrenischen Inschriften. Leipzig, 1936.
  • Starcky, Jean, ed. Inventaire des inscriptions de Palmyre. Vol. 10. Beirut, 1949.
  • Stark, Jürgen K. Personal Names in Palmyrene Inscriptions. Oxford, 1971.
  • Teixidor, Javier, ed. Inventaire des inscriptions de Palmyre. Vol. 11. Beirut, 1965.

Javier Teixidor