Palmyra, Tadmor or the "the bride of the desert", is now a small town that lies near a hot-water spring called Afqa in the heart of the Syrian Desert, 155 kilometres east of Homs city and 210 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Doubtless it is the most beautiful and magnificent of the Syrian historic sites on the old Silk Road. Palmyra was an ideal stopover for the caravans shuttling between Iraq and Greater Syria, carrying silk and other valuables from China to the Mediterranean.

    Most likely, Palmyra was established in the 2nd millennium BC, and was mentioned in one of the Assyrian tablets of Mari and in another Assyrian text. It was also mentioned in the Bible as part of Solomon's territories.

    This strategic location had many advantages, but also one major disadvantage. Tudmor lied between two warring empires, Rome and Persia, and eventually had to suffer the consequences of the Roman – Persian bloody conflict.

Palmyra's local name is Tudmor and it has been a settlement since Neolithic times. From about 1000 B.C. for nearly one millennium it was an Assyrian caravan town and later became an important outpost of the Greek Empire for about two hundred years. In 217A.D. it was annexed by Rome and enjoyed a period of astonishing wealth, gained from taxation on the flourishing caravan trade. The Romans called it Palmyra (the land of Palms). In 634A.D. the city was conquered by the Muslims, and in 1089 A.D. was totally destroyed by an earthquake.


Rome resorted to the ruler of Palmyra for help. The leader Septimus Odeinat (Odenathus) became quite favoured by Rome and in 256/7 was appointed by the Emperor Valerian as Consul and Governor of the province of Syria Phoenice, which Palmyra had been transferred to in 194. A few years later Valerian was captured and murdered by the Sassanian Persians, and in redemption, Odeinat campaigned as far as the Sassanian capital Ctesiphon, captured and killed the Sassanian King in revenge. 

Palmyra's greatest days however were after the murder of Odeinat and one of his sons at the hands of his nephew. His wife Zenobia took over on behalf of her son Vaballath and started her rule by avenging her husband’s treacherous by destroying all the properties of his murderer.  Eventually she called herself the Queen of Palmyra, wore the King's crown and became the sole ruler. Zenobia, renowned for her exceptionally strong character and will, ruled Palmyra in a way that astonished both West and East. She was exceptionally intelligent and attractive at the same time, a gifted linguist, and an eloquent speaker of Palmyrian, Greek, Latin, and hieroglyphics, as well as Arabic and Aramaic dialects from nearby. She took the famous Faotegenes as her teacher, and she knew a lot about Homers and Plato, as she was a familiar with their books. She had a wide knowledge of politics, and in her court, she had many philosophers, scholars and theologians.

On top of that, Zenobia was one of the most beautiful women of her time. She was probably one of very few women whose courage matched their beauty. She used to follow her husband to the forest during the hunt season, and took pat without any fear in the face of lions and tigers. It is also known that she helped her husband gain the wars he made. In short, she wasn't only far from being weak, but she also denied her feelings.


How did historians see her? Zenobia was described as a lovely woman, of dark complexion, as would be normal in the Syrian part of the world. Her teeth were pearly-white, with large, black eyes that sparkled. The large eyes imply that she had small, finely chiselled features, well modelled and attractive. She equalled in beauty Egypt’s Cleopatra, whom she considered an ancestor. She claimed direct descent from the Macedonian Kings, of Egypt and the Macedonian homeland.

While Zenobia claimed Cleopatra as an ancestor, she far exceeded her in chastity and valour. She did not resort to feminine ploys to gain her ends; she earned the right to rule in her knowledge and bearing, and especially daring. She conducted herself with regal dignity, both during her husband’s reign and during her own time of rule. On state occasions she wore the purple of the ruling class, the robe fringed with precious gems and with golden ornaments about her waist. One arm was left bare to the shoulder, and while riding in her gem-encrusted carriage she wore a helmet.

During her rule, she was greeted with Persian prostration, common in the area and era. Her voice reflected confidence, yet remained pleasant to the ear. Under the court philosopher Longinus, she studied the ways of politics, and of men. She patronized Greek ways, modelled herself after a proper Greek matron, and even wrote a history of her beloved East.

During her travels with her husband, she inured herself to fatigue, refused a covered carriage and rode a horse in military dress. Often she marched several miles at the head of the column of soldiers without complaint. All this won her the respect of the troops, and insured that they would be loyal. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex, tempered by the most attractive sweetness.

When she governed, she treated her people with love and care. Historians say that she dealt with her people in the same manner she dealt with her children. No wonder they adored her and were ready to die for her. She used to spend huge sums of money on poets, philosophers, and artists, bringing them from their native countries, and giving them luxurious accommodation next to hers.

Her palace was a paradise on earth. It contained huge gardens and buildings. All the streets were tiled, clean and shadowed by trees. The palace compound was like a small city. It had a temple called “The Temple of the Sun”, having in its centre many pyramids.
Queen Zenobia was soon fired by the ambition of getting rid of Roman domination. In 268, during the reign of Emperor Aurelian, Zenobia with the help of her Prime Minister Longinus, decided to conquer all of Rome’s territories in Africa & Asia. Her ambitions knew no limits, and probably she had in mind, at that early stage, conquering Rome itself. She made use of the fact that Rome was then very much engaged in internal conflicts, as well as external wars.

This enabled Queen Zenobia to take over the whole of Syria; she headed for the north and took Antioch, conquered Egypt (269-270) and sent her armies to Asia Minor, gaining control thereby of all the land and seaways to the Far East. She took the title of ‘August’, which was only used by the Emperors of Rome, and she had money coined with her and her son’s likeness upon it, without that of the Emperor of Rome. Her armies actually humiliated three Roman Emperors in battlefields.

However, Emperor Aurelian took quick action to quell his internal disputes, and started to plan revenge. He formed a new army for this purpose, which proceeded through Turkey to conquer Zenobia’s army in its first defensive position in Homs (Emesa). It besieged Palmyra until it fell in 274. Queen Zenobia was defeated and taken captive to Rome, fettered in golden chains.
The destiny of the Great Kingdom of Palmyra was no better than that of its Queen; the city fell prey to looting and destruction. Archaeologists are still working on excavations there in order to uncover the Queen’s palace, which was destroyed by the Romans and replaced by a military camp. Queen Zenobia’s ambitious dream is still embodied in the magnificent remains of what she built.
Later in the Byzantine period a few churches were built and added to the much-ruined city. It was later taken by the Arabs, under Khaled Ibn Al Walid rule. It played a minor defensive role during the Islamic periods although the Umayyads built the two Qasr Al Heirs. Later Temple of Baal was fortified and the Arab Castle of Fakhredin Al Maany was built. Since then it has had no major roles and the ruins have fallen victim to natural erosion.



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