In the welter of Syrian bloodshed, why should we remember the death of a single man? Because he was the archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, tortured and beheaded by Isis two years ago when they destroyed the remains of Palmyra, one of the world’s most important ancient cities. Their victim was its director of antiquities.
In an icy fury, Paul Veyne, a French expert on Palmyra, has dedicated this comprehensive, passionate, but concise book to the memory of the murdered Syrian scholar. In it he relates thousands of years of Palmyra’s history, describing those who lived there and pausing only briefly to underline what monsters Isis were to smash the site.
You may suppose that Palmyra was just one of those many ancient cities scattered around the globe about which we should know more if only we had the time. But in fact, Veyne contends, it ranks alongside Pompeii and Ephesus, with remains reaching back at least 5,000 years. For a period it was part of the Roman empire, but before that it was a ‘merchant republic’, where Egyptians, Greeks, Jews and Italians, spoke Arabic, Aramaic, Greek and sometimes Latin, and worshipped and respected many gods. One Palmyrene observed that piety showed ‘a respect for divine human laws vis-à-vis everyone’.
Lucidly translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Veyne’s book has plenty to say about Zenobia, Palmyra’s ‘sort of queen’, who in the 3rd century AD set out to conquer Rome no less, and after conquering Egypt and Arabia aroused the alarm of the Emperor Aurelian. He defeated her — but then what happened? Was she killed, imprisoned or given a minor throne? We don’t know, but thus one long story came to an end.
A not very populous city state, Palmyra’s majority poor lived outside its gates, though they worked within them, as curriers, cobblers and makers of inflated animal skins, which were sent to the Euphrates to be used as rafts.
In its greatest period, Palmyra’s function was to act as an entrepot — the only such city, Veyne notes, between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. And it was that caravan business that made its upper class so rich. The trade consisted of incense, myrrh, pepper, ivory and pearls, as well as Indian and Chinese silk and cotton. A third of a kilo of Chinese silk, we are told, was worth tens of thousands of eggs or (I love this) 6,000 haircuts. Rich women wore revealing silk robes, and Veyne includes a mosaic of a shapely damsel who may or may not be naked as she holds out her robe.
Among many remarkable features was the presence in and around Palmyra of at least 17 tribes, as we know from its 2,000 inscriptions. ‘Palmyra holds the record for the number of rich cultures that could be found in one place,’ Veyne tells us. Its nobles’ vividly coloured funerary monuments do not show them armed but with books and writing tablets in their hands, belonging as they did to an ‘international elite’, whose children learned Greek from a version of Aesop’s Fables. These nobles ‘belonged to the exclusive club of the masters of the world’, who loved and worshipped many gods, especially patriarchal ones. ‘Aramean, Mediterranean, Arab and even Persian and Egyptian gods... they all came to Palmyra, where they were universally welcomed. The Palmyreans weren’t very particular about the origins of their ancestral gods.’ At least two, although not Greek, were called Zeus.
Veyne speaks of Palmyra as one might of a lost lover. He loves its hybrid, oriental, hellenised art, remembers its great leaders wearing Greek and Arab attire, who knew many languages. Indeed, ‘a wind of freedom blew over Palmyra, one of nonconformity: everything came together... Arabia, Persia, Hellenism, the Orient and the West.’
But he emphasises that it was not the multiplicity of gods that drew the ferocity of Isis. The prophet, after all, had not been born during Palmyra’s heyday. Isis blew up Palmyra because
it was a monument... venerated by westerners, whose culture includes an educated love for historical monuments and a great curiosity for the beliefs of other peoples and other times.... They blew up the temple in Palmyra and have pillaged several archaeological sites in the Near East to show that they are different from us and that they don’t respect what western culture admires.
True enough; but it is equally true that some people just find pleasure in obliteration and murder.