BMCR 2024.05.30

Palmyra and the east

, , Palmyra and the East. Studies in Palmyrene archaeology and history, 6. Turnhout: Brepols, 2022. Pp. xx, 180. ISBN 9782503598253.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


Palmyra and the East is another volume in the series on Palmyrene Archaeology and History. The reviewed book is the result of a meeting held at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles in April 2019. Richly illustrated with black and white photographs, the assembled papers present different aspects of Palmyrene culture and history in the wider context of the relationships with the Roman, Parthian and Sassanian empires, going further also to India and China.

The first part, which consists of six papers, offers an in-depth historical overview of Palmyra’s affairs and contacts. After a short introduction by the editors, the volume starts with the paper by Catherine Bonesho on Palmyrene epigraphy. Bonesho is right to state that the visibility of Palmyrene Aramaic in the epigraphic material in the city and beyond attests to the importance of the language and script as an identity marker. She postulates that from the time of Hadrian time onwards, Palmyra was under pressure to write inscriptions in Greek. However, the tituli honorarii appear in Palmyra already in the 1st century CE and their presence intensifies during the entire 2nd century CE, reflecting a common phenomenon in the East. I do not think that Aramaic destabilizes Greek (p. 11), it rather enhances the epigraphic culture of the city. The Aramaic epigraphy of Palmyra is deeply rooted in Arsacid (and earlier) traditions, belonging to a koine with Hatra and Edessa as well as the Nabatean kingdom. It is also doubtful if Dura-Europos imitates the Palmyrene epigraphic habit. Dura-Europos presents a specific multiethnic and multicultural context with strong Greek epigraphic traditions.[1] There are more dialects of Aramaic present beside Palmyrene, e.g. Hatrene and Edessene. Palmyrene Aramaic is limited to the religious sphere, connected to the community of Palmyrenes,[2] and possibly reflects a union of some kind between Palmyra and Dura-Europos in the Parthian period.[3] It is hard to find in Dura-Europos certain formulations like “Blessed be his name forever” or thanksgiving formulae known from Palmyra. The choice of making a votive dedication in Greek and Aramaic is dictated rather by personal reasons, whereas honorific decrees in a polis are subject to strict administrative rules.[4] What matters both in public and in private texts is the address to a particular audience and the reception of the texts, which Bonesho regrettably does not take into consideration.

The next paper in the first part, written by Katia Schörle, deals with maritime trade. Schörle focuses on the presence of Palmyrenes on the sea routes along the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. She proposes that the Palmyrenes were specialists in transporting “lightweight and high value” objects, i.e. pearls and silk. She points out the very interesting issue of the diplomatic and management skills of some Palmyrenes who were able to manage ships and had some social connections to people in the trading zones (p. 27). Her expertise on the goods transported by the Palmyrenes through the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea sheds light on the wares carried by the ancient traders, a topic not yet well studied in research on ancient trade.

Jean-Baptiste Yon explores the relationship between Palmyra and Mesopotamia before Rome and the shaping of Palmyrene trade. His perspective is very similar to the one adopted by M. Sommer who wrote on Palmyra as a gateway between empires.[5] Yon briefly discusses Babylonian religion in Palmyra and the East, concentrating mostly on Bel Marduk. He concludes that traditional Mesopotamian onomastics are largely absent in Palmyra’s Aramaic personal names (p. 33). However, it would have been worth noting that Babylonian connections were also established on the level of the vocabulary used in the religious inscriptions from Palmyra, concerning the divine epithets and formulae as well as terms referring to the ritual instruments and cultic professions.[6]

The fourth paper by Touraj Daryaee reflects on the interactions between Palmyra and the Sasanians in the 3rd century CE. Basing his observations on coins and historical records, he concludes that the policy of the Sasanians was aimed at cutting off Palmyrene control of trade. In the late 3rd century, under Odainatus, as Daryaee points out, the Palmyrenes mainly tried to protect their economic comfort. This is a new insight into the situation of Palmyra in this period. The next two papers, by Nathanael Andrade and Emmanuele Intagliata, follow up the chronology and provide a glimpse into the time after Odainatus in Palmyra: of Zenobia (Andrade) and of the Late Antique and Early Islamic periods (Intagliata). Andrade poses the question of the relationship of Zenobia with the East through Persia, Parthia and Arabia. He indicates the propagandistic nature of the sources on Zenobia. Andrade reflects on similarities and differences of the Palmyrene and Persian cultures. E. Intagliata’s paper presents the situation after the fall of Palmyra in 273 CE until the end of the Umayyad califate (in 750 CE). He discusses the trade and economy, providing archaeological data that show the changes in the social and urban composition of Palmyra.

Part two, consisting of another six papers, concentrates on particular cases within Palmyrene and related art. It opens with the contribution of Rubina Raja on reclining women in the funerary art. She demonstrates that, even though the motive in art is rare, it aligns with the artistic trends in the West and the East and provides a glimpse into Palmyrene elites. At the end of this article Raja presents an excerpt from the rich Palmyrene Portrait Project with extensive description of the object and portraits. Maura Heyn compares the reclining banquet pose in Palmyra to the banquet scene of Assurbanipal from Niniveh. She refers to the research done by J.-M. Dentzer. The banquet scenes known from Palmyrene iconography (funerary art and tesserae) are definitely rooted in the Eastern cultural milieu, but it is missing a further development of the concept. Fred Albertson focuses on the identification of some Palmyrene images from the sarcophagi that have been argued to show “servants” or “pages”. He makes a new suggestion, which seems to be accurate, that these images rather show the children and young men from the family of the deceased during the performance of some religious functions.

Ted Kaizer, in contrast, concentrates on the not so evident religious iconographic features of Palmyrene art. He studies the statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Heliopolitanus and a relief of the she-wolf from the temple of Bel. The first piece comes from as-Sukhnah, a village 70 km from Palmyra. The statue of Heliopolitanus is stylistically close to Palmyrene art and was a dedication of a soldier from the Second Syrian Cohors of the Thracians. It is a unique image of this god from Palmyra and its close surroundings.

Lisa Brody concentrates on the statue of a Palmyrene child from Dura-Europos excavated in 1932. It presents the artistic interactions between Palmyra and Dura-Europos. She analyzes the object using advanced imaging to find traces of pigments, as well as isotopic methods which reveal that the object is made of Palmyrene limestone.

The very last paper in the volume does not concern Palmyra directly but provides a comparison to Palmyrene art. Michael Blömer writes on Edessa and Northern Mesopotamia. He concludes that the statues and figural representations also on the mosaics suggest connections with the neighboring regions. The motives and ways of depiction constitute a sort of cultural koine which extended to Palmyra. This paper does not have a direct link to Palmyrene art and is rather a description of the artistic development in the region of Osrhoene.

With rich discussions on various issues relating to the Palmyrene and neighbouring cultures, the reviewed volume is an important voice contributing to the perception of the region’s “Easterness”, often overshadowed by approaches that privilege the impact of the “Classical” civilizations. Lapatin and Raja signal through their publication the need for a broader contextualization of Palmyrene and neighboring cultures. Furthermore, the book implies different vectors of the historical backgrounds, setting Palmyra within the frequently underdeveloped framework of Parthian, Persian, Mesopotamian as well as Far Eastern interactions. The mosaic of essays in the book mirrors the complexity of the research topics that are worthy of exploration: language, history, funerary and religious art, trade and cultural interactions. Studying Palmyra as well as other Near Eastern cities in the first three centuries of the Common Era through their Eastern connections and influences is strangely still not a popular approach in the field of archaeology and ancient history.

The reviewed volume, together with other recent literature on the Eastern patterns in Palmyra,[7] is only a window into future investigations. Another volume on Palmyra indicates again that the case of this particular ancient city can be a good point of reference for studying cultures and civilizations in contact.


Authors and Titles

  1. Lapatin, R. Raja – Introduction

Part I: Language, History and Trade

  1. E. Bonesho, Language as Power: Aramaic at (and East of) Palmyra
  2. Schörle, Palmyra’s Maritime Trade
  3. -B. Yon, From Palmyra to India: How the East Was Won
  4. Daryaee, Palmyra and the Sasanians in the Third Century AD
  5. J. Andrade, Zenobia and the East
  6. Intagliata, The Fate of Palmyra and the East after AD 273: A Few Remarks on the Trade, Economy, and Connectivity in Late Antiquity and the Early Islamic Period

Part II: Art and Archaeology

  1. Raja, Palmyrene Funerary Art. Between East and West: Reclining Women in Funerary Sculpture
  2. K. Heyn, Ashurbanipal and the Reclining Banqueter in Palmyra
  3. Albertson, So-called “Servants” or “Pages” in Palmyrene Funerary Sculpture
  4. Kaizer, Notes on Some Palmyrene Religious Imagery
  5. R. Brody, A Palmyrene Child at Dura Europos
  6. Blömer, Edessa and the Sculpture of the Greater North Mesopotamia in the Romano-Parthian Period



Dirven, L. 1999. Palmyrenes in Dura-Europos. A Study of Interactions in Roman Syria, Leiden.

Kaizer, T. 2009. Religion and language in Dura-Europos, In: H. Cotton, R. Hoyland, J. Price, D. Wasserstein (eds.), From Hellenism to Islam: cultural and linguistic change in the Roman Near East, Cambridge, 235-254.

Kubiak-Schneider, A. 2021. Des dédicaces sans théonyme de Palmyre. Béni (soit) son nom pour l’éternité, Leiden-Boston.

Kubiak-Schneider A. In preparation. Epigraphic Culture in Palmyra and Dura-Europos, in Nawotka, K. (ed.). Epigraphic Cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean. Vol. 4. Near East, London.

Nawotka, K (ed.). 2021. Epigraphic Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean in Antiquity, London-New York.

Sommer, M. 2016. Acculturation, Hybridity, Créolité: Mapping Cultural Diversity in Dura-Europos, in: T. Kaizer (ed.), Religion, Society and Culture at Dura-Europos, Cambridge, 57-67.

—-. 2020. Inter duo Imperia. Palmyra between East and West, Stuttgart.



[1] Sommer 2016, 57-58, especially the issue of Greek and Palmyrene Aramaic. The epigraphic evidence of Dura-Europos is mostly Greek and not Aramaic.

[2] Dirven 1999.

[3] Kaizer 2009, 248.

[4] Nawotka 2021. The studies on the epigraphic cultures of different ancient cities presented in the volume edited by K. Nawotka highlight very complex aspects of the evolution and increase(?) of the epigraphic habits. The issue of the use of Palmyrene Aramaic in the monumental and private epigraphy within the framework of the writing cultures of the Roman and Parthian East is already in the process of analysis (Kubiak-Schneider in preparation; it will be a part of the volume edited by K. Nawotka as the outcome of the ongoing project Epigraphic Cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean at the University of Wrocław, 2022-2027, financed by National Centre of Science Poland UMO-2021/43/P/HS3/0259).

[5] Sommer 2020, 37-46.

[6] See Kubiak-Schneider 2021, 152-156.

[7] E.g. Sommer 2020; Kubiak-Schneider 2021.