Sunset over Palmyra from the Qala'at ibn Maan castle, Syria
Palmyra (Arabic: تدمر Tadmur).
It was an ancient Aramaic city. In ancient times it was an important city of central Syria, located in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus and 180 km southwest of the Euphrates at Deir ez-Zor. It has long been a vital caravan city for travellers crossing the Syrian desert and was known as the Bride of the Desert. The earliest documented reference to the city by its Semitic name Tadmor, Tadmur or Tudmur is recorded in Babylonian tablets found in Mari.
Though the ancient site fell into disuse after the 16th century, it is still known as Tadmor in Arabic, and there is a newer town next to the ruins of the same name. The Palmyrenes constructed a series of large-scale monuments containing funerary art such as limestone slabs with human busts representing the deceased.
In the mid first century BC, Palmyra, a wealthy and elegant city located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria and Phoenicia, came under Roman control. During the following period of great prosperity, the Aramaean and Arab inhabitants of Palmyra adopted customs and modes of dress from both the Parthian world to the east and the Graeco-Roman west.
When the Seleucids took control of Syria in 323 BC, the city was left to itself and it became independent. The city flourished as a caravan halt in the 1st century BC. In 41 BC, the Romans under Mark Antony tried to occupy Palmyra but failed as the Palmyrans had received intelligence of their approach. The Palmyrans escaped to the other side of the Euphrates, demonstrating that at that time Palmyra was still a nomadic settlement and its valuables could be removed at short notice.
Palmyra was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37). It steadily grew in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman empire. In 129, Hadrian visited the city and was so enthralled by it that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana.
Beginning in 212, Palmyra's trade diminished as the Sassanids occupied the mouth of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
Septimius Odaenathus, a Prince of Palmyra, was appointed by Valerian as the governor of the province of Syria. After Valerian was captured by the Sassanids and died in captivity in Bishapur, Odaenathus campaigned as far as Ctesiphon (near modern-day Baghdad) for revenge, invading the city twice. When Odaenathus was assassinated by his nephew Maconius, his wife Septimia Zenobia took power, ruling Palmyra on the behalf of her son, Vabalathus.
Zenobia rebelled against Roman authority with the help of Cassius Longinus and took over Bosra and lands as far to the west as Egypt, establishing the short-lived Palmyrene Empire. Next, she attempted to take Antioch to the north. In 272, the Roman Emperor Aurelian finally retaliated and captured her and brought her back to Rome. He paraded her in golden chains but allowed her to retire to a villa in Tibur, where she took an active part in society for years. This rebellion greatly disturbed Rome, and so Palmyra was forced by the empire to become a military base for the Roman legions.
Diocletian expanded it to harbor even more legions and walled it in to try and save it from the Sassanid threat. The Byzantine period following the Roman Empire only resulted in the building of a few churches; much of the city turned to ruin.
The city was captured by the Muslim Arabs under Khalid ibn Walid in 634. Palmyra was kept intact. After the year 800 and the civil wars which followed the fall of the Umayyad caliphs, people started abandoning the city. At the time of the Crusades, Palmyra was under the Burid emirs of Damascus, then under Tughtekin, Mohammed the son of Shirkuh, and finally under the emirs of Homs. In 1132 the Burids had the Temple of Ba'al turned into a fortress. In the 13th century the city was handed over to the Mamluk sultan Baybars. In 1401, it was sacked by Tamerlan, but it recovered quickly, so that in the 15th century it was described as boasting "vast gardens, flourishing trades and bizarre monuments" by Ibn Fadlallah al-Omari.
In the 16th century, Qala'at ibn Maan castle was built on top of a mountain overlooking the oasis by Fakhr ad-Din al-Maan II, a Lebanese prince who tried to control the Syrian Desert. The castle was surrounded by a moat, with access only available through a drawbridge. It is possible that earlier fortifications existed on the hill well before then.
The city declined under Ottoman rule, reducing to no more than an oasis village with a small garrison. In the 17th century its location was rediscovered by western travellers, beginning to be studied by European and American archaeologists starting from the 19th centuries. The villagers who had settled in the Temple of Ba'al were dislodged in 1929 by the French authority.